Eoin Butler: writer, journalist and Mayoman of the Year

Tripping Along The Ledge


Published: Irish Times, February 9 2008


“This is not a Joke Shop” warns the sign at the entrance to Basic Instincts in Dublin’s Temple Bar. “This is an Adult Fetish Shop. Serious shoppers only.” It is with as much solemnity as I can muster then, that I press the buzzer and step inside. The shelves are stocked with adult DVDs, magazines and toys. Commanding pride of place at the front of the store though is a mind-boggling assortment of bondage and S.&M. paraphenalia.

This may not be a joke shop. But my basic instinct is to laugh. Nervously. The adult retail industry in Ireland has grown exponentially in the last decade. Over 20 sex shops operate in Dublin, with at least as many again outside the capital. Although pornographic DVDs remain illegal, and businesses selling them are subject to occasional Garda raids, business is booming and sex shops are gaining in respectability. This weekend thousands of Irish people will visit a sex shop looking for a Valentine’s Gift… Because these days, apparently, nothing says ‘I love you, darling’ quite like a set of handcuffs and a gag.

So is this evidence of a newfound maturity in Irish attitudes to matters sexual? Or is symptomatic of a creeping moral degeneracy in the country? Marie Daly, a psychosexual therapist with the Marriage and Relationship Councilling Service, says she does not recommend sex toys to her patients. But she sees nothing wrong with them per se. “The only danger would be if one partner feels coerced into something they’re not comfortable with” she says.

Obviously, Irish sexual proclivities have changed a bit in the last ten years. In a attempt to discover by how much, I embark upon an epic trawl of Dublin’s sex shops. What I find are a mixed bag of businesses that ran the gambit from professional and friendly, to dank and seedy; stocking product lines that strike me as anything from tittilating to kooky to revolting to (in some cases) utterly baffling. It is an eyeopening afternoon, to say the least.

“Maria continues to dissapoint Mistress Brianna and so is confined to a cage…” I rifle through the DVD rack in Miss Fantasia’s of South William Street. Some films, like ‘Crimson Mansion’, feature convaluted plotlines, plots and costumes. Others, such as ‘All About Asses’ are straight and to the point. Most defy description here. One particular film has three words in its title: none of which can be repeated in a family newspaper. But sufficed to say it boasts an all-male cast. And given the pride these gentlemen take in one particular aspect of their anatomy, it could be described as, quite literally, an orgy of self-congratulation

Miss Fantasia’s is windowless and it is with a feigned nonchalance that I browse some of the more salacious material. But for the most part, it’s no different from any department store on a busy Saturday afternoon. Couples walk between the racks pointing at things, picking up items and examining them. In the changing room, a woman being fitted for a corset calls her friends in for their opinions. The shop’s co-owner Justin Parr prefers that I not approach customers for comment. But he’s happy to answer any questions I might have.

There isn’t an actual Miss Fantasia, he says, in response to my first question. (I had envisioned a bookish, straightlaced young lady, who drifted into the industry on account of her sexy-sounding surname.) Parr says he co-founded the business with his partner Jacinta Feely in the mid-1990s, originally solely as a costume manufacturers.

Since then Miss Fantasia’s has relocated to the city centre and expanded its range to include adult toys, body jewellry and magazine. “After Utopia in Bray we would have been the first in the Republic” he says. “But it was only in the last five years that we have started stocking DVDs. We started off with the Alexander Institute, which were educational videos. Then we got into the fetish end of things – rubber, leather, PVC, transvestism, foot fetish…”

It strikes me as odd, I tell him, that pornographic DVDs and magazines should continue to sell (at considerable prices too) in the era of broadband internet. “This is a huge discussion in the industry,” agrees Parr. “Most people reckon that there’s five years, tops, left in DVDs. But I think there’s much longer than that myself, certainly in Ireland anyway. You’ve got to remember that there’s still a hell of a lot of paranoia out there about ordering porn on the internet – how it comes up on your credit card statements and in your browsing history.” The bigger thread, Parr anticipates, will come from mobile phone video –on-demand.

As he’s talking, we’re interrupted by a member of staff. A customer is at the counter with a gift voucher issued in 2002, wanting to know if it can still be redeemed. “Ah Jaysus,” the proprietor grumbles good naturedly, “Is it even in euros?” It is, and he tells the lady she can go ahead and use it. She and her husband (who look to be in their forties) head off to examine a selection of dildos. I’m struck by the sheer mundanity of the transaction.

Most of the shop’s customers seem to be female, I observe. Justin shrugs. “It depends on the time of day,” he says. “Early in the morning it’d be men, late in the evening too. But in the middle of the day it’s all women.”

After Miss Fantasia, I hit a few more places in quick succession: Shauna’s on Aungier Street, followed by premesis on Capel Street, Phibsboro and Drumcondra. In one of these I talk to an employee (who prefers not to be identified) about what its like to work in a sex shop. “It’s a job,” he shrugs. I tell him that I used to love music, but the dissappeared when writing about it became my job.

Has he ever become similarly disenchanted with sex? “I have a normal relationship with my girlfriend,” he laughs. “To be honest, this is just a shop as far as I’m concerned. This is all just stock to me.”

Ann Summers on O’Connell Street is selling two versions of the Kama Sutra. But the staff there don’t talk to the press under any circumstances. All inquiries are referred to the Ann Summers press officer in the UK who, in turn, won’t even talk over the phone. They won’t even tell me what the difference between the original Kama Sutra and the Modern Kama Sutra is. Oh come on girls, not even a hint? No chance. Ann Summers’ stock is fairly mild. But that isn’t the case for all of its competitors.

There’s no glossing over, for example, the sheer horror of Tina: The Inflatable Fantasy Companion Doll, variants on whom retail for about €100 in almost every sex shop I visit. Tina has two orifaces, but she has to be washed out before and after use with a warm soapy cloth after use. You would think that might kill the romance, but a sizable market obviously exists for her.

Back in the Temple Bar fetish superstore Basic Instincts, there’s one contraption whose purpose I have to figure out before calling it a day. One part of it is shaped like the handle of a skipping rope. The other is a bulb-shaped rubber hand pump, the sort doctors use to measure blood pressure. The two are connected by a transparent plastic tube. As a man of the world, I really should be able to work this out. But I can’t.

I pick it up and turn around to the man behind the counter. “Excuse me,” I inquire. “But what does this thing do exactly?” The man seems incredulous. “You really don’t know?”

I shake my head.

“Well its basically…” he begins falteringly. “Well… It’s popular with straight guys too but…” I suddenly cut across him. “You know what?” I tell him. “I’ve figured it out.” He looks relieved and returns to what he was doing. Truthfully, I’m still none the wiser. But there are some things, I now suspect, that I’m better off just not knowing.