Less prudish than Sydney: Sexual wellness hits its stride in Melbourne
At first glimpse, the latest retail entrant to Rankins Lane off Little Bourke Street could be mistaken for a high-end homewares store with the signature aesthetics and aromas of Aesop.
But a double-take reveals that High Tide is, in fact, a retailer of adult sex products.
Paige Aubort and Søren Poulsen are launching High Tide, a store in the CBD that challenges what people think an adult sex store is. Credit:Chris Hopkins
Sex toys, organised by colour, sit on timber shelves without raunchy packaging. The lighting is warm, the tunes emotive and calm. This is no Club X or Sexyland.
Paige Aubort and Søren Poulsen are the couple behind the shop opening on Thursday opposite Melbourne coffee and bagel institution Manchester Press and near the bustle of Hardware Lane. They conceived of the idea three years ago after a negative experience at an adult store during a weekend away.
“The whole thing felt awkward and uncomfortable,” Aubort said. “I walked out and I just spent $250 on a toy with no idea how to work it.”
In recent years a sexual wellness movement has swept the globe, reshaping sexual pleasure as instrumental to our wellbeing and positioning sex toys as luxurious self-care products. Now this trend is making its way into brick-and-mortar.
“Nowadays you prioritise your physical health a lot … and mental health, which is amazing. The next step is sexual health,” Poulsen said.
“It’s very important for us to be in a public setting where people can just walk past and see it’s just a normal thing, not hidden away in an industrial area.”
Their journey to opening High Tide – which comes from the Mandarin term for orgasm, “gao chao” – hit a speed hump when their permit application before Melbourne City Council drew 18 community objections, despite receiving 60 letters of support.
Councillors unanimously backed the proposal, with Deputy Lord Mayor Nicholas Reece saying, “it’s not a den of sin, it’s actually a house of sexual wellness … and should be supported”.
Aubort said they moved from Sydney to set up their store because after scouting for locations, Melbourne was the most natural fit.
“When we came to Melbourne, it was just very, very clear to us. The city is beautiful. It’s vibrant. It’s progressive,” she said.
The city, it seems, is also less prudish than its northern rival in a legal sense, too.
In much of Victoria, sex product retailers must be at least 200 metres from schools, hospitals and residences, but in Melbourne’s CBD, this rule doesn’t apply.
NSW is far stricter. It is illegal under the state’s Crimes Act for adult retailers to advertise or to exhibit their products in a way that would be seen from the outside or to people who did not consent to it. “It’s insane,” Aubort said.
David Jones began selling sexual wellness products online in November 2021 after sex toy purchases boomed during COVID-19. Last month, the retailer held its first in-store pop-ups in Melbourne and Sydney.
Sexual wellness brand Vacation Vibes had a pop-up at David Jones’ Bourke Street Mall store in February.
At Bourke Street Mall, Melbourne-born brand Vacation Vibes had a stall at the retailer selling its pleasure devices in its lolly-coloured packaging in the beauty hall, right near the ground floor entrance.
But at the Sydney Elizabeth Street store, the pop-ups were placed on level four in the intimates department.
General beauty buyer Ben Mitchell said they had to find a balance between breaking down boundaries while still being respectful.
“Brands are big on educating the customer on how it’s good for you and it’s part of the broader wellness category, so it is nothing to be ashamed of and the more we talk about it, the more a retailer like David Jones can contribute to that message.”
The trial was a success – sales were 10 times higher than the same time last year – and Mitchell said the company was now looking at how to sell sexual wellness in stores permanently.
Mitchell said the customers were about two-thirds women and a third were men, typically buying products to be used as a couple.
Michelle Temminghoff, who founded adult store Passionfruit in 1998 with a feminist philosophy, said she noticed a move towards sexual wellness about 15 years ago when more stylish, female-focused sex toy brands began to enter the market.
She recalls that in the ’90s, sex shops were almost exclusively marketing to men, with seedy blackened windows and pornography-inspired packaging.
Temminghoff said she would have to repackage all her stock into velvet bags to avoid having sleazy boxes on her shelves.
“When we first opened people didn’t really know what to make of it because they’d never seen anything like it,” she said. “It was a revelation for women.”
Today, while her customers are still about 70 per cent female, Temminghoff caters to all genders, bodies and abilities – her Fitzroy store on Brunswick Street is designed to be wheelchair accessible.
Inclusivity is important for Aubort and Poulsen: they avoid any images of bodies to ditch preconceived notions about who each product is meant for.
They stock about 130 products – about 70 per cent of which are vibrators, ranging from $70 to $300, while the rest includes other toys, massage oils, some kink items – and while they realise online competition will be a big challenge, they hope that the ability to receive advice and handle products in a beautiful environment will be a drawcard. In the future, they want to host workshops and accredited sex therapy.
“We want to do so much with the shop and the space,” Poulsen said. “This is just the beginning for us.”
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