down to business

Ireland's Sex Shops: 'Everyone has a kink, they just might not know it yet'

We explore this rapidly changing area of retail in Ireland.

Warning: NSFW

SEX SHOPS INDUSTRY IN IRELAND Utopia sex shop on Capel Street, Dublin, pictured here in 1998. Leon Farrell / Leon Farrell / /

THE ARRIVAL OF Ireland’s first sex shops was met with protests, organised prayers, and a touch of general hysteria.

When Utopia opened in Limerick in 1993, there were thousands joining “pray-ins” against the shop.

Jim Bellamy had brought his range of toys and magazines to the Republic from Northern Ireland, where it was already established, and it quickly spread like wildfire to the major cities.

The shock generated by this sexual phenomenon encroaching on ‘innocent’ Catholic Ireland was hardly surprising giving the conservative nature of the country. But despite a growing grá for the sex toy today, only last month there was uproar at the opening of an adult shop in Drumcondra. – already an established name in the small world of Irish adult shops with a booming online site and a shop in Kilkenny – hoped to open in the centre of the Dublin suburb.

Locals took great issue with it being located just 50 metres from a national school.

Robert Doyle, one of the owners of Playblue, told that he was shocked by the reaction.

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“The reason we decided to back out was because it was hurting other businesses in the area, which was unfair on them,” he explained, and they were actually delighted with the publicity.

“We were on the Six-One News, we were delighted with the advertising and protests. If we had protests outside the shop each day we could have been treating them to sandwiches.”

An industry moving upmarket

Part of Robert’s surprise at the reaction was because sex shops have become part of the retail fabric of the country and are shaking off the image they once held.

Their wares, be it toys or magazines and DVDs, are also commonplace. The estimates for how many people – both men and women – use sex toys range is generally around 25%. Vibrator ownership is said to be highest in New Zealand at 38%.

“More people own a vibrator than an iPhone,” Robert claimed.

“The traditional view of an elderly man in a mac” being the man customer of sex shops is “definitely not the case anymore”, he said, citing a massive increase in the number of women and couples visiting the shops.

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This is repeated not just on and its shop in Kilkenny (called Scandalous, and also owned by Robert and business partner Richie Cullen) but across the board.

Mike Ryan owns Basic Instincts, an adult store in Dublin than has turned its primary focus to mask and fetish. Located on a bustling street in Temple Bar, the shop’s customers are single people and couples from all backgrounds, ages, and genders.

GV Basic Instincts in Temple Bar. Nicky Ryan / Nicky Ryan / /

This gradual change came as Ireland slowly but surely came out of its shell over the years. Mike believes it’s also because sex shops are losing their gritty image. They are now on the high street among the coffee shops, no longer banished to dark basements.

Playblue and Scandalous also made an effort to do this, Robert said:

When we first opened the public saw the business as far more seedy. We made a conscious effort not to be on that side of things, and tried to be as classy as we can be.

There are no surprises for what both Mike and Richie put a recent acceleration in the changing demographics down to.

50 Shades of Grey has had a positive impact by introducing people to erotica who might not have encountered it otherwise. It has also narrowed the gender ratio of those coming into the shops. According to Mike, “Everyone has some sort of kink whether they know it or not, and if they don’t know if now they’ll find it eventually”.

BDSM Starter Kit A starter kit for bondage - a common theme in 50 Shades - for sale in Basic Instincts. Nicky Ryan / Nicky Ryan / /

“Before it was men, then an occasional woman, now there’s men and women of all ages coming in. There’s more couples as well, who we love to see coming in.”

This impact has been noticed across the board. Avril runs Secrets Ireland, and said the very nature of the business has shifted since the book’s release.

“It has changed the type and the size of orders being made,” Avril explained.

People are willing to discuss what they want a little bit more with you, and they’re getting more adventurous. We’re selling more bondage gear.
There’s also more people from rural areas ordering than ever.

Avril notes that often people get in touch with detailed explanations of what they’re looking for. While she will discuss over the phone, people often prefer to email.

“They can be really quite open, using pretty naughty words to describe what they want. I stick to the medical words because you don’t want to make the person you’re speaking with uncomfortable.”

“Women have really become a lot more open, they really know what want these days. And we’re willing to discuss absolutely anything with customers.”

Down to business

At the end of the day, sex shops are a business like any other. Owners have to deal with overheads, taxes, recessions, and changing customer habits.

“No shop is easy to run,” Avril said, “And this isn’t a ‘build it and they will come’ sort of situation.”

Wall of Dildos Toys on display in Basic Instincts. Nicky Ryan / Nicky Ryan / /

She made the decision to start up her own business just as the recession began to bite in the late 2000s. She found that the idea of a sex shop made perfect business sense. This was also something Robert noticed:

I’ve a history of doing online business, and I was looking for something that’s niche, has a reasonable profit margin, and isn’t going to encounter a lot of competition.

He saw the sex shop industry as “very poorly serviced” online in Ireland. After jumping at this opportunity, he then saw the chance to use the lessons learned online to open up a high street shop (doubling as somewhere to store the stock), and teamed up with Richie Cullen to buy Cullen’s Scandalous shop.

It was also at the same time as the recession was dragging down rural towns like Kilkenny, a situation that Richie was in.

Their unusual partnership – e-commerce turning to bricks-and-mortar – has gone from strength to strength since.

Temple Bar’s Basic Instincts, which now has a presence online, has seen the bread-and-butter of its trade change over the years.

Mike said that since porn is now so easily and readily available online, the magazine and DVD trade has been all but wiped out in recent years (Robert from Playblue slightly disagreed with this, saying that it could see a resurgence in future much like vinyl records).

“Shops had to move on,” Mike said, “The most successful ones have turned into specialist boutiques, moving on into a niche market area.”

Basic Instincts, while it still sells magazines, DVDs, and a range of sex toys, now markets itself as a mask fetish store, catering to masquerade and fancy dress parties.

Fetish Masks Masks on display in Basic Instincts. Nicky Ryan / Nicky Ryan / /

Robert believes that although DVDs and magazines are a “slowly dwindling” part of the market, there will also be people looking for them.

“Someone can walk into a shop with €30 in cash, buy the DVD, and walk out, without their name online. There will always be technophobes.”

Mike also explained that the area of adult toys has also expanded massively, becoming complex and “scientific”.

“You have to go on training courses to even be able to sell them,” he explained.

“There are some really serious, adult toys for couples. They’re interesting, they’re beautiful, and they’re not cheap – it’s not something you would use for a week and then throw away.”

What toys are people interested in?

Avril explained that when someone wants a toy for themselves, they generally know exactly what they want, and will then look for simple advice on cleaning it or how exactly to use it.

She said that when people are looking for a partner, they’ll have to go into more detail.

“For example men often get in touch looking to get their girlfriend an expensive toy, and so we have a discussion on what they know turns her on and what position is their favourite.”

The most popular are:


Doxy Massage Wand (for women) - Avril described it as the “Ferrari of sex toys”. “It’s more powerful than a Kenwood mixer,” she said, “I don’t know anyone to use it on the highest vibration setting.”


Fleshlight (for men) - “The entire range are by far the most popular toy for men.”


Lelo Vibrators (for women) - ”They’re waterproof, have adjustable settings, and just tick every box. They’re a bit expensive though, I’d call them the iPhone of sex toys.”

Robert said the most common questions received from women is what would they recommend for an absolute beginner?.

Robert continued: “The most popular male question is usually a variant of “Can you help me be bigger and last longer?’.

“For bigger, most want bigger erections while having sex and are not generally looking for advanced traction-style devices.”

There’s also couples who get in touch looking for something new to try.


Jessica G-Spot Slim – “We generally suggest a rabbit as it’s an all-rounder device which is best for a first timer until they figure out exactly what works best. The Jessicsa G-Spot Slim is one we recommend very often as its easy to use, very reliable and not too big or expensive.”

penis pum

Penis pump - ”A pump will give larger erections for about 30mins and even longer when combined with a simple cock ring.”


We-Vibe 4+ -  ”Money no object customers, definitely go for theWe-Vibe 4+ the best couples sex toy you can get. It actually vibrates both male and female while having sex, a totally unique experience that has to be tried. For a bit of fun we love the idea of a remote egg which is more of foreplay toy. Many of our customers go out on the town while she wears the egg and he has the remote.”

Robert added that by far the most common question they receive if what someone who has never owned a sex toy before should buy:

“We’ve answered this question so many times we’ve even written a Choosing your First Sex Toy Guide. The basic advice is don’t spend too much, and don’t go too big

“Oh, don’t forget the lube.”

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