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sh.jpgSh! – the “women’s erotic emporium” – has just celebrated its 16th birthday. Tonight they marked the occasion with a party, and, ever eager for free champagne and the promise of a goody bag, I went along.

Today, relatively woman-friendly sex shops are quite common. Ann Summers may be problematic, but it is at the minimum a safe, mainstream and non-sleazy option on every high street. And they sell those “joke” wind-up penises, for those who still feel unable to enter such a place without an excuse.

But Sh!, in Hoxton, London, goes a step further. For a start, it is centred on women and women’s pleasure. Men can come in, but only if they’re accompanied by a woman. The Sh! website is a repository of information on safe, consenting, orgasmic sex, focused on pleasure rather than looking sexy.

You might remember from the last episode of the podcast, it was not always thus. Polly related a story told her by a second waver, about how radical it was for women to go into a male-dominated sex shop and just have a normal conversation.

Speaking at the birthday party tonight, founder Kathryn Hoyle said: “16 years ago, the sex industry was a male-dominated business that exploited its customers’ ignorance and embarrassment to sell them some ugly, perma-tan dick-shaped vibe, which buzzed so loudly (if it even worked at all) when they got it home and out of the packed, that it was soon relegated to the bin. Not only were the practicals of buying a sex toy pretty harrowing, but attitudes to women enjoying sex toys were totally disparaging. Such women were either sex-starved, sex-crazed, couldn’t get a man or just buying for a joke.”

Well, not any more, and Sh! is one of the pivotal reasons why. Although I knew about Sh! before, and had been in there a few times, I had no idea the amount of good work – above and beyond helping women have some sexy fun – that they’ve done. For example, Sh! works with the NHS on women’s sexual health. They design and manufacture their own toys, free of toxic phthalates and made of silicone. And, as we’ve been considering whether Sex and the City is feminist, you might be interested to know that Sh! named the Rabbit vibrator made famous by the show.

The shop is open to all. Angel Zatorski, research and development manager at Sh!, said: “One of the biggest things we’ve learnt is not to make judgments. Within the last few years, we have served a Muslim woman in full burka, an 82 year-old grandma and a Hasidic Jewish man who came in to try on a PVC nurse’s frock. We have constantly tried to challenge our own preconceptions and cultural biases in thef ace of such amazing diversity.”

In the press materials for tonight, they quote this letter from a customer, which surely demonstrates the positive effect places like Sh! can have:

Dear Sh!

I had to write to thank you. I bought a Jessica rabbit and after 15 years of marriage and three kids, finally had my first orgasm!

Thank you.