Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure

Image of Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure
Author(s): 
Release Date: 
September 7, 2017
Publisher/Imprint: 
Duke University Press Books
Pages: 
288
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Do you own a dildo—or its modern cousin, a vibrator—and, if so, when was the last time you used it? If you don’t, why not? 

Adam & Eve, an online sex-products retailer, found in its 2016 survey that an estimated four-fifth (82%) of American adults use a sex toy. In 2015, Cosmopolitan's Female Orgasm Survey found that two-third (67%) of respondents admitting to having faked an orgasm, and two-fifths (39%) of women report reaching most of their orgasms through use of a hand or sex toy.

Half a century ago, sex toys were sold mostly to men—known as the “raincoat crowd”—in sleazy shops in down-market parts of town. These were good old days when marriage was for life, sex was ostensibly for procreation not pleasure, young people did not engage in premarital sex, homosexuality was a sickness, pornographers were imprisoned, and women had vaginal orgasms, if at all. Those days are long gone.

Sex toys have been rebranded as “sexual wellness” products and are estimated to generate $15 billion in annual retail sales. Today, high-end specialty chains like Nordstrom and Brookstone, mass-market outlets like Walgreens and Target, and even crusty down-market Wal-Mart have jumped into the growing sex wellness business. However, Amazon is the largest purveyor of adult toys, offering an estimated 60,000 items. 

Lynn Comella’s Vibrator Nation is an essential read for anyone who wants to understand how American sexual culture evolved over the last half century. In effect, it reveals how the sex toy was transformed from the margins to the mainstream of sexual culture, from a perversion to a pleasure.

Vibrator Nation is an unorthodox business book, a “case study” of a little understood—and far less appreciated—aspect of America’s sex marketplace. Sexual commerce is estimated to be a $50 billion industry, including—in addition to sex toys—porn, strip clubs, private sex gatherings and (consensual, adult) commercial sex.

Pres. Donald Trump’s renewed culture wars may challenge the further mainstreaming, commercialization, of sex. Nevertheless, the expanded sexual marketplace has fostered an era defined by far less shame about one’s sexual proclivities—if they are age-appropriate and consensual, legal—than anytime in American history.

Comella focuses her revealing story on key two pioneers of sex-positive feminism and two leading feminist retailers. She profiles the movement’s “grandmothers,” Betty Dodson and Dell Williams. Dobson is a feminist activist with a Ph.D. in sexology who freaked out puritan feminists at a 1973 NOW conference by championing clitoral masturbation; Williams launched Eve’s Garden, New York’s first sex shop for women in 1974.

She follows the experiences of two leading sex-positive feminist retailers, Good Vibrations and Babeland. In 1977 San Francisco, Joani Blank, a sex educator/ therapist, founded Good Vibrations because there was nowhere for women to get erotic products. Black fashioned a sex-positive commercial space, one that was "clean and well-lighted" and "friendly, feminist and fun." After nearly three decades, it stumbled and was acquired by GVA-TWN; it currently has nine outlets.

Seattle’s Babeland was founded in 1993 by two enterprising women, Claire Cavanah and Rachel Venning. Looking back, Cavanah, reflects: “One day, Rachel was at my apartment and noticed a bottle of lube I had. It was gross and she made fun of it; we commiserated on the awful experience I’d had going to a sex shop to use a gift certificate I’d gotten and how this was the least worst thing I could find there.  We started fantasizing about how great it would be to have a sex shop that we’d want to patronize and the light bulb went off!” Comella carefully follows the company’s roller-coaster existence, from startup, to private company, to worker-owned coop, and back to private company with four retail outlets and a thriving online business.

Comella began her research into the sex business more than a decade ago and she knows what she’s writing about. She is an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies as the University of Nevada Las Vegas and is fully conversant with the relevant scholarship, empirical and theoretical. She conducted some 80 in-depth interviews of key participants (including female sex toy retailers from around the country), attended numerous sex-toy- and porn-industry gatherings, even did a stint working at Babeland, and seems to have checked out every sex shop she ever passed.  

Her book gives insight into how the feminist sex toy retail business sector emerged, the challenges it confronted, and how it’s matured over time. As an academic, she draws on the latest theories to reframe once-illicit sex practices into the new normal.

Most valuable, she allows her subjects to speak for themselves through extensive quotations from the interviews. Appreciating the complexity of sexual culture, she often offers multiple points of view when considering a specific issue, e.g. products to be carried, role of porn, serving male customers. A reader can thus appreciate the debate shaping changes in America’s radical sexual culture.

Comella presents her book’s intellectual challenge very succinctly: “Making sex-toy stores ‘respectable’ is thus an intensely social process that is as much about race and class as it is about gender and sexuality.” She has added an important piece to this puzzle, the feminist sex products retailer, one rarely discussed in academic or public settings.

She is aware as to the relatively privileged position of those who founded the sex-positive feminist movement, herself included. They were younger, all too often white, middle-class, and college-educated women, more culturally and sexually radical feminists, including lesbians and transsexuals. Thoughtfully, she returns to issues of class and race to reframe consideration of contemporary sexual experience, a physical practice as well as ideological and political issues.

Comella critically observes: “the history of feminist sex-toy stores reveals both the promises and limitations of working within a capitalist system where commercial pressures and political idealism form an uneasy and sometimes acrimonious relationship.” She could not have been analytically more on target.

Surprisingly, she fails to mention of that, in 1998, the “Rabbit,” a vibrator, made its guest appearance on HBO’s series, Sex and the City, a show popular with young, sophisticated women. One of the show’s characters, Miranda, lends her Rabbit to Charlotte—and Charlotte gets hooked!

The show propelled the vibrator from the TV screen into the bedrooms of many hip, young women throughout the country. The folks at HBO discovered the Rabbit at New York’s Pleasure Chest, a Greenwich Village sex toy emporium serving mostly gay men and women. (Why Comella does not consider the Pleasure Chest, the Greenwich Village boutique that opened in 1971, nor the gay s&m/b&d scene and the pioneering work of Gayle Ruben is a mystery.)

Charlotte and her Rabbit helped legitimize sex toys and female masturbation. The Rabbit’s appearance symbolized a profound shift in American sexual culture, including the rebranding of sex toys from “adult novelties” to “sexual wellness” products. More than rebranding was involved; it signaled a profound transition in the nation’s moral order. The mainstreaming of the vibrator helped many women achieve a fuller experience of sexual pleasure.

Mainstreaming involves an often overlooked expression of this new sexual culture, “passion parties,” a practice Comella fails to mention. These are women-only get togethers where sex paraphernalia, including toys, lubricants and costumes, are sold. A local “host,” “consultant” or “sales rep” organizes the event and receives a commission (often 10%) from the night’s sales. The host acquires products and other materials from a growing number of sex toy providers. These get togethers often involve fundamentalist, evangelical, and orthodox women seeking to enhance church-sanctioned marital rituals.

The mainstreaming of sex toys has been maximized by the popular media. In 2013, comedian Kathy Griffin appeared on The Tonight Show where, chortling with the ever-affable Jan Leno, she revealed that she tricked her mother, Maggie, into visiting the Pleasure Chest.

That same year, the Oprah Winfrey Network (OWN), a Discovery cable service, ran a one hour episode on its Our America with Lisa Ling show highlighting the Pleasure Chest. It offered viewers an insider’s look at the kinky scene, profiling a bondage and domination workshop. Another Discovery channel, TLC, ran an episode of its Starter Wives”reality show featuring a segment at the Pleasure Chest. Sex toys were hot.

Comella also fails to mention that in 2007, the Supreme Court chose to sidestep the issue of adult “vice,” refusing to hear a case brought by Sherri Williams, owner of Pleasures, a Decatur, AL, adult sex toy shop. Her case dated from a violation of a 1998 Alabama anti-obscenity law that bans the sale of sex toys in the state. The court’s refusal to hear her case signaled its intent to allow individual states to set their own “moral” standards.

A half century ago, Herbert Marcuse published a key work of the ’60s counterculture and New Left, One Dimensional Man: Studies in the Ideology of Advanced Industrial Society (1964). In it, he warned: “The range of socially permissible and desirable satisfaction is greatly enlarged, but through this process, the Pleasure Principle is reduced—deprived of the claims which are irreconcilable with the established society.”

Going further, he foresaw the future of sexual morality as repressive tolerance: “Pleasure, thus adjusted, generates submission.” Welcome to 21st century capitalism.