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Jacqueline Gold’s proudly smutty Ann Summers changed the UK high street

When Jacqueline Gold arrived to shake up Ann Summers, the company had already been in the family for a decade, bought by her father, David, and uncle Ralph Gold. They had made the initial leap from sex shop to what they styled as a “lingerie boutique”; it would be more accurate to say they took it from a shop women never went into to a shop women did go into, while still selling the same sex toys and lucky knickers.

The impact of Jacqueline Gold, who has died aged 62, went far beyond the shops themselves or even the operation. The irony is that British culture in the 80s was hardly a stranger to images of women in their underwear, but these images were pretty well always used to sell random things to men. The notion of erotic imagery and shop frontage aimed at women was quite novel, and freighted with innuendo – this is one sense in which I can just about allow that Britain is exceptional, the peculiar humour it derives from sex: that Carry-On, seaside postcard, slightly mirthless and dutiful performance, where anyone revealing a sexual identity is considered to make themselves ridiculous, becoming the butt of some inexpressible joke. It was not cost-free, therefore, for women to go browsing in Ann Summers, and Gold attacked this from two directions.

First, she leaned right into the smut, sought to wear it with pride, and this was the source of most of the controversy: a few ad campaigns fell foul of the Advertising Standards Authority for being too much for the high street. Other objections ran a bit deeper than obscenity: a blowup doll, Mustafa Shag, was considered a needless provocation to Muslim groups.

There was never any attempt to make the displays look discreet or classy, and in the 80s and 90s they were quite incongruous. Regular sex shops do not get prime retail space, mainstream underwear vendors such as M&S emphatically did not go full red-lace suspender in their displays, so Ann Summers was this little island of erotica, sandwiched between a Paperchase and a Costa, window into a different world, where women dressed as kink versions of various, usually public sector careers – sexy nurse, latex police officer – for a date night.

Second, recognising there was a big untapped market of women who wanted the goods but would not step inside the shops, Gold created the party plan as soon as she arrived: basically Tupperware parties, except with sex toys, underwear, my guess is quite a lot of prosecco or, back in the day, Babycham. By 2003 there were 4,000 parties a week in the UK. They were eventually capsized, partly by the internet, partly by the growing realisation among party planners that it was quite hard to make a living. But the brand had more to gain from the worldwide wonder web than it lost: the year after it went online, it sold 1m units of its own-brand vibrator, the Rampant Rabbit, in the UK alone.

That sex toy trajectory, where vibrators went from being a thing women were too embarrassed to be caught shopping for, to a thing they would give each other as a gift, is often put down to the Sex and the City effect, one episode in particular, The Turtle and the Hare, where Miranda lends Charlotte her Rabbit. But more influential in the UK was the grassroots effect, thousands of women a week, over two decades, talking about sex toys quite freely in a social setting. Or who knows, it could have been started with second-wave feminist consciousness-raising groups, but I do not get the sense they centred pleasure in quite the same way.

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