Ann Summers: achievements and ambivalence

ann summers
Generic sex toy pic: not directly taken from Ann Summers promo

Obviously the obituaries for Jaqueline Gold talked a lot about the Ann Summers brand, and how Gold was one of the pioneers of mainstreaming women’s sexual pleasure. While I’ve never actually been to an Ann Summers party, I was certainly well aware of them from young adulthood onwards – and am not sure, looking back, quite why I never actually attended any, at least in the early 80s. By the late 80s I was working on top-shelf magazines and had developed a degree of sniffiness about the party-plan stuff because I knew where to get ‘better’ sex toys and fetishwear.

OK, most sex toys, up until the mid-to-late 90s tended towards the cheap and cheerful, if a bit aesthetically unlovely but, even then, if you were really interested in bedroom kit, you tended to know that your local actual sex shop, or the adverts in the back of a porn magazine, were going to have a bigger range to choose from than the AS catalogue could offer. Still, for most of the 80s that actual sex shop was probably a bit dank and sinister for anyone female or femme-presenting, and less appealing than sitting cackling in your mate’s front room with a glass of wine, passing the willy-shaped lipsticks from hand to hand. Jacqueline Gold understood that, and understood fairly early on that if you had high street-ish shops that looked inviting: brightly-lit with cute outfits and fun novelties in the window, you would attract the more mainstream customer.

ann summersIt’s probably worth remembering that, before the social media age, a business model dependent on party plans and constant recruitment wasn’t quite the byword for predatory cult-like behaviour that it has become. It used to be possible to sell Ann Summers (like Avon or Tupperware) as an entertaining side hustle and make some extra money without being expected to alienate and annoy everyone you knew.

I have visited their shops from time to time for a budget party outfit or two, and found some nice things, though I would always be inclined to advise anyone who asks me where to get a good dildo or set of cuffs to hit their nearest fetish fair instead. But, ultimately, kudos to Gold and her brand for persevering and succeeding in a world where anything built on sex that’s fun for women still gets the mockery, the stigma and the wilful ignorance.

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