A student’s guide to sex toys – Interview with Sex Siopa owner Shawna Scott

A lockdown on your social life does not mean a lockdown on pleasure

Covid-19 has changed the way we have sex. Some of us are single, some of us are separated from our partners. A lot of us don’t know when we will have our next sexual encounter.  Amid Level 3 lockdowns and online lectures, it can be hard to simply “get your bit”. Speaking to Trinity News over Zoom, Sex Siopa founder and owner Shawna Scott assures that a lockdown on your social life does not mean a lockdown on pleasure.

When I was shopping for a sex toy it felt like a minefield.” 

Scott founded Sex Siopa in 2012 after a notable shopping trip. “I was actually in the market for a vibrator at the time,” she explains. “When I was looking in Dublin I found most sex shops to be male-dominated spaces and very hetero-normative. Any store that did cater to women was often geared towards hen parties.” Scott describes how she was inspired by American sex shops such as BabeLand when setting up her online store, and how she wanted to create a “safe and comfortable” experience for her customers. Scott explains her difficulty with finding body-safe products, a guarantee she couldn’t seem to find in 2012. “When I was shopping for a sex toy it felt like a minefield, there were no shops in Ireland that were exclusively body safe. The aim of Sex Siopa is to take the guess work out of toy shopping.” 

The sex toy industry in Ireland is unregulated, with some toys containing unsafe materials: “PVC is the main one. When you make it into a shape for a dildo etc., you have to use tons of plastic softeners, most of which are banned in children’s toys. PVC is porous in that state and you’re using these toys internally. It will never be fully clean and will eventually start to degrade in your bedside locker.”

 “Scott agreed that most Irish people have a complicated relationship with sex and sexuality.”

When discussing how the Irish population use sex toys, Scott agreed that most Irish people have a complicated relationship with sex and sexuality. “We’ve never been given a platform to talk about sex and sexuality in a meaningful way, frankly and openly.” Scott notes how attitudes have changed since the founding of Sex Siopa, describing how people are more willing to talk to her and ask questions about sex: “I was met with a bit of skepticism initially and it was really tough for the first year.” She tries to discuss sex as casually as she would talk about the weather, noting that Irish people are often afraid to initiate conversations about sex and sexuality. 

Scott details how consumer habits have changed since the start of the pandemic. “Vibrators have always been the best selling but in lockdown, I received so many messages regarding first-time users.” Scott notes how lubricants and vibrators have always been the most popular products on her site, but overall sales have definitely increased due to the lockdown this year. “People are unsure when they’ll see their partners again and some are just bored out of their minds! It’s been an opportunity for a lot of people to learn about what gets them going.”

As the sex toy industry in Ireland is unregulated, it can be easy to buy an appliance that isn’t body safe.”

As the sex toy industry in Ireland is unregulated, it can be easy to buy an appliance that isn’t body safe. Scott provides a full guide on how to watch out for substandard toys. “Price doesn’t necessarily matter anymore, what you should be looking out for is cheap materials like PVC. You can test the quality of most toys by the smell. If it smells like heavy plastic that means it is probably made of PVC.” She describes how a boil test can determine the quality of your toys. “As long as it’s not electrical, boil your toys as a test, if it’s silicone it’ll hold up, but if it’s PVC an oily film will rise to the top of the pot.” Scott then reminds all users to clean their appliances, explaining that body safe toys are very easy to take care of. “If it’s a hard plastic vibrator, just remember to take out the battery before you wash. Warm soapy water and a towel is all you need. The vast majority of toys just need gentle cleaning.”

When asked on what sex toys are suitable for beginners, Scott explains that most sex toys can be altered to fit the individual’s needs. “There’s no particular way you can use a sex toy, there’s no set instructions.” She recommended a collection on Sex Siopa called Toys for Newbies, which is geared towards new users and also keeps student budgets in mind. She also went on to describe how different lubricants affect the toys you use, explaining that the effects each lube has are not discussed enough. “When in doubt use water,” Scott suggests. She cites water-based lubricant as both toy- and condom-friendly. However, she did have a word of warning for female users when using water-based lubricants, explaining that many brands in chemists can cause irritation and even thrush due to the high amounts of glycerin. 

Scott highlights the differences between silicone-oil-based and oil-based lubricants, underlining that although silicone oil doesn’t degrade latex, it cannot be used with silicone sex toys. Oil-based lubes, Scott’s own preference, on the other hand, cannot be used with condoms. Scott reminds users to not use oil-based lube on a toy and then have intercourse because it can degrade the condom. “You don’t get tacky or a feeling of stickiness with oil-based lubes. It’s longer-lasting, it almost melts into the skin.” Scott notes that for those who have issues with dryness, oil-based lubes are the best port of call as they allow the skin to stretch very gently. Scott also recommends oil-based lube for those who suffer from vaginismus, endometriosis and have recently undergone cancer treatments. Scott also underlines what never to put near your genitals, especially warning women to stay away from sugar-based products as they can cause bacterial vaginosis, thrush and yeast infections. 

Scott also has advice for couples looking to introduce sex toys into their relationship.”

Scott also has advice for couples looking to introduce sex toys into their relationship, noting that there are often huge misconceptions as to why people want to use toys with their partner. “People will often assume that the relationship or the sex is boring, which is the furthest from the truth. You can’t expect that having the same kind of sex the same kind of way is going to remain special. It’s simply adding variety to the relationship, it doesn’t matter what your skill set is.” Scott advises couples to treat the introduction of sex toys into their routine as a positive, not a negative, explaining that if it is introduced as a negative, it’ll be perceived as one. “You should be saying that you’re going to experience this together and it’ll be amazing!”

When asked about how the sex toy market is changing, Scott points out how it is developing particularly for cisgender straight men. She mentions the ongoing stigma regarding men using sex toys: “Unfortunately we have pop culture to blame for that. When guys use sex toys, they’re almost pegged as a joke. If it’s cool for women to use a vibrator, it should be cool for them to use a butt plug, masturbation sleeve or cock ring.” Scott cited examples such as Sex and the City, which helped both normalise and popularise the use of vibrators amongst women, noting that men don’t have any positive examples like that. However, Scott hopes that male-oriented toys will become more user friendly, noting the emergence of more aesthetically pleasing products on the market.

When asked about what advocates she would recommend to those looking to learn more about sexuality and sex toys, Scott spoke highly of OhJoy Sex Toys, a web comic by Erica Moen and Matthew Nolan that includes discussions about sex, sex toys, sexuality, sex education, safer sex practices and interviews with sex industry workers. She also highly recommends lifestyle bloggers Aoife Drury (@drurytherapy on Instagram) and Sarah Rose (@mypelvicpain on Instagram) as well as renowned podcaster Dr. Caroline West and her podcast Glow West. 

To finish the interview, Scott discussed her plans for the upcoming year exclaiming that her goal for the next year “is to survive!” — the pandemic has changed her visions for the future as she confirmed that she will most likely never open a physical store. “It’s sad because part of me would love a shop, I would be able to talk to people and interact with my customers. I’m really confident in my ability to do that, but I would feel restricted I think.” Scott compared the accessibility of a physical store to the one she currently has online, noting that proximity can be a problem. Online, she can connect with people who may be too shy to walk into a sex store in real life, from confused students to residents in rural areas. Online, she can ensure that people will always have access to pleasure.

Eva O'Beirne

Eva O'Beirne is the Deputy Sex and Relationships Editor and Co-Podcast Editor of Trinity News, and a Senior Fresh student of History and Economics.