Sex toy catalogue Thrilling Bits scans
Scans from the Thrilling Bits catalogue. Image: Nicoletta Belardinelli; catalogue scans courtesy of LGBTQIA+ Archives, Bishopsgate Institute

Inside a Secret Lesbian Sex Toy Smuggling Ring

In the 80s, Thrilling Bits was clandestinely selling dildos, vibrators and banned queer erotica – right under the nose of customs.

In the late 80s, Lisa Power was making her way back from San Francisco when she got taken aside by customs at Heathrow Airport. She tried to play it cool, making friendly conversation with the agent as he searched her hand luggage on the cold metal table. Inside, however, she was a nervous wreck.

“One of the suitcases was full to the brim with these new latex dildos and harnesses, and copies of [lesbian erotica magazine] On Our Backs that we knew were out of order,” she recounts. After a thankfully brief rummage through one bag, the official waved her on. “I was so freaked out, my back went into spasms on the way home.”


These days, the sexual health and LGBTQ+ rights campaigner is best known as a founding member of the charity Stonewall; an organisation which was still in its infancy around the time she and her then-girlfriend decided to set up the UK’s first ever mail-order sex toy company, Thrilling Bits, in 1988. 

Founded amid the introduction of Section 28, many of the LGBTQ+ books and erotic publications featured in their catalogue – including On Our Backs – were flat-out banned, and importing them into the UK was against the law. Though the legality around importing sex toys was less clear cut, they certainly didn’t want to risk getting caught with suitcases full of dildos at customs. Who knew, after all, what the government would turn around and deem as obscene next? 

“There were much stricter rules around this stuff,” Power says. “We were pretty sure we'd have been in for a hard time if they caught us bringing it into the country. Now, I think they wouldn't turn a hair at any of it.”

Though some fairly rudimentary sex toys were openly available in the UK – from the by-then well-established Ann Summers, or various slightly gloomy outlets around Soho – the selection left much to be desired. “They were horrible!” she exclaims. “Absolute tat.” Made out of hard, inflexible plastic, most dildos at the time came complete with moulded veins and balls. 


“Even the ones that were supposed to be designed for women's pleasure didn't really take women into account,” Power says, recalling an early recce to an enormous warehouse just outside Birmingham that supplied almost all of the country’s sex shops at that time. “The anatomical stuff on them was completely impossible sometimes.There were these double-ended dildos, but they were rigid! They didn't bend in the middle, so you had to sort of wave at each other from a great distance in order to use them. We knew that there was better stuff in the US.”

Lisa Power and friend in the 80s

Lisa Power (left) and a friend in the 80s. Photo courtesy of Lisa Power

Despite filling a sizable gap in the market, Thrilling Bits wasn’t actually conceived as a stroke of entrepreneurial genius. Instead, Power’s motivation was rather more simple: She felt like stirring up some trouble. An intense debate was taking place in the UK and US at the time, with sex-positive feminists and anti-porn feminists fiercely debating the ethics of pornography and S&M within the queer community. Though Power didn’t actually frequent Chain Reaction, a lesbian fetish club night in London which was infamously picketed by protesters on the other side of the debate, she was lumped in with the “S&M dykes” anyway, as she puts it, after a women’s liberation newsletter denounced her for wearing “instruments of torture” to the opening of London’s Lesbian and Gay Centre. At this point, she figured she may as well join in the party.


“The funny thing is, [my then-partner and I] didn't use sex toys,” Power says. “This was all pretty much alien territory to me, but we got rather annoyed. Thrilling Bits was just a little piece of defiance and naughtiness, but then it became a genuine service.”

The pair opted to remain completely anonymous at the time, and advertised their wares in the gay press, signposted with business cards they left in queer venues like Camden’s now-defunct Fallen Angel pub. Customers placed their orders from hand-drawn pink catalogues that featured evocative sketches and often very amusing descriptions written by Power and some of her co-conspirators. Occasionally, their jovial approach to marketing got the better of them, and “we kind of got a name for doing quite lively things”, she explains. In their first mail-order catalogue, Thrilling Bits named their “smallest and most inoffensive” vibrator Sheila after Sheila Jeffreys, an anti-S&M campaigner. 

The front and back page of a Thrilling Bits catalogue

The front and back page of a Thrilling Bits catalogue. Photo: courtesy of LGBTQIA+ Archives, Bishopsgate Institute

“She went through the roof,” Power says. She also concedes regretfully that Thrilling Bits made a handful of poor choices along the way. “We were not the most sophisticated in our understanding. We named the only black vibrator the Whitney. I wouldn't do something like that now.”

The mail-order company sourced much of its stock at the time from the San Francisco sex shop Good Vibrations, with Thrilling Bits smuggling banned or legally dubious items by filling up suitcases with everything from banned magazines to latex dildos and flying back and forth. When it came to less conspicuous stock, they shipped over crates packed with edible underwear, and a range of more discreet toys modelled on dolphins and ballet shoes. They also figured dental dams, being sexual health products, were less of a risk.


“Some of them looked like ornaments,” Power says. “We had a cleaner at that point, and we left some of the stock out one day, and she just dusted them all and put them on the mantelpiece.” Elsewhere, a young Ian McKellen – a decade or so off his Oscar win – happened to be present for a Thrilling Bits shipment that arrived halfway during a Stonewall meeting. “He just grabbed a dental dam and stuck his tongue through it,” Power laughs. “God bless him.”

Despite the improved quality of their imported goods, Thrilling Bits still ran into occasional issues. An early version of the Rampant Rabbit – sold as the Eager Beaver – attracted a number of complaints because it would noisily grind to a halt and start spewing out smoke during use. “It gives a new meaning to smoking in bed,” Power quips. “We had to give refunds, and in the end, we had to stop stocking them. People would write and ask if the edible knickers were vegan, or vegetarian. If you're doing cunnilingus, you're already not a vegetarian, dear.”

Alongside their best-selling toys, Thrilling Bits also smuggled in various banned publications that were usually confiscated by UK customs. On Our Backs was just one of the many publications seized in a devastating 1984 police raid on the London LGBTQ+ bookshop Gay’s The Word. Though the case against the shop eventually collapsed, “we were all quite nervous” about the legality of importing anything that could be deemed obscene, Power says. “Although that prosecution failed, it was messy, expensive and stressful for all the people concerned.”


Former On Our Backs editor Susie Bright, who worked in Good Vibrations during the heyday of Thrilling Bits, highlights the sinister strain of violence she saw from British officials enforcing the country’s often nonsensical laws around obscenity. Bright also did her fair share of smuggling, and once ended up in a Canadian court for sneaking banned copies of her magazine across the border from the US. In comparison, the climate in the UK was in “some ways more awful because of the violence of the raids”, Bright says. “The idea that they're going to trash the place and arrest… They were like, ‘it’s an opium den, tear it all down’,” she tells VICE. “In Canada, things were being seized, but places weren't being raided.”

Bright knows of other amateur smuggling operations that sprang up to circumvent UK obscenity laws. In one instance, the late LGBTQ+  film promoter Mark Finch helped her to sneak a VHS tape containing various clips of lesbian cinema into the UK by sending out official-looking packaging from the British Film Institute. The footage was “exactly the kind of thing that they [anti-obscenity campaigners] liked to wave around the maypole, screaming that they vanquished the devil,” she says of the material. “But nobody touched it! It was the ultimate lockbox.” Elsewhere, Bright also heard about “some enterprising dykes in England going all the way to Amsterdam to get copies of On Our Backs. It just seemed like such a tremendous voyage,” she laughs. “It’s like me saying: I'm going to Russia to get caviar.” 


Just 18 months later, Thrilling Bits reached its climax after Power and her co-founder broke up – but its legacy arguably continued with Sh!. Founded by Ky Hoyle in 1992, the UK’s first ever woman-focused sex shop sprang up from a similar place: Hoyle was “absolutely fuming” at the limited selections and unwelcoming environments she encountered on a shopping trip to Soho. Like Power, she’d also encountered difficulties sourcing stock. 

“Our first catalogue was a hoot!” Hoyle says. “We brought stuff over initially from San Francisco, but it was prohibitively expensive. By the time you’ve got them in and marked them up a bit …that was the reason we started making dildos.” 

After a few failed experiments in her kitchen – and a lot of accidental dog toys, the fate of the rejects – Sh! struck gold after a year, and became inundated with new orders after Hoyle recommended a new and improved version of the Rampant Rabbit (sans dodgy motor issues) in an issue of Cosmopolitan magazine. A 1998 episode of Sex and the City, in which Charlotte becomes addicted to her rabbit, also resulted in hundreds of sales. The shop still exists today, though it sadly ended up retiring its physical space over the pandemic.

“I was the one who was stuck at home, packing dildos all day to fulfil the orders,” says Power of her eventual decision to shut up shop at Thrilling Bits and pass on the silicone baton. “I was going mad, doing this at home on my own. I got bored, basically,” she shrugs.

After she sold up her share in the business, Thrilling Bits fell apart and effectively disappeared; after serving – Power guesses – a couple of hundred customers each month over the course of its lifespan. “I think we'd started the change, and then Ky Hoyle came along. That was amazing, and much more full-on than what we were doing! We’d just been dabbling, effectively.”

“We started it as a bit of a joke and a bit of a dare,” Power reflects, on the part she played in a small but significant part of LGBTQ+ history in the UK. Though she simply set out to ruffle a few feathers, Thrilling Bits instead exposed a gaping void in a market that wasn’t catering for queer people’s pleasure. By hooking up scores of 80s queers with their first ever strap-ons, and getting banned publications back into the hands of eager readers, they helped to change the landscape for the better, one contraband suitcase at a time.