SA Sex Sector all grown up

Published 10 years ago
SA Sex Sector all grown up

The South African adult sex industry is big business. And while some of you may blush and titter at my choice of phrase, it is impossible to ignore the fact that many players in the sector are coining it.

Although no official statistics are available, insiders say it is a multibillion-dollar industry. And if attendance figures at Africa’s largest sex expo are anything to go by, the sector is booming, as more and more women rid themselves of the shackles of conservatism.

Arthur Calamaras, who jokingly dubs himself the ‘king of porn’, is the franchise owner of Sexpo in South Africa. This year he had hoped 50,000 people would attend the four-day exhibition in September. In the end, 45,000 visited the health, sexuality and lifestyle expo, which is still considered a respectable number.


The face of consumers of adult sex products is changing dramatically. The stereotype of pimply teenagers or lecherous old men no longer applies. Women are getting into the game in their droves, with more women than men attending Sexpo.

Calamaras says one reason for women’s increased interest in Sexpo and porn shops in general is that women are now designing sex toys. So not only are they prettier, but they come in ergonomic shapes and have innovative features.

In addition, market players wanting to attract women, especially rich women, have opened upmarket, lux-urious adult shops.

One example is sensuality boutique Lola Montez. Owner Sharon Gordon, a qualified human rights lawyer, opened Lola Montez as she believed it was time to be an activist for what is regarded as one of the most important aspects in a relationship – sex. Gordon was newly divorced at the time.


“At the same stage I was going through that whole dilemma… that women over 40 go through, that no one is ever going to love me again, that I am never going to have sex again.

“I thought that rather than playing at the one-night stand thing, I needed a vibrator. So off I went to one of ‘those shops’ and had the worst experience of my life,” she recalls.

Gordon then traveled to Australia, England and the United States to establish what was going on in the adult sex market internationally. She came back to South Africa and opened Lola Montez more than a decade ago, becoming one of the first women to enter the local industry.

“I really started it from a point that nobody needs to feel dirty about their sexuality and that I could do this better than it was being done.”


Gordon believes that at the time, other than in San Francisco in the US, she had the first store where people could actually touch a vibrator before deciding whether or not to buy it.

“When you come to a Lola store it’s a holistic experience. You will get educated, you will be able to touch and feel. It’s all about feeling comfortable with your sensuality and your sexuality in a safe and educated environment.”

Calamaras has also shifted focus in his 65 Adult World shops, as women are driving the sales.

“I have started introducing more female lines. In the last three years, demographics have changed a lot. As we revamp each store, we change the look and feel to make women feel more comfortable,” he explains.


He agrees that to cater for women, products had to undergo a makeover.

“The vibrator has changed from what it was 10 years ago. It has multi-speeds. Medically, products are safer, more thought is put into design; it’s more cosmetic than looking like a genital.”

Charmaine Brewis, who owns Lady Jane, an exclusive adult toy and lingerie shop in Durban, South Africa, says most of her clientele are 35 and older, married, or have high disposable incomes. She says her customers do not bat an eyelash at paying $300 for a product.

“A lot of women who come in are going through menopause and they have taken responsibility for their sexual life because it is affecting their relationships. So then they will come in and they will buy a vibrator or something like that,” explains Brewis.


Gordon, who describes herself as a relationship engineer, believes adult toys can help improve connections. “We fix the relationship with yourself and the relationship with your partner because we can educate you. At the end of the day, they are toys. That’s what they are. They are to play,”

she says.

One of the most popular services Lola Montez offers is a ‘couple’s event’. Partners go to the store together and do several exercises to establish where they are in their relationship. They are then given communication techniques to help express to one another what it is they want. Afterwards, staff members assess what the couple would be interested in and are able to advise them on purchases.

Although there has been a surge in internet sites selling sex toys, Gordon says Lola Montez still sells more in-store. This is especially common with first-time buyers who are unsure what they are looking for.


“That first buy is always within the comfort of: are you a clit or G-spot girl? Are you allergic to latex?”

And yes, she does count well-known women among her clients. “They come into the store and it’s quite interesting because the minute that it’s a personality and you are supposed to recognize them, we just make as if we don’t know who they are. And the minute you do that, all of a sudden they are just a person, and you sell what you need to sell,” she says.

As with most businesses, the economic slowdown has had a negative impact on the industry and the middle class is making fewer purchases. Gordon believes this is a grave mistake.

“Essentially we are a luxury item. We are not bread and milk. You can still have sex without us. My big thing is that that’s thinking wrong. You actually have to have us.

“What’s the first thing that walks out the back door when financial woes walk through the front? It’s your sex life and your relationship. If you are maintaining it by buying naughtiness and sexiness and making sure that you are keeping your relationship and self-esteem in play, then you should be buying our product and therefore we should be at the top of the grocery list.”

Although there is money to be made, both Calamaras and Gordon say the sex industry is not an easy one to break into. And as a woman, the stigma attached to the sector makes it more difficult for Gordon. Some women refuse to sit next to her when she attends her son’s rugby games. Others keep their husbands far away from her in case she steals them.

This attitude and perception is changing in South Africa, but in the rest of Africa, the picture is very different. In the vast majority of African countries, sex toys are illegal. Women either have to make their purchases secretly in other countries, or find other ways to spice up their sex lives.