Would You Visit Adult Stores More Often If They Looked Like IKEA?
This article is in collaboration with Somewhere Else.
Photography by Khaliq Masuri.

Dim, crude, and all-around sleazy.

These are just three of the most common words used by Singaporeans when describing sex shops in Singapore.

And you can’t blame them.

From dildos lit only by a backdrop of bright neon lights, to giant posters of scantily clad women in the shop window, adult stores have been designed in such a way that there’s never any doubt as to what kind of products line their shelves.

It comes as no surprise then, that adult stores are generally regarded as temples of hedonism and mindless debauchery. Dark and dodgy decor = dark and dodgy activity right?

Not quite, and yet something as innocuous as design and façade can seemingly play a huge part in not just shaping, but reinforcing the cultural perceptions of pleasure in an Asian society.

A quiet corner of Midpoint Orchard is home to U4Ria, one of Singapore’s oldest sex shops. Established in 2000 and managed by Lincoln Chua, the affable manager greets me with a toothy grin before showing me around the store, patiently answering my avalanche of questions.

According to him, 60% of the people who visit his store are female – a far cry from when he first set up shop 18 years ago, where male customers easily made up around 70% of his customer base. Attributing part of the change to the rise of social media usage in the past six years, Lincoln postulates that people are generally sharing more about themselves, which of course, includes their sex lives.

“People tend to think Singaporeans around them are conservative but that’s not the case,” he begins, “Not in my opinion at least.”

“Maybe in the past, yes. But through interactions with our customers, we’ve learnt that nowadays, they talk to their friends about what products to use and where to buy them. They are pretty open about it and are definitely sharing more intimate details about their sex lives with friends.”

Lincoln also tells me that while he does have his usual male customers (whom he on occasion plays guidance counsellor to), slightly more mature women make up a significant portion of his clientele. Unlike younger couples who might still be exploring, those who’ve been married for a while tend to look for toys to spice things up in the bedroom.

As their children grow older and become less dependent, these ladies now have more time for themselves and their husbands or partners.

“Sometimes they will come as a group after sending the kids to school or their morning yoga session and discuss amongst themselves what they’re going to try. In fact, women on the whole are also very direct nowadays. Even more so than the gentlemen. They’re empowered and most of them know exactly what they’re looking for before even stepping into the shop.”

Lincoln then shares a story of how a group of 7 Indonesian ladies who looked to be in their early 40s once came to Singapore to catch 50 Shades of Grey. Since the film was banned in Indonesia for rubbing socio-cultural values the wrong way, the group organised a girls-night-out to Singapore.

After watching it, they headed over to U4Ria to buy whatever they could find relating to Christian and Anastasia’s torrid love affair.

But even though Mr Grey has clearly done wonders in un-stigmatising what might have been previously thought of as deviant behaviour, BDSM gear isn’t the most popular product in Lincoln’s shop.

For men, male masturbators are king. Coming most commonly in the form of silicone moulded in the shape of a vagina, male masturbators trump other toys such as butt plugs, prostate massagers, and cock rings when it comes to enhanced jacking off.

For the ladies, the slim, short and discreet vibrating bullet retains its throne as a woman’s best friend. Suited for women who are new to sex toys, its non-threatening appearance ensures the bullet remains Lincoln’s best-seller.

On that note, Lincoln wholeheartedly acknowledges that customers – especially ladies – have started preferring products that are more aesthetically pleasing.

Somewhere Else's mock-up of more discreet, accessible, and witty store name.
“People tend to gravitate away from penis-shaped dildos with huge angry veins now. Looks have to be on par with function, and the classier the packaging the better,” he says, showing me a product called the Womanizer.

At a glance, it looks like a sleeker and sexier cousin of a digital ear thermometer, with the main difference being that the part that normally goes into your ear canal has been swapped out for a tiny cup meant for pulsating clitoral suction and stimulation.

Eyeing the other newer products in the store, it’s clear the trend is here to stay. But if the winds of aesthetic change are blowing for sex toys, what about the appearance of sex shops in general?

Lincoln shares that minus the attention-grabbing neon signage, the typically dim and curtained visage of sex shops might perhaps just be the owner’s attempt at recreating the mood and look of a bedroom at dusk.

Sometimes it works. Most times though, it doesn’t.

“We put up those posters many years ago to showcase the costumes and lingerie that we stock, and they’re directed at women just as much as men, he explains.”

“Yes, guys are more visual creatures and they will definitely be drawn to the images but quite a number of ladies do come in and buy the outfits too. They want to both look and feel sexy, whether for themselves or as a surprise for their partner.”

In the same way Victoria’s Secret and Calvin Klein advertise their lingerie, so too do adult stores. Unfortunately, they’ve drawn the short end of the stick.

Even though the topics of sex and masturbation are no longer as taboo as they once were, the outdated decor of sex shops continue to reinforce the idea of sex being sleazy or worse, immoral. Context, now more than ever then, has become extremely important.  

Continuing our discussion on advertising, Lincoln shares that he’s also had to practise self-censorship when it comes to his window displays.

U4Ria calls a strata mall home – meaning that individual units are owned by individual landlords – but Lincoln still holds himself somewhat accountable to parents of the children who attend enrichment classes in other units.

“When we first started, we put a mannequin wearing see-through lingerie but we got complaints from other tenants in the mall because they found it difficult to explain sex to children who might not be mature enough to have “the talk” with. Naturally, these parents get fed up and we don’t want to put them in that kind of position by displaying anything too provocative. I don’t think we’d be welcome in family-oriented malls.”

Perhaps if sex shops were designed this way, the stigma attached might disappear altogether. (Branding & Design: Somewhere Else)
If Lincoln could do it all over again however, or if there was enough cash for a renovation, he tells me that he’d take design cues from Apple: “Definitely minimalist and very zen to reduce inhibitions and so you won’t feel as if you’re walking into a sex shop. Clean lines and a clearer layout of the various categories too. I would still want a bit of discretion for my customers though so I wouldn’t throw open the doors.”

After pausing for a few moments to think, he continues.

“On the outside, I’d also change the display to more modern and aesthetically pleasing posters like the brochure of the Womanizer.”

Referring to an image of a woman in a dress holding the sex toy, Lincoln says the shift in focus from a skimpily-dressed woman to the product would really help to remove the perceived sleaze-factor of sex shops.

As a bonus, the interest of curious passersby might also be piqued since the design of modern sex toys are less indicative of their purpose.

“I think that’s definitely a good way to attract a new generation of customers who prefer everything to be more classy and modern.”

Another mock-up of a sex shop's facade. Are you now more inclined to step into a place like this? (Branding & Design: Somewhere Else)
While U4Ria’s customer base is dominated by Singaporeans, the same cannot be said of another sex shop I visit in the Bugis area.

In conversation with the owner (who doesn’t want to be named), I ask him if he ever considered that his shop’s design perpetuated a cultural image of how Singaporeans view sex toys and sex. His answer is simple.

“No, I’ve never actually thought about it. All the sex shops in Singapore pretty much look the same anyway so as long as all my products can be displayed, I’m not bothered. Besides, if you’ve already made your mind up to buy something from a sex shop, you would still go in even though other people might find it “dirty” right?”

His view is echoed by a couple who enter the store ten minutes later.

Together for close to 6 years, Paul and Hui En are both in their mid-twenties and describe themselves as “adventurous”.  

Neither of them had used any kind of sex toy prior to meeting each other, but while on a date a couple of years ago, they happened to walk past a sex shop and decided to go in together. The rest, as they say, is history. The couple now regularly includes toys whenever they make the beast with two backs.

In conversation with the pair, I also notice that they’re remarkably open about their sex lives and willingly dive into specifics that I don’t exactly need. Strangely though, it’s not uncomfortable. Instead, it’s extremely refreshing to hear strangers talk about sex so matter-of-factly, even if it is within the confines of a sex shop.

Well aware of the stigma that unfairly shrouds sex shops, the couple choose to ignore the curious stares and judgmental looks from strangers who happen to see them entering or exiting the store.

“At the end of the day, it’s our and my pleasure so I’m not going to let what people think stop me from having my fun!” Hui En says with a hearty chuckle.

Curious to see whether Paul and Hui En’s attitudes towards the stigma was the exception or the norm, I started a poll on Instagram calling for people to share their stories of purchasing sex toys. And boy, did they deliver.

Out of the 37% (mainly women in their mid to late twenties) who voted for having experience buying a sex toy, almost all recounted a slightly different version of the same story: they purchased their sex toys online.

Aside from cheaper prices and the ability to read reviews about the product in question, the most common reason for buying sex toys online was that the discretion meant not having to face judgemental stares or leers from passers-by. Whether directly or indirectly, they had been made to feel ashamed of the completely natural act of exploring their bodies, and finding new methods of pleasure with their partners or for themselves.

As you might’ve guessed, all of this stems from the dodgy imagery associated with the sex shops.

At this point, I figured it’d be best if I could get a man’s point of view, hence I called up my old buddy Shane, a user of male masturbators.

“I got pretty bored after a long while of being single, but I’m not the type to enter a friends-with-benefits type of agreement or have one-night-stands. So one day after my university classes, I figured I’d check out a sex shop in town. I was initially very apprehensive and shy but the staff made me feel more comfortable after a while.”

Shane goes on to share that his ex-girlfriends knew about his toys but never took any issue with them, since they knew he’d pick a real vagina over a silicone one every day of the week. A few of his exes even went down to explore the sex shop with him, though after seeing that the shops were populated mostly by men, they never went back.

“Yeah I can totally understand why women would feel uncomfortable or embarrassed if they’re seen leaving an adult store. Even as a guy, I would always go when the surrounding area was quieter and I always avoided eye contact with women as soon as I walked out. It’s like I’d always think they’d assume I was some kind of sex freak y’know?”

By now, I think I do.

Doesn't this make you think differently about sex? (Branding & Design: Somewhere Else)
After hearing all the different opinions on the matter, what’s clear is that sex shops are extremely misunderstood.

Barring the types of products they sell, every single adult store I visited for this story was just like any retail shop you’d come across in your daily life––sometimes even better. They’re safe spaces in which shop owners and assistants genuinely want to help you enhance an important aspect of humanity.

I mean, come on. Orgasms are great. They’re hands down the most legal fun you can have. But more importantly, they’re also a natural and everyday part of life. If we understand this, then there’s also no judgement to be made of anyone, male or female, who you see walking into or out of a sex shop.

Say it with me: so what?

Unfortunately, in an Asian society, all talk about the fun we can have still remains as hushed whispers spoken behind closed doors. When it comes to normalising sex and masturbation, we’re just not there yet.

Maybe then, what’s needed for change is a drastic overhaul of the facades of these sex shops. Seeing how powerful design is in reinforcing cultural attitudes, perhaps it’s time to tear everything down and start from scratch.

Open spaces for open minds.

Now there’s a thought.

Think design plays a part in cultural perception? Tell us what you think at community@ricemedia.co. In the meantime, check out more of Somewhere Else’s work here.

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