Look at the person to your right. Now look at the person to your left. Chances are, one of those people is wearing a butt plug right now. Okay, that’s not actually true, but the sex toy industry is throwing one huge erect up yours to the recession and is doing better than ever. Hey, if we can’t afford to go out on the town then it’s cheaper in the long run to dress up in rubber and fuck each other with vibrating dongs, right?
One company swept up in the sweaty, heaving boom of erotic wares is Bath-based internet store, Lovehoney. The company, like my own sexual history, started in a bedroom but was quickly forced to larger premises after crippling demand from enthusiastic punters. Now operating out of a warehouse/office, its founders – Richard and Neal – are in charge of a massive national business and Channel 4 decided to dive in, face first, and check it out.
The interesting thing about the business is actually how uninteresting it is. If Lovehoney had sold anything but sexual paraphernalia then this could well have been the most boring documentary of all time; the office is identical to any sales/warehouse style operation you might have seen. One of the staff member’s boyfriend recounted how he expected it to be like the Playboy mansion and was deflated when he realised that the whole thing was an endless expanse of stacked boxes and crates with a floor of telesales women all drinking tea and decorating their monitors with cuddly toys. Perhaps Lovehoney missed a trick and they could have opened the operation up into a quasi theme-park-cum-museum, like Cadbury World or the Guinness Brewery. Oompa Loompas could be seen testing double-dildos on each other while chanting about the importance of consent, while a river of rubber flows through the complex before being moulded into the gaping-mouthed Stacy, Tracy and Paula dolls.
The women in the call centre have to be well-educated on the entire catalogue of wares as the nervous customers often aren’t sure which products are right for them or what to buy for their lucky or soon-to-be-surprised partners. The ladies are happy to discuss the plug, vibes, strap-ons and lubes as if they are ironing boards, cordless drills and lampshades; they explain what they do, what they’re best for and make recommendations. They were unable to help a fellow who wanted a two-inch condom, but perhaps the man had never seen a condom before as you can essentially make them as long as you like, can’t you? One of the women showed off her gold and blue star stickers on her monitor. The gold one, she explained, meant that she’s been called by someone who’d wanked down the phone at her (she demonstrated the audio with an impressive ‘slucka-slucka-slucka’ noise). We didn’t find out what the blue star meant: presumably something too horrible even for Channel 4, which is saying something for a channel that shows graphic close-ups of genital warts to tweens.
My favourite Lovehoney staff member was Andrea who’s in charge of refunds and returns. Lovely, middle class Andrea – who could be your mother, teacher or aunt – smacks on her rubber gloves and delves through her returns with adorable professionalism. Apparently she ‘only’ gets 150-200 returns a day – ‘mostly because they don’t like the look of them, or they don’t fit’. Now when she says, ‘they don’t fit’ is she talking about clothing or… well probably both, really. The company has a one year, no-questions-asked returns policy which means Andrea has to double check items that rattle when they vibrate, inflatable position seats that fall over when wobbled and rubber schlongs that were apparently too ugly to bear inserting into body parts that frankly shouldn’t have much to say when it comes to aesthetics. Manager Richard has her testing the company’s new “Happy Rabbit”, so Andrea turns one on and leaves it on the desk to see how long it goes, while chucking the other into a bucket of water to see if it’ll work in the bath. It doesn’t. I’d say you’d need a buttload of confidence to take something battery-powered into the bath with you, let alone shoving it up your wotsit.
One staff member who gets more screen time than she probably should is Annabelle from Cockfosters (snigger). She’s a young, pretty woman who presents various equipment and advice on the TV section of Lovehoney’s website. Her boyfriend loves her job but Annabelle has plans to launch her own range of toys and lingerie and wants the backing of her bosses. We see her trying to grease the wheels by modelling lingerie for a shoot at Richard’s house and presenting her proposal with paperwork tied together with Christmas ribbon (I don’t know). Ultimately, Richard and Neal aren’t that impressed with her business proposal but love her enthusiasm and suggest she try writing them some erotica. I tried that once, Richard. It’s not easy. Mine involved an impotent pirate fucking a sea maiden with his wooden leg. It was shit.
Bizarrely, Lovehoney wants to expand onto the high street and has bought Coco de Mer (which doesn’t translate to Cock of the Sea), a luxury sex shop in Covent Garden. Coco de Mer has been losing money and Richard and Neal want to give it a spit and polish and turn it into a money-making enterprise. Personally, I don’t know why Alan Sugar hasn’t got his bladdy businessmen and women on the case – that’d be a task worth watching! You might think that an online sex store wanting to set up a sex shop is like an internet porn site starting up a spank mag – why would anyone go through the embarrassment of browsing sexy stuff in public when they can do it from the privacy of their own home? Well, sex boutiques are popular in their own right and are more private than trying to reach for the Razzle when in WHSmith. What’s more fun than actually being able to browse and hold potential playthings while having someone on hand to tell you where to stick it (in the good way)? Nothing, that’s what. Nothing is more fun. Not only that but Coco de Mer has some ridiculous luxury shit: a dildo made entirely out of jade for fuck’s sake; and a silver mirror designed for ladies to watch themselves fiddle in their flaps that costs a grand! I’m in the wrong business. Obviously, because I’m unemployed.
As I said before, this documentary has shown the sex toy business to be no different from any other, really. It’s got distribution, sales, down-to-earth employees, an expanding product line and aspirations to expand the business wider than a double-stuffed anus. To these people, the constant flow of sex dolls, phalluses, vibrating whajamacallits and peep-hole panties are as commonplace and boring as stationery and printer toner is to the average office drone. Channel 4 do sometimes seem obsessed with sex, bringing up sex lives, sex education, that teen sex clinic thing and the like, but what they are actually doing is normalising it. And good on them. People should feel normal getting their rocks off how they like, with whom they like, with whatever fancy toys happen to inspire them (as long as there’s consent, obviously). The hystericals over at the Daily Mail are always shocked at the normalisation of sex, but fuck them. Not literally, obviously, their genitals shrivelled up and died a long time ago.
And it’s a shame, ‘cause they’re missing out.