This summer, on one of Brighton’s few hot evenings of the year, 30-odd sweaty foreheads and hastily-foraged freestanding fans bundled into Amy’s Room for another night of Bibi Lynch’s comedy chat show. This time hosted with local journalist Tracey Davies, Bibi spoke with Brighton’s iconic husband-and-wife duo, Tim Richardson and Calandra Balfour about their story, in the city we’re all rather fond of.
Unlike the room, the atmosphere before the talk is chilled. People settle with a welcome drink as Bibi, Tracey, Calandra and Tim mingle with the audience. When it’s time to begin, Bibi spots that Tim is already on stage, “I always come too early,” he replies – what an amusing night it’s going to be.
If you’re local to Brighton or have watched Channel 4’s A Very British Sex Shop, you’ll likely recognise Tim and Calandra who own and run Brighton’s prominent sex shops, Lust! and Taboo. Established for over 18 years, Taboo’s story takes us from the frosted windows of Soho to the narrow lanes and steep hills of Brighton, where it opened in 2003. (Lust! was a later addition to the city, opening its doors in 2007.) Growing up in central London in the 1960s and 70s, Tim spent a lot of time in Soho, accompanying his dad to work. He remembers sitting in the car, watching out of the window and becoming fascinated by the shops with “frosted windows and the guys coming in and out”. Later, in a nightclub in the early 1980s, Tim met David Sullivan who helped Tim realise “there is money in sex”. Wanting to be an entrepreneur, Tim reasoned it was “either food or sex – and I didn’t want to be a greengrocer”. Through the early 80s, Tim worked in Soho as “a porn bootlegger”, supplying the sex shops with porn films to sell. “You’ve got to remember that back in the day, porn was illegal…it was a bit Wild West… the shops would get raided all the time so every time they got raided, I’d have to supply them again.” When a sex shop would receive a tip-off that they’d have a break-in, Tim would be called in to replace the tapes. “I’d supply blank tapes or tapes with really boring stuff on it because we realised that when the shop was raided and the content was taken, they’d have to actually watch it, so we’d put children’s TV shows or something similar on there.” Yet it wasn’t all laughing over VHS pranks; Tim divulges the dangerous side of Soho and why he chose to leave the capital with his young son before setting off for Brighton – just in time for pornography to become legal. Perhaps the change in law was part of what made Taboo (and later, Lust!) such a success, or maybe it’s that Tim decided to do things differently in Brighton; revolutionising the image of sex shops.
Through his time in London, Tim realised many sex shops weren’t female-friendly and most had a seedy air about them. “So I decided to open a cool, female-friendly sex shop that also sold porn.” Initial customers questioned whether the images they saw on the VHS boxes (remember, this was 18 years ago) were actual footage of the tape inside the box. “This was before the Internet and Pornhub – you couldn’t see porn without going into a shop and buying it.” The challenge, Tim says, was to have a shop that “didn’t offend female customers”. After a year of being open, Tim questioned why his friends hadn’t popped into the shop – they said it was because it was embarrassing to walk into a sex shop. The solution? To create a new business model and so Lust! was born.
By then, Tim had met Calandra – she “rocked up on Taboo’s doorstep” a year into its opening, and asked Tim’s colleague for a Saturday job. Wondering whether she’d left her number, Tim was told she hadn’t, “Damn, she was lovely,” he thought, telling us he “instantly fell in love with her.” (“Their eyes met over a butt plug,” swoons Bibi.)
A few days later, an envelope came through the door. As he opened it up, Tim “thought it was a ransom note and someone had kidnapped [his] children”. Written in red pen on Job Seeker notepaper was the message, “I want a job, I’ve been in your shop, I can polish latex.” Calandra is quick to interject: “I really needed a job!” She says when people give in their CVs for a job in the sex shops, many make the mistake of emphasising how sexual they are or highlighting their skills as a burlesque dancer. But Calandra knows the reality of owning a sex shop is polishing latex – “it ruins your hands, it’s so boring and you have to do so much of it.”
The first shift didn’t go quite to plan as Calandra turned up late and fell asleep on the desk. Tim admits he “cut her a lot of slack because I just wanted her there” – the lesson? Make your new boss besotted by you. This wasn’t an unrequited flirtation; before her first shift, Calandra “fell in love with [Tim’s] voice” but with “Tim seeing Nancy – more-or-less married, with two kids…I didn’t know how it was going to work so I put it out of my mind… It took about a year for our working relationship to tip over into a slightly less professional relationship.” Bibi asks how Tim made the dynamic work with Tim’s then-partner Nancy, the kids and Calandra all working under the same roof. “It’s called a rota,” quips Tim.
Together, Tim and Calandra opened Lust! in 2007 – “I chose the red!” she beams, telling us she could picture the shop when it was still a building site. From the start, “it was a place where women ruled. It’s all-female staffed and we’ve never had a boy working there apart from the odd covering shift,” Calandra tells us.
When Bibi asks what the difference is between the two establishments, Calandra replies, “there’s actually very little difference.” Taboo is a sex shop that “sells a lot of porn”, whereas Lust! doesn’t; in fact, “they sell the same products at the same prices but are just packaged differently”. For Calandra, Taboo has an intimate, heavy atmosphere that’s really sexy but when designing Lust!, the pair wanted to create a shop that was light and “fun”. Located in the busy North Lanes, many people pass Lust! thinking it’s a quirky gift shop but then they come inside and see Cunt mugs and sex toys and “they realise it’s so much more,” says Calandra. “People get lulled into a false sense of security; they think, ‘Oh, this is quite a cool shop’ then BAM! there are all the sex toys, then they go upstairs, warm-up and come downstairs with handfuls of toys.” It’s been known that customers will come into Lust! for their Christmas shopping for the whole family…
In the audience, we’re wondering how the industry has changed since Taboo first opened 18 years ago. “When we opened Taboo… we struggled to find stock; the sex toy boom hadn’t happened yet,” says Tim. Calandra vehemently credits Ann Summers for working so hard to make sex toys mainstream and the incredibly popular HBO series, Sex and the City put Rabbits and back-massager-turned-sex-toy wands into the public psyche. “There was a huge shift around sex positivity and masturbation for women – but not so much for guys, I mean the thing about Lily Allen endorsing a sex toy… You’d never get Olly Murs on the front of a silicone vagina, it just wouldn’t sell! You see, it’s a funny thing; masturbation for women is about empowerment and owning your body, but for guys, it’s just a wank. Male sex toys are still seen as an embarrassment.” Bibi interrupts: “Because they’re bloody ugly! Like a Fleshlight?! Come on!” Tracey is quick to include the audience: “Have you seen them? They’re mysterious – like a Transformer for grown men.” It’s not just the toys that are awkward; Tim notices that guys are still embarrassed by using sex toys. “You see them hanging around the Fleshlight/silicone vagina section” and Tim will approach, asking if he can help. Usually, he’s asked, “What are they like?” Tim’s response? “It’s the best wank you’ll ever have.” One silicone vagina, please.
By “making light of it… it takes the embarrassment away,” reckons Tim. “The sex doll thing is another ball game because we sell sex dolls from £24.95 to £1,250… The excuses that guys give for buying a sex doll…” As you might have guessed, the sex doll is usually ‘for a friend’; “It’s, err, my friend’s ah, stag party, umm, I’m the best man.” You can spot these excuses easily, Tim tells us as the men will often ask after the £250 doll rather than the £25 doll and they’ll say “can I have some lube please?” We’ve worked so hard to lift the stigma of female self-pleasure, have we forgotten about the men? For Tim, there’s still a lot of shame and stigma around male masturbation and it’s still seen as “sticky socks under their bed that mum’s discreetly put in the wash and put back under the bed.” Poor Tracey glares wide-eyed at Tim and we’re reminded she has a teenage son…
And then there’s the BDSM scene; a practice that’s likely been around as long as sex has, but which has only fairly recently filtered into common, Western(!) discourse. Like many people in the sex industry, Tim and Calandra noticed that the publication of Fifty Shades of Grey changed the playing field. Intentionally or not, E.L. James’ profanity-filled, atrocious writing brought BDSM into the public limelight. “Suddenly, men who’d never been into Taboo before were coming in and specified certain things the book mentioned, the love eggs, blindfolds, paddles… They’d come in and go, ‘I’m errm, looking for these, errr…’ and I’d go, ‘Love eggs?’ and they’d say ‘Yeah!’ Then I’d go, ‘Do you want a blindfold as well?’ and they’d say ‘Yeah!’”
“One thing I’ve noticed since the whole Pornhub thing is something that never used to happen – young couples – young girls at 18/19 years old – coming in and asking, ‘What’s the best lube for anal?’ And buying BDSM stuff,” says Tim. What is the best lube for anal, wonders Bibi and Tracey? “Silicone,” Calandra and Tim practically say in unison. “Because the anus doesn’t self-lubricate. People say that have anal sex and use water-based lube and it starts to hurt and that’s because the lube’s dried up,” Tim explains. “I wrote about anal sex for a magazine once,” begins Bibi – “Bibi’s Bum Tips,” interjects Tim – “and I was sent an anal sex starter kit once and I wanted to know what was in the Finisher Kit – a bandage?!”…
Bibi’s dying to know “What’s hip?!” in the industry now. Air pulse technology toys (often called “sucky toys” because of the way a moving membrane manipulates the air pressure, creating a sucking feeling) are particularly popular. Calandra tells us they can be used underwater and Bibi’s a little taken aback; “Why would you want to use them underwater? What, swimming?!” Let’s not forget the impact Covid has had on the industry, impacting sales in a way we may not have predicted a few years ago. The pandemic drove a wedge between many couples and the sex toy industry reflected this separation. Toys controlled through smartphones have seen an increase in sales (connecting lovers through a sort-of “Dirty FaceTime or a Naughty Zoom” suggests Calandra.) These toys can be controlled either with the toy remote alone, with your phone as the remote or you can pair phones and someone else can control the toy. The joy of remote and app control toys is that there’s no physical distance limit; once paired, the toys can be controlled worldwide and you can satisfy your partner even when oceans apart. Another lockdown, anyone?
Alongside the shift in products made and sold, there’s been a shift in attitudes around sex, sexual wellness and conversations about sex. Earlier this month, The Times published an article about the sextech industry, indicating a more liberal attitude to the development of gadgets to enhance sexual pleasure. The British sex-ed curriculum is notoriously negative – don’t get pregnant, don’t catch an STI – and consistently avoids any mention of ‘pleasure’, but fortunately, things are starting to change. Discussions around protecting your mental health as well as your genitals are becoming more commonplace. “I talk a lot about sex, which is really, cruelly ironic,” jokes Bibi, “and when I was at school, we didn’t talk about sex – we certainly didn’t have the conversations young people are having now. And ‘consent’ wasn’t a word!” Calandra agrees, “It’s brilliant how confident young people are to talk about sex.” But we must remember that Tim and Calandra are immersed in this world. They see all sorts of people coming into their shops, and whilst some customers might be nervous, they found the confidence to enter a sex shop and ask for a recommendation. “Lots of people come into Lust! and they’re taking their first steps,” explains Calandra. Some feel like they ‘should’ own a sex toy, others buy one because of governmental-enforced quarantine, knowing they won’t meet anyone for a while, and some recently split from a partner so are seeking to explore new sensations. “It’s always about how to start and where to begin… Women particularly ask for what they want a lot more than they used to,” notices Calandra. “Which seems a little contradictory,” replies Bibi, “if a lot of people are getting their sex education from porn because, as my good friend Alex says, ‘most porn now ends with a romantic explosion on the woman’s face.’”
The shops aren’t just businesses, they’re also places of education. Through the running of Lust! and Taboo, Tim, Calandra and the team hope to teach people they’re in command of their own pleasure and have the capability to improve their sex lives. Independently or in collaboration with other experts, the team at Lust! run regular workshops. Just what we all needed after lockdown, Lust! hosted an online Boost Your Libido event and in the past have run in-person events such as Spanking 101, Booty Play and a BDSM Introduction. More recently, the team ran the BDSM room at a Killing Kittens event; demonstrating techniques and how to use BDSM equipment, “everyone always wants to get spanked by Tim,” says Calandra. Bibi wonders: “Do you get paid per bottom?”
At the same time as instilling confidence within people to talk about sex, Calandra also feels it’s important to convey that sex isn’t always incredible. Often “in the press, there’s this FOMO you’re being sold that if you’re not having really amazing sex and trying all these things, then somehow you’re not having a fulfilling sex life. If you’re not, that’s fine and if you don’t want to have sex, that’s also fine.” Bibi adds: “And there’s a place for vanilla and missionary”. Whilst we know that sex in a long-term relationship can become stilted (and sex shops can provide equipment to “liven things up”) improving our communication around sex is really what makes all the difference. The pair is eager to teach that consent is sexy and a two-way street. Helping women to feel empowered is as important in the workshops as it is in the shops. Before lockdown, the in-person events were for women (or people who identify as ‘women’, points out Calandra, who is now a trained relationship therapist) because they found that women were more liberated to ask questions without the fear of being judged by men. There’s also the message that ‘empowerment’ goes beyond the confines of a romantic relationship as Calandra explains that there’s nothing wrong with casual hook-ups but a check-in text goes a long way, especially if you have experimental sex: “You can still be kind,” she reminds us.
What about the Great British High Street (something we’re regularly told is in constant decline)? Sadly, covid proved to be the nail in the coffin for many high street shops and although some adapted, bringing their business online, others struggled. We’re all aware online sex toy sales boomed over lockdown (and no doubt many readers will have played a part in this), but the online shops for Lust! and Taboo have been around (and successful) for many years. Clearly, Taboo and Lust! proved immune to the Death of the British High Street, although Tim and Calandra closed a shop in Hove wishing for an easier life after “spending several months on the sofa”. Prior to the pandemic, Tim was a self-confessed “workaholic”; he piled the work on himself, keeping himself busy yet “running around not doing anything” – like delivering a handful of butt plugs to the Hove shop. Then with lockdown forcing us all to STAY AT HOME, Covid kicked Tim’s habit; “I realised after about four weeks of sitting on the sofa watching Netflix, I like doing fuck all”.
With the Hove store closed, the family could now exercise all their energy in the other two shops. Since lockdown restrictions were lifted, the shops have been “buzzing”, says Calandra. (All the painstakingly-polished latex hangs on the rails, ready to be touched and dulled by the hands of curious shoppers and the rabbits stand on the shelves, waiting to hop into action.) There has certainly been a lot of footfall in Brighton with staycations, day-trippers and weekend explorers popping into the shops before a day on the beach, and Tim and Calandra tell us they’ve had an influx of customers visiting the shops following Channel 4’s A Very British Sex Shop (“TV Tourists” the family call them). So successful it is, that C4 have repeated the show each year since it first aired in 2019.
Bibi’s curious how the TV show came about. A few years ago, Tim met someone who figured his professional life would make a good TV show. (Cue awkward sniggers from the audience.) But there were four years between the trailer (“who everyone thought was awful,” according to Calandra) and the show being picked up. Initially, the family had reservations. We’ve all seen the documentaries that take a peek into family set-ups and Calandra expected the producers would pin her and Nancy against each other and the family decided no TV show was worth breaking the family apart. Tim’s son (then at the age of 22) was worried the producers would make the family look like “c**ts*. Tim’s advice? “They’ll only make you look like a c**t if you act like a c**t.” His son replied, “No, they’ll edit it and make us look stupid!” Of course, C4 were clever with the edits – isn’t that the role of all editors, whether video or text? – and they created a “formulaic reality”. But with only a hunch to go on and the circumstances in which Tim and the TV producer had met, Tim trusted C4 wouldn’t be unkind to the family. And Tim’s hunch proved correct – the family watched the show together and said they were happy with it – although Tim admits to having been incredibly nervous about how the producers would portray Scott “the sex doll guy” on the show. (Scott’s a regular customer at Taboo and Lust! and was keen to be part of the documentary.) Throughout the episode, Scott is courageously and generously open about his love for sex dolls and there’s even a scene shot inside Scott’s home. Whilst some of the post-show comments directed at Scott in the Twittersphere were “horrendous” (Channel 4 instructed the family “don’t go on Twitter”), Calandra tells us how Scott watched it with all the staff at his place of work and he was also happy with the show.
Echoing what the producer believed, Bibi muses “Sex is fucking ridiculous, with respect to your career”. Indeed, sex toy trade shows are funny affairs, say the couple. Often, new products are variations of successful models (“new colours or this one has pubic hair”). The salespeople will be at their stands selling toys “and it’s not sexy at all”. Even though Calandra and Tim would say they’re desensitised to much awkwardness surrounding sex toys, when there’s an electronic dildo jumping around in your line of sight, it can be tricky to sustain a professional conversation without a giggle.
We end the evening that was full of giggles by talking about Tracey’s “big love affair”, the city of Brighton. Calandra admits she came to Brighton reluctantly for university, but now she loves it; “It’s the sea and not having to commute to work” – whereas Tim has “been here for 20 years” and it still feels like he’s on holiday. There’s talk of favourite venues, gay pubs, fancy restaurants, tourist attractions, favourite local characters and the nudist beach. “I didn’t go there for a long time because it was just men wanking into the sand,” says Calandra. Tracey mentions she went to the nudist beach once, for a feature for the Sun newspaper. Has she been back? Not intentionally, “I have swum into the nudist area before and not realising, then looking up and there’s just cocks all around – which is a nice surprise.”
“You don’t need a lot of money or huge amounts of time to enjoy Brighton,” Tim states. “Don’t plan – just go down to the seafront and let Brighton happen to you,” advises Calandra. “Yeah, Brighton’s great and you get off that train and all your dreams and aspirations just go away,” adds Tim, “You just go: ‘Fuck it!’” How would this formidable duo sum up Brighton in three words?
“Simply the best,” declares Tim. Calandra agrees. “She very rarely agrees with me,” responds Tim.
If you’re in the UK, make sure to watch Channel 4’s A Very British Sex Shop and if you can, take a trip to Brighton and explore the shops yourself.*
*This is not a sponsored post.
*Image my own: Bibi, Tracey, Tim and Calandra.