Intimate item has Britain buzzing


LONDON -- Nobody would mumble a word if the Boots drugstore chain -- the most mainstream in Britain and certainly the best known -- was considering introducing a new foot massager or back massager or most any other massager designed to help the body out.

But the newest item that could soon be hitting the shelves of Boots -- an item discreetly described as a "personal massager" -- sure has people talking. And giggling.

Boots is the British equivalent of CVS or Walgreens or grandma's medicine cabinet. But early last month, word got out that the chain is in negotiations with Durex, the British condom maker, to put vibrators on the store shelves, sharing space with fiber supplements, water pills, support hose and denture adhesives.

This type of vibrator is variously categorized as a bedroom toy or marital aid. Boots, sensing a change in attitudes about sex in Britain, has decided it might be time to get the items into the hands of its customers.

"If marital aids become more mainstream and are going to be sold responsibly, removing some of the titillation and mystery about them, we're a good place to do that," said Donal McCabe, a spokesman for Boots, where 20 million Britons a week pay a visit.

"People trust us."

The introduction of the vibrators wouldn't be much of a surprise if Boots were not the chain involved. Or if the British did not have such an undeserved reputation for being prudes.

But the combination was thought so unlikely that the discussions have been reported on by virtually every newspaper and television outlet in the country.

While Boots has modernized most of its 1,400 stores, in the minds of many people here it remains the British equivalent of a 1950s American drugstore, conjuring images of the shuffling, gray-haired pharmacist who deals mostly in pills for rheumatism while pushing soda-fountain ice cream on neighborhood kids.

The chain was born of Methodists in 1849, and since then its stores have become fixtures on most every town's main drag -- referred to here as the High Streets -- from Middle England to Central London.

Any nugget in the negotiations has become so sought after, the Boots spokesman said, that the company was forced to put out a statement that a final decision on whether the items would hit the shelves has yet to be made.

"We'll let people know as soon as we know," he said.

Whatever the decision, Durex is determined that people who want such products should be able to get them without sneaking off to a strategically darkened sex shop.

"Our intention is to bring personal massagers out of the back street and onto the High Street," said William Clutterbuck, a spokesman for Durex and SSL, its parent company. "Our research shows that attitudes about sex are changing, and people don't just want safer sex, they want better sex."

In fact, whether Britain has become sex-crazed depends on the definition of crazed -- and sex, for that matter. But what seems certain is that the British reputation for treating sexual discussions as an unbearable chore has largely gone the way of the penny farthing.

These days much of Britain seems to agree with Mae West, that "Too much of a good thing is wonderful."

Reruns of Sex and the City have been among the highest-rated shows in Britain. Last month, a reality television show that features scenes of a couple having sex -- and then being critiqued -- began airing. Also last month, 75,000 people visited a three-day "celebration of sex" called Erotica in West London in -- where else? -- an exhibition center.

And last season's Big Brother featured two housemates having sex under a table, while the eventual winner, voted on by nearly 4 million viewers, was a transsexual named Nadia who rarely could get through an episode without flashing her new breasts.

While the personal massagers might find their way onto shelves at Boots, a store called Ann Summers has been on Britain's more respectable streets and neighborhoods for years, from Princes Street in Edinburgh to Marble Arch and Oxford Circus in London.

The chain now has 120 outlets in Britain, selling everything from fantasy costumes to handcuffs to blindfolds to lingerie that could be mistaken for handkerchiefs.

Its best-selling product: the Rampant Rabbit, a vibrator made especially famous by Sex and the City.

"If it wasn't for Ann Summers, places like Boots wouldn't even be able to consider selling vibrators," said Maxine Soghmanian, a spokeswoman for the company.

Perhaps not. But even Boots, should its negotiations with Durex reach an agreeable conclusion, has no plans to display the products as explicitly as Ann Summers.

Which has some people relieved.

"I'm one of the remaining British prudes," said Jessica Thornton, a 23-year-old employee of Boots in Bayswater, in West London. "If you want to go into Boots, you may just want to get deodorant and -- boom -- there's a vibrator."

The Durex brand name is well known but is new to the personal massage business. The company plans to unveil three versions next year and isn't saying much about them other than that they will be packaged relatively discreetly.

"I can say only that you probably wouldn't know what it was unless you picked up the package and examined it," said Clutterbuck, the company spokesman.

"You know, it wasn't all that long ago if you wanted to buy a condom, you bought it from your barber. Now, condoms are on shelves everywhere. We're confident the same will hold true for the massagers," Clutterbuck said.

"I tend to navel-gaze about all this attention a bit," said McCabe, the Boots spokesman. "Then it's rather simple. Boots and the British and vibrators -- of course there's going to be a lot of talk."

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