Vibrators in the bathtub, dildos in the living-room, Geisha balls at the news-stand -- sex toys are coming out of the closet in France, and glam 30-something women are leading the trend.
"It's become a fashion phenomenon, if you haven't got a toy you're uncool," said Samantha Thouret, whose Yoba boutique, opened in 2003 in one of Paris' smartest districts, was the first of a string of new stylish adults-only shops to hit the city.
"We are not a sex-shop," stressed Patrick Pruvot, whose just-opened store on the other side of town -- Passage du Desir (Route of Desire) -- claims to be "the first dedicated to the sustainable development of the couple."
"We don't sell products, we sell ideas, ideas to help couples," Pruvot added. "A sex toy can help revive a couple that's in a rut."
Crowded with mostly young female shoppers, Pruvot's new love store offers erotic games and how-to books, love candles and lingerie, as well as dress-up Chippendale pants for him, and nurses uniforms and feather bras for her.
In the further interest of the pursuit of pleasure, the store boasts a love-coach, a sexologist, a specialist caterer for naughty soirees, and even pole-dancing classes.
"I very much favour this new concept," said Marianne Pauti, a doctor and sexologist who has just published a guide to good sex. "It overturns the sordid image of the old sex-shops and makes these new stores accessible to all."
"Customs are loosening up, giving credibility to a subject once frowned upon," she added.
"I don't think we're looking at a passing fad, this is a lasting trend because women are becoming liberated and people are daring to do what they didn't dare do previously."
While French couples make hay in the bedroom more often than some -- 8.9 times a month compared to 8 in Germany or 5.8 in Britain, according to a poll last month -- seeking erotic paraphernalia in the city's tawdry red-curtained sex-shops was a pastime left to lonely males and tourists.
And according to a study by condom-maker Durex, barely 14 percent of French people owned a sex toy in 2005, the same proportion as in Malaysia -- and way behind Taiwan's 47 percent, Britain and the United States with 43, Sweden at 40 or Norway at 39 percent.
Now, in all shapes, makes and colours, sex toys are taking off, even available on the shelves of Paris' Le Printemps department store.
From the I Rub My Duckie waterproof vibrator bath toy (the latest in the series is the Penguin which has 8 speeds) to the Rabbit that starred in TV series "Sex And The City" -- toy sales are soaring, as are edible creams and edible underwear.
The Rabbits had all sold out last week at the boudoir-like "1969" shop near the Pompidou art centre, a store that opened two years ago and now has a bigger outlet in the southern port of Marseille. It had a glam Duckie clad in black feathers and sporting a trendy Swarovski crystal.
"Some people buy luxury objects like this just for their window-cases," said sales manager Cyril Valentin. "Other items are designed specially for travel."
At Yoba, the Secret Bullet -- a remote-controlled egg vibrator that needs two to play -- was the most popular toy of the month in July, along with a vibrator that plugs into an MP3 and plays with the music.
At Dollhouse, opened to cater specifically to women, two 30-somethings purchased a pair of Geisha balls, which offer a "vaginal workout" -- after being instructed not to use them for more than 15 minutes at a time at first.
"We spend lots of time counselling," said Caroline Boitaux. "There were no shops like this before, where women could comfortably come see and feel the toys for themselves."
"Half of the women who come to the store don't even know the G-spot."
Giving out technical advice and allowing shoppers a close look at the toys is where such stores have an edge on the Internet, where sales too are soaring.
"Our strength is counselling," said 1969's Valentin, a sales manager with experience in the automobile industry who says revenue is climbing 20 to 30 percent a year. "That's the big difference between us and the old-style sex shop."
"We don't get swingers here, there're no pornographic DVDs, no bondage, no fetishes," he added.
Riding the wave of new-found sensuality is S'Toys, a glossy two-monthly magazine that comes with a free toy and whose fourth issue hit the news-stands in early August, offering a pink string for her and an erotic condom for him.
"We aim to take pleasure out of the ghetto of the sex-shops with a magazine that also touches on fashion and ideas", said editor Catherine Delmas.
There is little doubt in most minds that the sex toy market has a bright future in France and other southern European countries after sweeping nations in the north. Yoba plans on launching private sales across France this year, 1969 is looking to neighbours such as Italy or Switzerland, and S'Toys says its sales are growing by the issue.
"The French sex toy market has been on the up and up for the past year or two, catching up on sales in northern Europe," said Guillaume Bidault, who runs the French arm for Dutch sex toy manufacturer Scala, Europe's biggest wholsesaler with eight million items sold a year.
"Demand has changed, become more feminine over the past decade," said Bidault. "There's no pornography any more, no vulgar lingerie, it's girlie, it's fashion. Women are becoming a driving market force."
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