Gettin’ Busy: The Business Behind The Irish Sex Toy Industry
Written By Rían Browne.
Within the last few years, discussions around sex and sexual pleasure has gradually become something more openly discussed, in part through the internet and on social media. In addition to this there’s also been the successful rise of business dedicated to sexual health, pleasure and practice.
I spoke with two Irish business owners, about their experiences working in the Irish sex toy industry, Shawna Scott owner of Sex Siopa and Robert Doyle co-founder of Playblue.ie, about their experiences within the industry.
What sparked your interest in the sex toy industry and inspired you to enter the business yourself?
‘To be honest for me, it was circumstance as much as anything.,’ says Robert, reflecting on how the financial collapse led himself and co-founder Richie Cullen, who had previous experience owning an adult store,to entering the sex toy industry.
‘In 2011 even a little cursory market research on the Irish Adult Sex Toy industry showed how well a new professional couples friendly adult store could do. The market players at the time were very much stuck in the stereotype leaving in my opinion the bulk of the market unserved. So in November 2011 we opened and almost immediately it took off.’
Shawna first broached the idea, of what would eventually become Sex Siopa, when she came across how largely unregulated the sex toy industry is.
‘I’ve always had an interest in human sexuality, but the spark to start my own health & design focused shop came when I was shopping for a vibrator for myself. I was researching different brands, and discovered from reading review blogs that the sex toy industry is largely unregulated worldwide, meaning it’s perfectly legal to make a toy with toxic or porous materials.’
Inspired by a handful of education based shops in the US & Canada, dedicated to stocking body safe toys, Shawna knew this was something she wanted to bring to Ireland.
‘It took me about 18 months to get Sex Siopa finally up and running as a business between researching all my products, planning the brand, building the website, etc. I finally opened up my online shop in December 2012.’
What was the reaction from friends, family, co-workers and, potential investors when you decided you wanted to open up a business in the industry?
‘It was a huge departure from the banking and insurance industries I had always worked in but friends and family were really fine about it,’ Robert remarks, explaining although it was a departure, after running and sellings businesses since the late 90’s, this was just another venture.
Echoing Robert’s comments, Shawna also reflects on the largely positive reaction she received when creating her own business.
‘The vast majority of people in my life were hugely supportive. I was quite surprised, because I thought there would be more push back. I think it’s always going to be scary for parents when their child says “I’m starting my own business,” especially a couple years later when I quit my part-time job, but that’s more to do with the uncertainty of the global economy and less to do with the actual industry itself.’
The stereotypical image of a sex shop is often one that’s dodgy, down a back alley, with blacked out windows. Did you have an preconceived assumptions around the sex toy industry that have since been proven or debunked in your experience as a business owner?
Explaining their approach when first setting up PlayBlue.ie, Robert explains,‘Preconceived impressions of the industry were something we ignored really viewing our business as competing with Littlewoods and Amazon rather than a back alley sex shop.’
Speaking about the benefits of creating an online experience in addition to a physical store Robert explains it was valuable in creating the right image for the business. ‘I suppose initially trading only online allowed us to create the image and culture around PlayBlue so we were never going to follow the herd done the traditional route.’
When first creating Sex Siopa, Shawna took inspiration from a local store. She knew the culture was changing and, had been for a while.
‘I was really lucky that I grew up not very far from Seattle where Babeland, a lesbian-owned shop, was founded in 1993. For 25 years they’ve had a bright, welcoming store-front, and that’s something I wanted to emulate with my online store.’
Describing the change in the response his business has received over recent years, Robert recounts one of gradual acceptance. ‘A great example of the change in attitudes is the difference in opening our last two shops. In 2015 we opened in Drumcondra and the vocal local
opposition to be honest staggered us, with threats and protests we were shocked at the attitude. Move on 3 years and we open in the Square in Tallaght and no one batted an eyelid’
Reflecting on how being able to create a space that is welcoming, where people feel comfortable to ask questions is something Shawna has always encouraged throughout the lifespan of Sex Siopa. ‘That’s the one big thing I’ve noticed about Ireland: If you give people the opportunity and platform to talk about sex openly, they will.’
‘I’m always trying to find new ways of creating those opportunities for people. For the past year I’ve been building up a community through my instagram stories (@sexsiopa) to allow people to share their stories and help each other out anonymously.’
As for change yet to come, both agree it’s all in the open discussion of sex and pleasure as a whole.
‘The one thing I’d love to see change is the attitudes to male sex toys which is still very much stigmatised. Over 60% of women have used a vibrator and this seems normal and there are sex toy parties where they are discussed and purchased but male masturbators are still by many people seen as a little bit disgusting which is a weird dichotomy of views in my opinion,’ says Robert.
Shawna believes the improvement isn’t necessarily needed in the sex toy industry but in the national discussions around viewing porn and so on.
’We’re having more mature conversations about sex workers’ rights thanks to groups like SWAI (Sex Workers Alliance Ireland), but we still seem very much hung up on this idea that porn is damaging to society. While there is certainly very real issues with youngsters using it in lieu of proper sex education, the tropes we’re seeing in the debate about porn often veer into sensationalism and hand wringing which is never helpful.
In your experience, do you think people are more open now when it comes to discussing sex and pleasure compared to a few years ago?
Robert has noticed that Irish consumers have gotten much more open and adventurous when it comes to sex. ‘‘We have daily chats with customers about their sex lives, fantasies and problems. It probably is more common now then a few years ago and definitely the Irish are becoming more adventurous in the bedroom based on our sales and product mix. Years ago we’d never sell half the bondage and fetish toys we sell now.The likes of the electro toys or penis dilators would have caused shock. I do think we have a long way to go yet though to be as open as we should be, but it’ll be fun getting there.’
At a social level, Shawna believes recent movements have played a huge role in how we approach the topic of sex as a society. ‘I’ve certainly seen huge improvements, but think Sex Siopa is just a very small cog in massive social overhaul over the past 10 years or so.’
‘The last two referenda have shown us that we’re much more compassionate and empathetic than we give ourselves credit for. We’re recognising and trying our best to purge the trauma of what the Church as an institution has done to this country. Part of that is admitting and accepting that 99.999% of the sex we have is for pleasure, not procreation.’
If there was one piece of information you could impart on to a person thinking of investing in their first toy, what would it be?
Robert passes on two valuable pieces of advice for those first dabbling in toys. ‘Don’t go too big or expensive, shop around and pick an all-rounder, too big is useless but too small you can work with. Also use lube, it’s cheap and when using sex toys it will make the experience 100% better. We have a saying in PlayBlue and it is something you can apply in everyday life.. Everything’s better with Lube!’
Shawna stresses the importance of communication, not being afraid to ask those questions that having been gnawing in your mind.
‘Read Oh Joy Sex Toy for fair, informative reviews that are queer and disability inclusive, and don’t be afraid to shoot me an email (firstname.lastname@example.org) or slide into my DM’s on Instagram if you have any questions. I know the world of toys can be totally overwhelming when you don’t know where to start, and everyone has slightly different needs, so asking before you buy is the best way to ensure you get the right toy for you.’