In her Country Casuals separates and carefully coiffured grey hair, Mary Clegg cuts an unlikely figure as an internet sex-toy seller. But this Hampshire housewife and former Devon cheese-maker is spearheading a new erotic industry aimed squarely at the middle-aged, middle-class people of Middle England.
Mrs Clegg, a 50-year-old married mother of two daughters, has set up a website dedicated to improving the lives of a generation of rural women - and men - who missed out on the sexual revolution the first time round and know a Rabbit only as a child's pet rather than a best-selling vibrator.
From Andover, she is now merrily sending out up-market sex aids, blindfolds and Thai love balls, repackaged in discreet pouches and complete with down-to-earth instructions, to suit the John Lewis tastes of her clientele. Most sex-industry sellers worry about whether their latest video will contravene their licence. Clegg is more concerned about whether she needs planning permission to run the business from her garage.
Her core market is people from the provinces who find Ann Summers too tacky but still have a secret hankering for a spiced-up bedroom. As Clegg says: "If you can sell sex toys in Hampshire, you can sell them anywhere." Selling Rabbit vibrators to fortysomething Rotary wives may seem a difficult pitch, but several recent reports have shown that the up-and-coming generation of pensioners are growing old in an entirely different way from their parents.
A pamphlet by the think tank Demos, published last month, dubbed forty- and fiftysomethings "the new old", predicting that they would be a more demanding generation of retirees who would enjoy better health, more freedom and higher expectations of their twilight years. The 1980s were characterised by the high-spending, work hard, play hard yuppies. Now the acronyms all relate to the so-called "middle agers".
Recent surveys have highlighted Ski-ers (spending the kids' inheritance) and Woofs (well-off older folks). These are the baby-boomers who were already married with children by the summer of love in 1968, and who, with their children grown up, are now looking for some fun of their own. But with rising rates of impotence and divorce, the aim of Clegg's website is to introduce the provinces to the joys of sex toys and sensual healing. With the divorce rate among people in their fifties and sixties also increasing, the website hopes to cater not so much for the Sex and the City single-girl generation as Sex in their Sixties.
The site sells toys, but also has advice on sexual problems, communication and health issues. An online doctor and psychotherapist also gives confidential consultations. The site name - Beecourse - has been chosen so that users do not have to type in an obviously sexual word, and an internet search will not lead to more lurid and pornographic sites.
"When our parcels go out, they just say 'Beecourse' on them," Clegg says. "Most postmen will probably think someone is taking up beekeeping rather than getting their mail-order sex toys."
While young city-dwellers now have upmarket sex shops, such as Myla in London, Clegg says that frisky baby-boomers have been locked out of the market. "I didn't know anything about sex when I was younger and there was nowhere to find out about these things," she says. "Nowadays, teenage girls have all these magazines and things are talked about a lot more openly. But a lot of people my age know nothing about vibrators. If the spark goes out of their relationships or they have trouble with impotence, they don't know where to turn or what to do.
"There are lots of shops and services in London, but none for us people in the provinces. A lot of the online sex industry is very tacky, and the products don't work or are just ghastly. We want to make the market more ethical and less off-putting."
Ten years ago, Clegg was living on a Devon farm and winning prizes for her cheese. But after divorcing her first husband, she moved to Hampshire and retrained as a masseur. She began to notice how many of her clients, both male and female, relaxed during the massages and confided their personal problems.
"One woman started telling me about how she had only been married a few years to her husband, who was in his sixties, but he had become impotent. She was quite upset about it all, and I started researching some stuff on the internet for her.
"I thought I would have a look to see what kind of marital aids were available, but when you put words like that in a search engine, all kinds of horrible things come up. You get all these horrible pictures, which are quite grotesque, and photos of horrible harnesses and dildos flashing on the screen. I thought people like me might want to buy a vibrator, but we don't want to have to go on to websites like that. I would never go to a sex-toy party, or want to go into a shop in Soho, but I know that I and my friends are quite intrigued about these things."
Armed with an idea for a website for selling sex toys in a less pornographic way, Clegg then approached her businessman husband, David. "He is quite reserved and very old-fashioned, but amazingly he thought it was a good idea and has been very supportive," she says. He called on business contacts and friends to invest in the business. As well as providing the financial backing, the 11 shareholders also had slightly less conventional duties as board members. "We wanted to make sure that the products we were going to sell worked, so the best people to try them on seemed to be the people putting money into the business."
Clegg's tales of her adventures in the sex industry combine a jolly-hockey-sticks stoicism with the appraising eye of a housewife inspecting vegetables in the supermarket. "We went up to London to look at the products available," she recalls. "The first place we went to was this ghastly shop in south London. It was down an alley, really seedy, with these vibrators in boxes with pornographic pictures on the front, all legs akimbo and everything. I knew that was exactly what I didn't want. Goodness knows what they thought of two middle-aged couples opening all these boxes and inspecting the quality of the latex."
More research led to a business run by two public-school-educated men in Wimborne, where the toys were of better quality. Next came the testing phase, in all senses. "We had our first board meeting in a room above the local pub," Clegg says. "I came in with all these toys and told everyone they had to take one home, test it out and write an anonymous report. At first, everyone was very embarrassed, but when we met the next time, people refused to give the toys back, saying they had become rather attached to them. Next time, I brought more stuff along and now we have friends all over the place testing the toys for us. Hampshire is awash with the things. Our testing board now has an age range of twentysomething to over 80."
The close-to-home market research has proved invaluable. "The reports were hilarious," Clegg says. "So many of the things were badly made, because I think a lot of the time manufacturers know people are going to be too embarrassed to take them back and say they don't work. We had people coming back saying that bits had come flying off, that they had no idea what to do with something or even where to put it, that something had made the most hideous noise." Now all the toys are sent out with instruction leaflets, and are taken out of their original boxes and put into anonymous black pouches to prevent prying children from discovering something nasty in the wardrobe.
"The bags look more like nightie cases than anything else," Clegg says. And her clients are the kind of people who would have nightie cases. Videos were another problem. "You have all these 'Lovers' Guides' type of films, but a lot of them are American and they just make our testers laugh, because they have these terrible-looking Dallas-style women in them. Curiously, the English ones are excellent, despite our reputation for not being very good lovers."
With the website up and running and the first orders from customers coming in, Clegg hopes her site could help to clean up some parts of the sex industry. "There is a market for good quality sex toys without the pornographic pictures and websites," she says. "I want to start influencing the products available. For instance, you can get these lovely romp-rugs in all different kinds of material. I want one that has Barbour material on the back so that we country folk can take them out into the woods..."
Launching oneself as a purveyor of sex toys to the Volvo classes on the world wide web is one thing, but there remains one taboo even Clegg can't bring herself to overcome. "I haven't told my mother yet," she confesses as she sips her Earl Grey tea. "I told her it was about sensuality. Now she thinks I've gone into aromatherapy."
Her daughters, aged 22 and 18, have also come to terms with their mother's new career. "The older one thinks it's hilarious," Clegg says. "The younger one just tells me to make sure all the toys aren't left lying around the kitchen when her boyfriend comes over."
Mary Clegg's site is at www.beecourse.comReuse content