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Sex in the City

Not so long ago we were the laughing stock of Europe when it came to our prudish attitudes to sex. Olaf Tyaransen reports on what's changed .

F**K ME! It probably wasn’t what the late James Brown had in mind when he penned the classic Sex Machine, but the, erm, device that greets customers when they walk through the door of Dublin’s latest sex shop, Miss Behavin’, is exactly that — a sex machine.

Except that this particular sex machine is called a ‘Love Lounger’. Essentially, it’s an inflatable black rubber couch, equipped with foot-straps and a pneumatic, remotecontrolled, nine-inch plastic phallus. It costs a cool €260. Cian O’Murchu, the 27-year-old owner of the Ranelagh store (along with Eurotika in the city centre and Bray’s Naughty N Nice) tells me: "We’ve only been open here for six weeks and we haven’t actually sold one yet. But there’s been a hell of a lot of interest."

Not that a Love Lounger is a particularly expensive item nowadays. For those even more serious about their sexual satisfaction, Miss Fantasia on South William Street offers everything from gold-plated Swedish dildos (at €800 a pop) to the Sybian. Costing a whopping €1,800, the Sybian is, apparently, the Rolls Royce of vibrators.

Justin Parr, affable proprietor of Miss Fantasia, tells me that he's already sold three of these babies this year. "It's a guaranteed orgasm machine, and it's probably a good symbol of how things are changing. Five years ago there's no way we would have had a market for that. When we started out in this business, sex toys were mostly these cheap plastic things going for the equivalent of €20. But things have progressed a long way since."

And how! Our politicians regularly warn us that we'll be the "laughing stock of Europe" if we don't do this, that, or vote 'Yes' to Lisbon. But the sad truth is that, when it comes to matters sexual, Ireland has been the laughing stock of Europe for decades. As recently as the early 1990s, we had the unenviable reputation as being, easily, the most sexually repressed country in Europe.

Times have changed. This is the Noughties -- and Ireland's been doing a hell of a lot of catching/growing up. Last year, an online survey by Durex into the sexual habits, fantasies and safe-sex practices of Irish people found that 20% of Irish people have had a threesome and 4% have tried swinging.

Needless to say, the indigenous sex industry has expanded to cater for our ever-growing appetite for amorous adventure and amusement. Today, Dublin boasts a grand total of 20 sex shops -- and business is booming. Not to mention banging!

But, as a staff member in one of the more upmarket stores explained it to me: "A lot of these shops are stuck in the past. They're selling what I call 'itchy-box knickers', cheap sex toys and loads of hardcore mags and DVDs. Some of them even have video booths where customers can go in and have a w**k. They're catering to what I call 'the trenchcoat brigade'. But that's not to knock them. Hey, the trenchcoat brigade spend a lot of money, too. But a couple of shops sell quality items."

Miss Fantasia sells a myriad of books, magazines and DVDs, but their core business is in fetish clothing, lingerie and shoes.

"Sex is all to do with the mind," Justin Parr explains. "It's not just a physical thing. People get off dressing up in boots, people get off from looking at magazines. Fantasy is a huge part of sex. Toys are a physical thing, but they're there to make your mind work. That's the bottom line -- the fantasy, the role-playing, the fetish end of it. Getting out of your business suit and into a leather frock, getting out of a pair of jeans and into a rubber catsuit. Taking yourself out of your everyday nine-to-five existence and playing out your fantasies, whatever they happen to be."

Speaking of which, while I was talking to him, he was awaiting delivery of metal operating tables from German field hospitals. "They'll mostly be used for spanking," he explained, with a grin.

Dublin's changing demographic has been good for business. "Eastern Europeans, in particular, are very good customers," Parr explains. "They don't have any issues and they're very open-minded sexually. They don't have any of the hang-ups that Irish people do. Irish people still have hang-ups, still to this day.

"Like, I've got a guy who comes in here regularly and tells me, 'My wife wears all of this stuff'. And he's a great customer, he buys loads of stuff. But although she's the one wearing it, she will not step inside this door. Strange! At home she's dressed up to the nines in high heels, suspenders, basques, leather, rubber, whatever -- the works. But she simply won't walk in this door."

As Parr sees it, a big part of their business is to educate and advise their customers: "You have to educate people. People come in and buy a butt plug, but they don't bother getting any lube. You practically have to shove it in their face and go, 'Maybe you should try using this -- it'll make a big difference'. Other guys say that they'd never buy their partner a vibrator, because she might prefer it to them. But vibrators are there for foreplay. They will make a woman come, but they're really there to get someone in the mood. Same as dressing-up."

While Miss Fantasia also sells a wide selection of magazines and DVDs, Parr is insistent that their core business isn't at a smut level: "We don't sell porn -- we sell sex. If you want to have sex with your wife and you want to dress up -- or vice versa -- that's what we do. We're selling sex -- or marriage enhancement products. We're not selling porn."

Except, of course, that they are selling porn. While not the mainstay of their business, Miss Fantasia has a well-stocked DVD room. They stock straight, gay, bi, S&M, fetish... basically, whatever you're having. From Shaving Ryan's Privates to Bimaxx Volume X.

DVDs are actually the most legally problematic items of stock. Miss Fantasia was recently raided for stocking uncertified DVDs: "We're in court in September for selling uncertified DVDs. The cops came in and removed every DVD in the place. But by the time the Irish government get around to dealing with the problem of licensing or certifying the DVDs, there'll be no need. People won't be buying them in a shop; they'll all be online. But to date their attitude to the whole thing has been typically Irish -- don't deal with it, don't talk about it, sweep it under the carpet and it'll go away. We'd actually welcome some regulation in this industry."

Over in Ranelagh, Cian O'Murchu -- who stocks an extreme range of fetish DVDs in Miss Behavin' -- tells the same story. "You'd generally get raided about once a year, though our last raid was actually two years ago in Eurotika. The Guards don't want to be bothering us, they know it's harmless. It's the Irish film Censors Office that sends them in, because the DVDs have no certification. That's where we run into trouble. But the thing is they refuse to certify them. We have sent movies to them to certify, but they refuse point blank to do it."

To O'Murchu's mind, it's all very simple. "The DVDs are made by consenting adults to be viewed by consenting adults. If you don't wanna watch 'em, don't come into the shop."

He's got high hopes for Miss Behavin' -- and now sees it as his flagship store. "My other shops are down in basements, and a lot of women just won't go into a basement shop. Women are very important customers. Often men can be a bit nervous, but women just don't care. They know what they want and they come straight in and get it."

While Dublin has seen an explosion of sex shops over the past decade, it's entirely probable that many of these will be gone within the next few years. I asked the manager of one Capel Street store, which only seemed to stock DVDs and magazines, how they hoped to compete with all the free pornography available on the internet.

"Ah, a lot of the old school fellas are technophobes," he explained. "They wouldn't know how to turn a computer on. So there'll always be a market for magazines and films... hopefully, anyway." HQ