Now, more than ever, women need to lead the debate and redefine erotic boundaries, writes Rowan Pelling
Twenty years ago this autumn, a month after terrorists crashed planes into the Twin Towers, I bought out the magazine I then edited – the Erotic Review – for one pound. Or, more accurately, my business partner and I purchased the magazine’s subscriber list and its liabilities. We felt we were living in such dark times that we had to try and restore some sensual frivolity to the world. To borrow from a hippie slogan in the Sixties, we felt it was time to make love, not war. We weren’t alone in this conviction. In December that year Sam Roddick – daughter of the Body Shop’s crusading Anita – founded the glorious erotic emporium Coco de Mer in Covent Garden. Roddick wanted to create a browsing and shopping space that focused on women’s desires and pleasure. She’d noted how many sex toys were created from a male perspective: row after row of lurid-hued, over-sized phalluses made from potentially toxic plastics that should never go near delicate female anatomy.
Coco de Mer lobbed a fur-lined hand grenade into the tired, mostly tawdry, sex shop scene. Although, credit where credit is due: Ann Summers had already played a stalwart role on the UK high street (even if the vibe could be a bit end-of-the-pier), while Hoxton’s belt-and-braces sex store, Sh! had fought for women’s sexual emancipation since the 1990s. But Coco’s aesthetic was unique at the time. The shop was designed to feel like an upmarket lingerie boutique with an Aladdin’s cave of erotic paraphernalia attached. Roddick sold dildos crafted like artworks, sleek ergonomic vibrators, whips made from butter-soft leather, Venetian masks, pillow books and, yes, copies of the Erotic Review. Roddick made it her mission to find manufacturers who used materials that were free of harmful chemicals and was an early cheerleader for organic lubricants.
So when the Daily Mail suggested in 2005 that I write a piece about what it’s like to go shopping for sex toys when you’re the mother of a small child I aimed my Maclaren buggy straight at Coco.
Now here’s a confession: at that stage of my life, aged 37, I had never owned a vibrator. My deputy editor used to nick all the freebies we were sent at the Review, citing the indisputable fact she was researching a book on sex toys. And I didn’t fancy the technicolour Rampant Rabbits my business partner and I sold at trade fairs to prop up the magazine’s finances. It’s long weirded me out that women who feel queasy about ersatz penises will happily put a plastic bunny or dolphin up their fundament. I even once came across a squirrel.
Before I get side-tracked by rampant rodents, I should tell you how lovely it was being a bog-standard, bemused customer at Coco de Mer. There was expert help from charming young women on what might best suit a beginner like me and I exited, almost two hours later, with a chic little pistachio-green, ten-speed vibrator shaped a bit like a 3D comma. Sixteen years later it’s still going strong and is so discreet you can leave it absent-mindedly on your pile of bedside books and no one will notice. It’s as indispensable as lavender oil for a nuit blanche (those long nights of the soul when sleep eludes you).
So when Sam Roddick sold Coco de Mer to online sex titans Love Honey in 2011, I worried it might lose its seductive atmosphere and stop championing female health and empowerment. Fortunately, the blokes who ran Love Honey headhunted Lucy Litwack, who had run La Perla’s lingerie empire and also done a stint at Victoria’s Secret in New York. I didn’t meet Lucy until 2017, when we were both involved as consultants with Sotheby’s first major sale of erotic art – but, dear god, was I impressed by her. Litwack’s energy for championing female-led erotic culture and safe sexual practice is formidable. Lockdown aside, she arranges regular workshops where women and their partners (but no men on their own) can explore erotic literature or practices like Shibari – the art of Japanese rope bondage – though in her forums the person tying the knots and arranging hoists is female. She persuaded actress Pamela Anderson to front the brand as part of her campaign to raise money for charities that fight domestic abuse.
In 2019 she brought the Somali-born model and anti-FGM campaigner Waris Dirie on board as a Coco “icon” to help raise awareness of the brutal mutilation that erases the sexual pleasure of millions of women worldwide. And this year model-turned-photographer Helena Christensen assumed the icon mantle for the twentieth anniversary celebrations, taking self-portraits of herself in stunning lingerie from the brand’s Intimates range. It’s immensely cheering for women my age that Litwack uses activists aged 50-plus to promote and model Coco’s products, and that she keeps finding ways to subvert expectations. Three years ago, to mark the 100th anniversary of women being finally granted the vote, the brand introduced the Emmeline “pleasure wand”, named for suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.
You may think such gestures are futile, but I’d fiercely argue the contrary. We live in an age where the consequences of poor sex education, extreme online pornography, misogyny and incel culture are brutally obvious – shaking faith in the police and establishment and undermining women’s sense of safety. I have written about erotic culture for 27 years and now, more than ever, we need women to lead the debate and redefine erotic boundaries. Writers like London-based academic Katherine Angel are doing just that with this year’s polemic Tomorrow Sex Will be Good Again: Women and Desire in the Age of Consent. Ditto Oxford University’s All Souls don, Amia Srinivasan, with her debut volume The Right to Sex. As these authors and Coco de Mer demonstrate, sex – and for that matter, sex toys – are about more than good vibrations.
Rowan Pelling is a British journalist and former editor of The Erotic Review