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DSC_7945Our lives are sat­ur­ated with sex-based advert­ising at every step. Subtle, or in your face, sex is used to hawk any­thing from food to fragrance.

Iron­ic­ally, the shops selling actu­al sex products them­selves face much stricter retail and advert­ising stand­ards than any­one else, as they are gen­er­ally cat­egor­ised with­in the shade of grey (I hear there are 50) that exists between reg­u­lar retail and the com­mer­cial sex industry.

In Wel­ling­ton, adult-product retail­ers have been chal­len­ging these double stand­ards by devel­op­ing sex-pos­it­ive, main­stream stores aimed at every­day people and con­cep­tu­ally posi­tioned totally sep­ar­ately from the night-time back-alley sex industry. And as these busi­nesses make the soci­et­al trans­ition from red light to day­light, main­stream retail awards and recog­ni­tion are help­ing them spread their own good vibra­tions among the city’s reg­u­lar retail environment.


One such busi­ness is D.VICE, a sex-toy man­u­fac­tur­ing com­pany with shops around the coun­try, includ­ing the brightly lit and invit­ing one on the corner of Dix­on and Wil­lis streets.

Owned by Wel­ling­to­ni­ans Wendy Lee and Ema Lyon, D.VICE pro­motes philo­sophies based around edu­ca­tion and the nor­m­al­isa­tion of sexu­al­ity. A num­ber of psy­cho­lo­gic­al meas­ures employed in their stores are designed to help people feel com­fort­able and with­in a main­stream envir­on­ment, and they don’t sell porn. Clean, bright and open-plan spaces with glass shelves provide a boutique feel, with adult toys dis­played out of the box for cus­tom­ers to handle and exam­ine. An online magazine and web­site for­ums pub­lish inform­at­ive, no-holds-barred art­icles on all the sexu­al top­ics you could ima­gine, and some you prob­ably couldn’t.

Around 20 per­cent of D.VICE’s stock is self-man­u­fac­tured at a fact­ory that is the only one of its kind in New Zea­l­and, and prob­ably Aus­tralia too, says Lee.

D.VICE was born out of our frus­tra­tion,” she explains. “We wanted to be able to access great sex toys while in a com­fort­able envir­on­ment. Find­ing neither, we began man­u­fac­tur­ing qual­ity products and later opened our first store in Wellington.”

Back in 1998, an even­ing course inten­ded for stu­dents to make moul­ded plaster garden gnomes and the like, saw Lee and Lyon furt­ively exper­i­ment­ing with cre­at­ing phal­lic shapes at the back of the class. Later, with a little assist­ance from Weta Workshop’s mod­el-mak­ing experts, the pair honed their skills, mark­ing the begin­ning of a suc­cess­ful man­u­fac­tur­ing oper­a­tion that is guided today by feed­back from a loy­al and sur­pris­ingly large cus­tom­er base, espe­cially in Wel­ling­ton, which actu­ally has really high rates of vibrat­or own­er­ship, claims Lee.

We want all our products to be long-last­ing and safe to use, and we tend to be very con­scious of the mater­i­als they are made from, mak­ing sure they are body-safe,” she says.

Adult-toy sales in gen­er­al have def­in­itely trended upwards in recent years, with sexu­al­ity becom­ing a slightly less taboo sub­ject thanks in part to suc­cess­ful TV shows like Sex and the City and Girls, and guilty pleas­ure pub­lish­ing phe­nomen­on Fifty Shades of Grey. Lee says the lat­ter, fea­tur­ing a sexu­ally charged and con­tro­ver­sial rela­tion­ship of female sub­mis­sion and bond­age, has had a notice­able impact on the adult-toy industry, both here in Wel­ling­ton and across the coun­try. The movie adapt­a­tion, released on Valentine’s Day last month, provided a double whammy, so to speak, for adult-product retailers.


Nic­ola Relph, of Adult Toy Megastore

Fel­low Wel­ling­ton sex-toy seller Adult Toy Megastore has noticed a sim­il­ar influ­ence, says co-own­er Nic­ola Relph, with more every­day people get­ting the nerve up to buy and try adult products.

For us it’s about giv­ing Kiwis a sense of empower­ment,” she explains. “Our tar­get mar­ket is the gen­er­al pop­u­la­tion; this is not a back­street business.”

The online-only store dif­fers from D.VICE in that they do stock por­no­graphy, but a com­mit­ment to sex edu­ca­tion and demys­ti­fic­a­tion aligns the val­ues of the two companies.

Relph says the com­pany, which she owns with hus­band Craig, has a com­pre­hens­ive web­site that is more than a cata­logue in that it has become a sound­ing board for many people who want to share and talk about their sexu­al side, or post feed­back on the products.

Des­pite the online nature of the busi­ness mean­ing geo­graph­ic­al loc­a­tion is not as import­ant, Relph is cer­tain they have bene­fit­ted from being in the cap­it­al. “We would have based it here any­way because it’s our home,” she says. “We’re Wel­ling­ton born and bred, and our employ­ees are too, but we find we meet more open-minded atti­tudes here gen­er­ally. Open-minded and creative.”

The rel­at­ively small size of the city makes for easi­er part­ner­ing with oth­er busi­ness too, includ­ing radio sta­tions and event organ­isers. “We can be more restric­ted on advert­ising, but as we are an online busi­ness with no phys­ic­al store there aren’t so many chal­lenges,” says Relph.

These are chal­lenges known all too well to Lees and Lyon, who were turned down for no less than 15 Pon­sonby Street retail loc­a­tions before find­ing the one their Auck­land store cur­rently occu­pies. The irony is, Lee says, that you can walk into almost any dairy or pet­rol sta­tion and buy expli­cit por­no­graph­ic mater­i­al, yet the same rules don’t apply to them.

Relph agrees. “We have no rela­tion­ship with brothels or that sec­tor and we’re not part of that net­work. We try to keep this more main­stream,” she says, “yet these restric­tions do apply to us.”

Both women obvi­ously have a clear grasp of exactly where their busi­nesses sit with­in New Zea­l­and retail, includ­ing the fact that they are deal­ing with a handle-with-care area con­sidered taboo by many.

As they, and oth­er adult-product busi­nesses, seek to define them­selves as pro­mot­ing healthy sexu­al­ity and con­fid­ence, along­side some frank sex edu­ca­tion, it doesn’t seem right that they are affected by some­what dra­coni­an reg­u­la­tions. And all this while soci­ety at large becomes increas­ingly affected by the osmos­is of porn into our daily media diet, influ­en­cing what many young people are grow­ing up to think sex is, while nobody appears to bat an eyelid.

Although the pro­mo­tion of adult products def­in­itely does require sens­it­iv­ity — loc­a­tions fre­quen­ted by chil­dren spring to mind as an obvi­ous no-no — the philo­sophies being pro­moted by these main­stream busi­nesses deserve more cre­dence, and it’s pretty obvi­ous they shouldn’t be tarred by the same reg­u­lat­ory brush as brothels and strip clubs.

How­ever, some les­sons may have been learned along the way, as D.VICE found out in 2009 when they angered the Cath­ol­ic Church by dis­play­ing a bill­board show­ing people pray­ing in a church with their eyes closed, except for a woman smil­ing and a tagline below for a dis­crete sex aid that could be used while doing oth­er things. Fair­fax Media repor­ted Wel­ling­ton Cath­ol­ic Arch­bish­op John Dew as say­ing it was “unne­ces­sary and dis­taste­ful” to asso­ci­ate the church and a sex shop, but Lee was unre­pent­ant, say­ing the bill­board nev­er meant to cause offence — a state­ment backed up by no fol­low-up com­plaints with the Advert­ising Stand­ards Authority.

Des­pite facing extra restric­tions and con­tro­versy, both Lee and Relph see a bright future in their industry, with tech­no­lo­gic­al innov­a­tions (giv­ing your part­ner a buzz via remote con­trol app any­one?) and increas­ing main­stream soci­et­al accept­ance, includ­ing from those in the retail sec­tor, mean­ing the industry is exper­i­en­cing con­stant growth.

We do come up against issues the nor­mal busi­ness­wo­man wouldn’t,” says Lee, “but that won’t stop us. Our pas­sion is to bring sex toys and sex inform­a­tion to cus­tom­ers in a pos­it­ive, fun and affirm­ing envir­on­ment with a com­mit­ment to pro­mote pos­it­ive atti­tudes towards healthy sexuality.”

It must be work­ing then, as people return to shop at the stores, read the art­icles and dis­cuss the ins and outs of the products, prob­ably lit­er­ally, via the web forums.

Cre­at­ing that pos­it­iv­ity, free­dom and con­fid­ence for people is what really counts, both Relph and Lee agree, and with sexu­al­ity such an inher­ent part of human exist­ence this must have a knock-on effect into oth­er areas of life.

Provid­ing edu­ca­tion and mak­ing a healthy ver­sion of sexu­al­ity more main­stream, whatever that may be on a per­son­al level, seems to be a good way to help counter the raft of neg­at­ive and judge­ment­al sexu­al imagery we are sub­ject to every day. If con­front­ing one of society’s last big taboos hon­estly, sens­it­ively and head-on, as these busi­nesses are doing, achieves that in any way, then surely that can only lead to a meta­phor­ic­al happy ending.