Sh! Women’s Store Playful Revolution

Alex Parker

Sometimes identifying a niche can become a lifestyle business that makes a business person a little money and allows them to create a job they can be fulfilled by. But the story of Sh! Women’s Store is a little different; that of a determined woman who found a niche in a male-dominated and at the time very misogynistic industry then carved out sizeable chunk of it for herself and women in general.

Playful and sophisticated are two of the adjectives that I would apply to Kathryn Hoyle having met her socially in the past. But alongside that I would also have to say she knows her own mind, is intelligent, tenacious and independent (Hey, she’s a Yorkshire lass so no surprises there). Hoyle is not someone who is lead by others; her vision, and she does have vision, has her at the vanguard.

Hoyle’s commitment to the empowerment of everyone to explore their own sexuality is reflected in her work in challenging sexual stereotypes be they linked to age, disability or illness. Sh! as a whole is not scared of a challenge.

Hoyle is the founder of Sh! Women’s store in London, a seller of adult products that emphasizes and indeed within the boundaries of discrimination legislation actively discriminates in favor of women. The last thing she wants is for women and their partners to be embarrassed or coy about their sexuality, the Sh! moniker reflects her playful nature, as if to say “heaven forbid we girls should enjoy our bodies.”

Hoyle, or Ky as she’s known has been competitive from a very early age, at one point engaging in an open-water swimming competition against a field of boys – and winning. Having earned a degree in fine art from Brighton University and then spending time in Japan teaching English, Hoyle found herself back in England in the early 1990s, unemployed and looking for her next challenge.

During an evening that saw her consuming a number of glasses of wine, Hoyle found herself in a Soho sex shop appalled at the dreadful seedy ambience and “ugly” products aimed mainly at men. She resolved to change the adult shopping experience for women and in April 1992 founded Sh! Women’s Store in Hoxton, London.

Oddly, having a similar experience of finding myself drunk in a Soho sex shop in my youth while on a business trip changed my life too. I resolved to stop being a second-hand car salesman, not quite as revolutionary as Ky’s epiphany but if you think your career needs a new direction maybe a hazy Soho is the answer.

During the two decades since its creation the Sh! store and the principles it represents have experienced a number of hurdles to overcome. At one point the entire contents of the shop were stolen during a burglary, not good for any business. Yet even more serious was the local council taking Sh! to court in an attempt to shut it down as an “unlicensed sex shop.”

But despite this Hoyle’s perseverance has prevailed, she claims to be the person to coin the “Jessica Rabbit” name for the now globally recognized vibrator format and appears in the media for far more than being the purveyor of sex toys in a female-friendly environment. You will find Hoyle consulted by and quoted in The Telegraph, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire and Sky News. She and her staff were key to the success of Channel 4’s “Sex Tips for Girls.”

Hoyle’s commitment to the empowerment of everyone to explore their own sexuality is reflected in her work in challenging sexual stereotypes be they linked to age, disability or illness. Sh! as a whole is not scared of a challenge and has “collaborated on numerous projects including working with St. Bart’s Hospital Oncology department to help women recovering from gynecological cancer surgery to regain feelings of arousal and desirability.” They also advise victims of Female Genital Mutilation or sexual abuse.

Sh! hosts regular erotic art exhibitions, erotica readings and informative and educational classes around sexual health and wellbeing. Investing time and effort into such projects and programs within the store and beyond is both key to Hoyle’s ethos and good business too as it helps develop and retain a loyal customer base.

From within the adult industry and in the wider business community Sh! has been acknowledged for its success having won the Erotic Trade Only Award for “Most Innovative Erotic Store” on three occasions as well as being listed in Time Out’s 100 Best Shops in London.

Of course with 22 years of experience selecting and selling products to a discerning and cosmopolitan market it was almost inevitable that Sh! would start selling their own branded products. Around a year ago, that’s exactly what Sh! did, offering their customers a select range of vibrators bearing the Sh! name.

So, if you have the pleasure of meeting Hoyle as I have done on several occasions enjoy her charm and matter of fact manner. Be impressed by the way she has endeavored to change the industry for the good, but whatever you do don’t let her challenge you to a race.

Alex Parker is an adult product consultant, journalist and erotic author. Since 2005 he has worked within the adult novelty and adult movie industry as reviewer, correspondent and advisor to some of Europe’s largest manufacturers and distributors.