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A Curious Calling: Kathryn Hoyle, Sh! Store Founder

Meet the lady who started a women's only store that sells so much more than feminism

Written by . Published on September 5th 2011.

A Curious Calling: Kathryn Hoyle, Sh! Store Founder

WANDERING around Hoxton Square it is difficult not to have your eyes drawn towards the bubblegum-coloured door and pinked-out windows of Sh!. Inside, it may take a minute to re-adjust and realise you are not in an out-sized sweet-shop but actually staring at a different kind of stimulant altogether. This is possibly the only place in London that can feel simultaneously playful, educational and risqué. Operating a women-only policy, Kathryn Hoyle, founder of Sh!, has created a haven, where women can ask about and buy sex toys away from the male gaze or flashing lights of underground sex shops. And with the footprints of June’s Slut Walk still heavy on the ground, clearly women still need this kind of sanctuary. But Sh! is not exclusive, and the bright colours and devotedly un-awkward staff prevent any visit from being a sombre affair. Even Heston Blumenthal has paid a visit to find out how to keep his jelly wobbling... 


You’ve been here since 1992. What did you do before then?
I was in my twenties, floating around. I’d just got back from teaching English in Japan. I’d been a nanny, started my own sandwich round. There was this big government campaign because AIDs had hit. There was lots of scare-mongering. We were meant to take charge of our own sexual health. I had a few glasses of wine with a friend in Soho and we thought we’d have a look for some toys. But it was the most awful, alienating experience. It was like, hang on a minute, this is years after feminism, after taking control of our fertility, the pill. They were really dark. There would be lots of secondhand books in the front and all the stuff was in the back ­– really manky vibrators in this funny orange colour. They call it flesh colour but it’s like nobody’s flesh.

All aimed at men then?
Totally. It was all very cheap, in terms of manufacture. Our policy here is that men are welcome as guests of women but they can’t come in on their own, except on Tuesday night, which is gent’s night.


Sh-Portobello-CustomersSh! Customers

Why do you think it is that there’s so much more shame around women’s sexuality?
I think it’s to do with it being hidden. It’s a very cultural thing – that ‘ladies don’t’. It goes back centuries. Where does that come from? Who knows... I almost go to the anatomical kind of explanation – for men it’s all there. They can see it, see each other’s. There’s a much more communal feeling about boys and their sexuality. Whereas girls, we’re hidden. We’re can’t see each other’s. We’re battling against a lot of things. Like what porn we do see is all really stylised and idealised. There’s a lot of insecurity.


You run classes here as well, why do women need that kind of thing?
Because they’re being fed a lot of nonsense all the time. When we started, if a women owned a vibrator she was seen as sad or sexually frustrated, sex-crazed or sex-starved. Now, if you don’t own a vibrator you’re seen as a bit prudish. There’s been a huge change, which is great, but we don’t want it to tip the other way and have women feel they’ve got to do all this siren-in-the-bedroom stuff. We give classes so people know what’s available and how to go about things, but also in the spirit that, if it’s not for you that’s OK. Not all women respond in the same way.

Sh-TeamSh! team

Are your staff experts on all these products?
We have Sh! girl testers who pass on their opinions. We can’t all test them all. But recommending toys is always tricky. Women who are nervous about coming could almost be open to being sold anything. It’s important that they have what’s right for them otherwise they’ll have a bad experience. Just because it costs £100 doesn’t mean it’s better than something that costs £10. it depends what stimulation you like, how you’re using it, who you’re using it with. We get a lot of women in who’ve literally walked round the block five times, you see them walking past the shop looking in. They come in and circle over by the flavoured things. Finally they come up to the vibrator table and say, really quickly, ‘I’ve-come-to-buy-a-vibrator-but-I’ve-never-bought-a-vibrator-before-can-you-help?’.

You must see a real mix of women!
We get women right up to their 80s. I literally had to do a double take – I thought my nan had walked in. Women like that are brilliant. ‘I’ve come to buy a vibrator - me old ones bust.’

Do you think men do get intimidated by some of this stuff?
Hopefully the men who come to this shop love it because they can explore together with their partner. If you include someone, it becomes sexy. If it’s exclusive then of course you’d feel intimidated. I’ve seen all sorts of weird marketing from other shops like ‘why a rabbit vibrator is better than your man’ and I think – oh God! Can we stop doing this? Come on! We’re sold so many messages. There’s so many channels, films, messages. We’re sold this other reality – what a true women looks like, her body, her handbag. We’re sold these ideals. Some couple who’ve been together 30 years and still have hot sex in the shower. That just doesn’t happen! Why can’t we say that? I would like to see some more reality. It’s making us all so insecure. I’m not down with insecurity.



To read about more curious callings, please click here

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