Earlier this week, an article in the Daily Mail reported that Boots had sparked controversy and concerns from customers for daring to display sex toys in a prominent position in their shops – in the eye line of customers looking to purchase toiletries and sandwiches and on a shelf low enough for children to see.
Apparently the display left some 'shocked' and 'disgusted' at the visibility of these sexual aids - designed to improve 'sexual wellbeing' - and a comparison was made with Ann Summers, which, happily, sells its sexual aids concealed in boxes and segregated in a special area of its shops.
Once again, the question of how sexual mores should be played out in our supposedly liberally minded Western society comes to fore: on the one hand, sex is pushed at us from every angle. Are the bikini-clad babes on magazine covers in Boots offensive to anyone? What about the porno-chic press-on nails, fake tan and false lashes sold in abundance? They aren't explicitly sexual items per se, but they have been appropriated into the mainstream from pornographic roots.
On the other hand, we're told that sex is dirty and perverted - hardly a surprise, then, that the idea of it is threatening to people.
I'm not sure what those who complained about in this case are actually afraid of, though. Allegedly, the worry is that children will witness this atrocity (although will a nine-year-old have any conception of what these things are?) and be scarred for life as a result of catching a glimpse of some object they can't quite identify and don't really understand?
Perhaps if the issue at hand were sexual aids that had more directly violent connotations or could be potentially hazardous (studded S&M paddles, gimp masks), then yes, those should be sequestered behind a lusty-looking velour curtain in the back of a designated sex shop. But a couple of innocuous-looking massaging vibrators? Creating a separate sphere for them and branding them as sexually depraving devices - that's what makes them threatening and 'disgusting' to behold, not the items themselves.
While the sex toys on sale at Boots are couples-friendly 'massagers,' the idea of the vibrator has long been associated with a woman's pleasure – a notion that is (lamentably) often overlooked despite certain pressures on women to embrace sexuality.
From an early age, girls are bombarded with messages from the media and celebrity figures that suggest that sex is empowering and that to be sexually available and provocative is applauded. But when that same sexual pleasure is easily purchased from a shelf at Boots? It's a corrupting force. Any sense of hysteria about visible sex aids on sale in a shop is akin to the ridiculous fears that used to accompany another terrifying sexual unknown - masturbation.
It's extremely frustrating that we are faced with these confusing messages, taught that sex is the way forward but that it's also something rather vile that needs to be hidden and ignored. Remember the belief (rampant in some parts of the US) that not teaching children about condoms would lead them to practice abstinence (ie if you don't see it you won't want it)? And remember what happened with teen pregnancy and STD rates in those places as a result?
I think it's fantastic that Boots now stocks these products (which, other than at Ann Summers shops, you have to go to a more explicit sex shop to buy - which makes some people, understandably, quite uncomfortable), and that they're available for purchase next to other necessary but embarrassing items like condoms, tampons and pregnancy testing kits.
Nobody objects to other sexual aids (condoms, lubricant, massage oils) being on display at stores; people take for granted that they are essentials that may come in handy from time to time. So will these sex aids: People who might not normally seek out these types of items in specialist shops will buy them to use on their own and with partners, and for some, they will lead to exciting new experiences (for others, they'll be duds that failed to improve a less-than-inspiring sexual encounter).
But if Boots is selling something that has even the vague promise of being able to help satisfy us sexually, or make us feel more confident about our bodies, then we should be lauding them, not criticising. Because ultimately, shouldn't that be as important as the right prescription of reading spectacles or specialty shampoo for your hair type? And instead of wasting time worrying about how children will be corrupted by the sight of something like this, surely investing in educating them about sexuality and acceptance is a far more useful venture.