Last week, the owners of PlayBlue sex shop bowed to some vocal locals and said that a planned Drumcondra store wouldn’t be opened.
The only reason they did that was because of the hassle the whole episode was for neighbouring businesses and their future landlord, said co-owner Robert Doyle. Legally, there was nothing stopping them.
For PlayBlue, all the publicity has been “manna from heaven”. The orders have been streaming in through the website. They’re scouting for another site where they can open in Dublin.
And that’s just the first step in their planned expansion. “One first, but we plan to have two or three by the end of the year,” Doyle said. “And another couple in the country somewhere else.”
What’s that? Objectors, and protestors, and naysayers . . . yet a boost in sales? How is this possible? Could it be that we’re a bunch of hypocrites?
“This whole debacle has really crystallised the double standard many people have about sex and sex toys,” said Shawna Scott, owner of online store Sex Siopa, in an email.
A recent sex survey in The Irish Times found that almost 60 percent of sexually active adults had used sex toys, she pointed out. But “sadly, there seems to have been a sense that people who visit sex shops or own sex toys are not ‘normal’.”
It’s hard to gauge whether the opposition in Drumcondra was wide, or just deep and narrow. On Monday morning in the retail strip on Drumcondra Road Upper, there was as much hilarity on display as outrage.
Ned Smith, a shortish guy who looked to be in his 60s and had popped in to a nearby store, said he had definitely been a supporter. “It’s a service he’s providing, not a brothel.” And it would have saved him some trips to Capel Street, he said.
Down the road at Thunders Bakery, staff had mixed feelings (the owner was out). One girl said she understood parents not wanting it so close to the primary school over the road.
“It didn’t bother me,” piped up a young guy in a chef’s hat.
“They wanted it here,” chuckled a customer, as he peered at the baked goods on the counter.
But Fine Gael Local Councillor Noel Rock said there was substantial community opposition. “We know that over 300 submissions were received by [the store owner], we know the property agent received over 200 submissions, and the city council received in excess of 150 planning objections in relation to it,” he said.
Rock wasn’t the only politician to get stuck in. Labour TD for Dublin Central Joe Costello, and independent TD for Dublin North Central Finian McGrath also said the site was was no place for an adult store.
“We’re not being prudish. The majority of people involved in this campaign, and there were well over 100, were mostly mothers and parents in their 30s and 40s,” Rock said. The idea of this particular location was just a bit much for them.
Is It About the Children?
Most objections were focused on the proximity of the site to St Patrick’s Boys’ National School. But for some, the obsession with proximity to schools doesn’t really add up.
“There are countless other 18+ businesses that would be found situated near schools – pubs, nightclubs, casinos, bookmakers, off-licenses, which people wouldn’t bat an eyelid at,” says Scott from Sex Siopa.
It also seemed like a smokescreen to Doyle from PlayBlue. Kids have easier access to sexualised materials on their mobile phones than in his shop, he said.
“We’re actually policing the sexualisation of kids in some ways,” said Doyle. “We’re cordoning off a section of sexual products and keeping them away from children.” Down the street in the pharmacy, there’s a fine collection of KY Jelly, lubes, condoms, and pregnancy tests.
Nonetheless, Sinn Fein Councillor Ciaran O’Moore said he doesn’t want to see adult shops within three kilometres of any schools or playing areas. That, though, would leave around about nowhere.
This map might help to illustrate that. It’s got 12 primary schools marked and three buffer zones: three kilometres, two kilometres, and one kilometre. That’s only a small fraction of the 187 mainstream primary schools in the Dublin City Council area, but already the majority of the city would be off-limits.
O’Moore’s objection is not so much about what the shops sell as it is about what kind of clientele he feels they attract. He wouldn’t have a problem with shops like Boots, even though you can get vibrators there, or even Ann Summers.
What makes them more acceptable? “They’re totally different the way that they’re run,” he said. Other ones are “sleazy and they’re almost a brothel, if you like to put it that way, and some of them have cinema shows in them too and it tends to attract an awful lot of perverts to it,” he said.
Is It Over Now?
It’s unclear how hard councillors will push for changes to planning guidelines now that the Drumcondra sex shop has been moved on. While the Drumcondra debate is over, it’s an issue that’s unlikely to die anytime soon.
“There is definitely still work to be done around the retail planning guidelines and to make sure that something like this can’t happen again,” said Councillor Noel Rock. Residents should have an avenue for objection if an adult shop is opening in their area, he said.
At the moment, a store usually doesn’t need planning permission if it changes from one retail use to another retail use. It only does if it contravenes a condition of the permission in place or falls within an “area of special planning control”, such as the O’Connell Street Area of Special Planning Control.
Rock envisages “some kind of basic planning process [that] would have to happen for a retail unit to become an adult retail unit if it’s in a residential area or within a particular distance of the school.”
“I think you should have a say in what you live next to. It’s not necessarily an angle of prudishness, but an angle of practicality,” he said.
Some see that as a step backwards, casting adult stores as a dirty secret rather than a community asset.
Scott from Sex Siopa – which is online-only at the moment – said she’d love to open a bricks-and-mortar store in the future. Online, she’s tried to open up discussions about sex and sexuality. Offline, she’d love to do the same.
“I think there’s a great opportunity there for a sex shop to be an excellent community resource for adults,” she said.