Almost all licensed adult sex shop stores in the UK are forbidden from having their wares in open shop windows under the Indecent Displays Act 1981, which means often the shop fronts are boarded up or covered in posters. A warning sign must be clearly shown at the entrance to the store, and no sex articles (for example, pornography or sex toys) should be visible from the street. However, lingerie, non-offensive covers of adult material, etc. may be shown depending on the licence conditions of the local authority. The Video Recordings Act 1984 introduced the R18-rated classification for videos that are only available in licensed sex shops. No customer can be under eighteen years old.
In London, there are few boroughs that have licensed sex shops. In the borough of Soho a handful of sex shops were opened by Carl Slack in the early 1960s, and by the mid-seventies the number had grown to 59. Some had nominally “secret” backrooms selling hardcore photographs and novels, including Olympia Press editions.
By the 1980s, purges of the police force along with new and tighter licensing controls by the City of Westminster led to a crackdown on illegal premises in Soho. In the early 1990s, London’s Hackney council sought to shut down Sh! Women’s Erotic Emporium, because they did not have a licence. Sh! took the council to court and consequently won the right to remain open as there were no sufficient reasons for the closure. In 2003 the Ann Summers chain of lingerie and sex toy shops won the right to advertise for shop assistants in Job Centres, which was originally banned under restrictions on what advertising could be carried out by the sex industry. In 2007, a Northern Ireland sex shop was denied a licence by the Belfast City Council. The shop appealed and won, but this was overturned by the House of Lords.
The licensing or closing of unlicensed sex shops, along with cultural changes such as the substantial relaxation of general censorship and the ready availability of non-commercial sex, have reduced the red-light district of Soho to just a small area. The borough has fifteen licensed sex shops and several remaining unlicensed ones. Islington and Camden each have multiple sex shops; the former also has three pornographic cinemas.
Sex shops in Scotland are regulated under the Civic Government (Scotland) Act 1982.