Sunday, 11 December 2011

The feminist and the sex shop owner… An interview

How does a self-styled erotic boutique differ from Ann Summers or an old-fashioned Soho sex shop? Despite a few cursory visits to Pomegranate on Bristol’s Park Street, I remained unclear. So I met with owner Amy Whittaker to find out what it is Pomegranate does that is so different or liberating for women. (I should add at this point that while I’m pro-sex, I’m NOT pro the sex industry.)
The shop, with its dusky purple frontage, nestles between bars, clothes shops and cafes on Bristol’s equivalent of London’s Regent Street. It has a window that (at the time of my visit) showed an extremely expensive and anatomically incorrect purple vibrator, among other things. In the past, the window has offered crotchless knickers and peephole bras on a headless mannequin, and a wicker hamper full of honeymoon treats for Wills and Kate. On the opening evening, burlesque dancers performed in the window for the, err, pleasure of those on the street. Classy.
Inside, Pomegranate is trying to create a boutique look. But it feels rather hard and cold, not the soft and sensuous boudoir I’d anticipated. There is lots of black and purple painted wood, and changing cubicles with a peep show-style booth in between. It feels a little grubby… but not in a saucy way.
However, owner Amy is delightful. She’s smiley and friendly, and assures me that after a year or so of being in business pretty much nothing embarrasses her.

My cynical side cocks an eyebrow at the nod to ethical trading with Fairtrade condoms, Soil Association approved lube, and phthalate-free toys. But undeniably, all of these are good things. Apparently, the Fairtrade condoms were stocked after Amy visited Central America and met women’s groups there. She explains: “It was inspiring seeing these women in poor countries setting up small businesses to support their families. So we wanted to bring some inspiration from that into Pomegranate. I wanted to have the same ethics and values. Admittedly, it’s not quite the same here!” Err… no!
And you can’t argue with the phthalate-free toys. Pomegranate’s website boasts: “We are extremely proud that all of our products are phthalate free. … We learnt about phthalates recently, and decided on a personal level to steer clear (words like more research needed, toxic, infertility, cancer etc will do that). We can’t then morally sell toys containing phthalates to our customers, so we don’t.” Good.
However, Pomegranate’s main stock is a wide range of lingerie, toys, books etc, and all at a varied budget – from under £10 to £6,000 for a golden vibrator (although Amy admits she hasn’t sold one yet!).

But I wonder if this type of sex shop (I’m sorry, I just can’t call it an “erotic boutique”) isn’t just another link to the corporate pornification of feminism. We’re a long way from a post-feminist society, and sadly all around us the message is shouted at women that they need to look like a synthesised version of sexy in order to be successful and attractive, and men are bombarded with images of how a synthethically sexy women looks (which of course is nothing like a human woman). It's got so bad that there are even some porn sites for men who have a fetish for "normal" women. Good grief!
And this is part of my problem with sex shops. Call them “erotic boutiques” if you will, but they still exist to sell products to women (and some men) to make themselves look sexy to their partners (who are mostly men). Yes, some of the products are for solo enjoyment, but the majority are to make a woman look more sexy for her partner – presumably because the theory is that on her own she just isn’t very sexy.
We sadly live in a world where women are expected to do anything sexually in order to prove that they’re not frigid – which is largely the fault of the porn industry. And last Saturday’s Muff March in London’s Harley Street cocked a snook to the labioplasty surgeons that designer vaginas (as glorified by the porn industry) are neither healthy nor sexy.
Amy’s response to my inevitable question about whether or not she’s a feminist goes like this: “My understanding of feminism is it’s the cause to advance women’s place in society to an equal place with men. We should do this by helping each other to be the best we can be, individually and collectively.”
She continues: “Women are harsh critics. Mostly of themselves but also of other women. It’s not my place to judge how other women live or the choices they make - or rather, I will judge, I’m human, but I’ll hold that judgement to myself. It’s feminism’s role to ensure that women are in a position where choices are available to them.”
So how does Pomegranate fit with your idea of feminism?
“That depends on the feminist!” says Amy. “If the stereotypical dungaree wearing, man hating, frigid lesbian feminist still exists, then perhaps not very well! In 2011 though, I think Pomegranate’s aim of giving women greater sexual confidence to enjoy greater sexual pleasure is a natural fit with feminism.
“Putting to one side society’s demands that women are either virgins, whores or mothers, I believe that every woman, and man, has the right, in the UK, in 2011, to enjoy a healthy, pleasurable sex life. Whether they want no sex at all, masturbation only, sex with lots of partners, monogamy or polyamory, as long as they’re doing it safely, who are we, as feminists, to judge? Shouldn’t we be celebrating the freedom that women have here to live the sexual life they desire?”

There are no formal conditions when opening a shop like Pomegranate – it is only if a sex shop is licensed (ie, it can sell R18 DVDs etc) that the licencing committee take an interest. But Amy stresses she always gives thought as to what goes in the window: “A big part of what we’re doing is not being shy. But there’s definitely a balance, as kids walk up and down the street and we take that very seriously… but you’ve got to have some fun with it as well.”
That said, Amy adds that only 30% of her stock is supposed to be explicitly for sex. Looking around at the books of sexual positions, the multitude of vibrators, and the variety of handcuffs, I ask what the 70% of not explicitly sexual stock consists of. “Lingerie,” Amy says, but I look unconvinced. She continues: “But that’s my point – what’s sexy, what isn’t?” Pointing to a row of black basques behind her, she says: “I would say those basques are not sex related, it’s just nice clothing.” Hmm.
What else is not explicitly for sex? “The organic lube that we stock – is that for health?” What else would it be used for? “Apparently, it’s good for dry knees.” Realising it’s a thin argument, Amy adds: “Obviously the lube is a fine line as it’s primarily used for sex. But the love eggs, which strengthen the pelvic floor, they’re good for incontinence and pregnancy, because you carry your baby better and heal quicker as the blood flow is stronger. They’re also good for sex, as the blood flow is stronger.”
What about the games and the books that you sell? They’re clearly about and for sex. Amy begins: “If they were in John Lewis…” I interrupt laughing: “But they wouldn’t be stocked in John Lewis!” Amy starts to argue the defence for a game called Nookie, then relents: “I guess I can’t argue that it’s for anything but sex, but the thing is you learn more about your partner… Yeah, it’s about sex!”

The attitude at Pomegranate is that they “don’t judge, but try to give women sexual confidence”. And whether this is through enlisting a woman onto one of the regular evening classes, or selling her a strap-on dildo, Amy says: “We’re trying to say that having sex is OK, whether you’re having it regularly with one partner, or having it with millions of different partners, just do it safely, do it well so you enjoy it, and take responsibility. You’ve got to look after yourself.”
I point out that on Pomegranate’s website, on the vibrators page, it says that the shop doesn’t stock “ugly lifelike monstrosities”, yet the evening classes and the ethos of the shop seems to include promoting a healthy body perception to women. But doesn’t that also apply to men?
“I guess it could be double standards,” Amy says. “When I wrote it, I was thinking of those jelly sex toys, and to me that’s trying to be lifelike. That’s what I was thinking of. The dildos in the realistic colour with the ridges and anatomical detail.”

I was probably never going to be convinced by Pomegranate, and as much as I liked Amy and admired her for running her own business (and in such a harsh economical climate), after our conversation I felt no clearer about what role a sex shop has in promoting realistic attitudes about sex in men and women. The stock is largely aimed at trussing women up to (apparently) look appealing for men.
There are pros and cons, in my mind, about a shop like Pomegranate – toxin-free toys are obviously a great thing, affordable prices are also good, and the evening classes sound like they could be positive experiences. I also like the way Amy teams up with other independent businesses nearby.
But I’m still struggling with the mountain of ideological problems about needing to spend money to be sexy (surely sex is the most basic and natural thing we’ve got?!), and largely marketing these products at women rather than men – as if being sexy and having good sex is yet another responsibility of women. And the further implications that women have “failed” in their “natural duty” unless they cough up for expensive gadgets and strap themselves into uncomfortable-looking gear.
The issue of sex shops is an enormous one, and I can’t do it justice in one post. I’m grateful to Amy for sparing time to talk with me and for making me so welcome in her shop, and I admire her for being an independent businesswoman. But I’m not convinced that a sex shop (whether Pomegranate or any similar business) has any place in the post-patriarchal feminist future.

Pomegranate is hosting a Christmas shopping event on December 15, from 4-8pm. Tickets are free, but click here for more information.


  1. Uhuh, it is an ideological minefield. Pro-women, sex-postive stores are great, but who gets to define what's sexy? And how does a customer feel when she can't see herself represented? We have to keep asking the questions.

  2. "We’re trying to say that having sex is OK"

    People have been saying that for the past 4 decades. We get it. Enough already.

    Excellent interview, at any rate.

  3. Have we come this far to have Victorian attitudes to sex? That pleasure is something dirty and should be hidden away.
    The idea that the shop is only for women is silly. My boyfriend is in there more often than I am!
    The classes I have been to have been entertaining, informative and had a good mix of men and women.

    No one is forcing a sex toy on you, it's nice to have somewhere to go where it isn't hidden away at the back of the shop and your made to feel like a perv for even being interested in trying new things

  4. Thanks for your comment, Dor. I'm not sure why you think my attitudes to sex are Victorian, though - or that I think pleasure is "dirty". These seem like strange assumptions to make, based on nothing I actually wrote. In my opening paragraph I say I'm pro-sex, but simply not pro the sex industry - and a sex shop is part of the sex industry. Still, you're free to misinterpret my writing however you choose.