Not so long ago, vibrators—when they were sold at all—were generally available in seedy surroundings or marketed in a thick protective layer of double entendre. (Promising to massage you, for instance, “delightfully all over.”) In 2017, however, Dolly Parton can stand onstage at the Emmys and joke about wanting one in her swag bag.
What brought vibrators and other sex toys into the mainstream of popular culture? Before you suggest Sex and the City or Fifty Shades of Grey, read Lynn Comella’s new book Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure. Comella charts the rise of stores like Good Vibrations, Babeland and others, which she argues shared a sensibility and a sense of feminist mission to empower women in their sexuality and, over time, gradually transformed both the sex toy business and cultural attitudes to the industry.
Basically, it’s the story of how we got hot pink Broad City branded vibrators that say “Yas Kween.”
It’s a deep, thoughtful chronicle of a phenomenon and a recent history that is illuminating and useful to have. Comella spoke to many of the people intimately involved in creating this market. She did years of interviews and research and several months of fieldwork on the sales floor at Babeland. She spoke with Dell Williams, founder of the first of these stores, Eve’s Garden, and dug into her collection of grateful letters from customers in the 1970s. “I want to thank you for offering this service to help women fulfill themselves sexually,” said one correspondent, who signed off “Yours in Sisterhood.” Comella argues these founders weren’t simply after a business opportunity; they were on a mission. “A vibrator to them wasn’t just a device for sexual stimulation,” she told me. “They did genuinely see a vibrator as a tool of sexual education, a way to learn about your body, as a tool of liberation.”
I recently spoke to Comella about her work; our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
JEZEBEL: Why sex toys and why these retailers? What got you into this particular topic?
Lynn Comella: The big catalyst was just being really interested in those spaces and places where women could assume an unapologetic public sexuality. Men had a lot of those places, and I was wondering, where is it that women can go and own their sexuality? And I thought, well, I know of Good Vibrations.
There were these feminist sex toy stores that were really invested in providing an alternative space for women in particular, although also for everyone, and it just so happened that a feminist sex shop had opened in the small college town where I was living at the time, Northhampton, Massachusetts. It was the late 1990s, and I was taking a graduate seminar in field methods in cultural studies, and I decided to make that tiny little sex shop the subject of a graduate school seminar paper. I was just fascinated by the very first interview that I ever conducted on the topic with the store’s owner. She said, “I see my store as a feminist way to empower women, and I based my business on Good Vibrations in San Francisco and the Good Vibrations model.”
And I thought wow, there’s a whole model of how to do this, how to talk about sex and sell sex toys in a way that’s educational and informative and welcoming and friendly, and there’s not just this one store, but there’s this growing network of businesses all over the country. That seminar paper grew into my PhD dissertation, and then I just continued the research and interviewing more people and digging back further into the history, and that eventually became this book.
To go back to the moment where your book opens, contextualize for me the conversation about female pleasure and the female orgasm within the wider world of the second wave feminist movement in the 1970s.
There’s still so many stereotypes around feminists of the late ’60s and ’70s, what we would have characterized as those quote-unquote second wave feminists. And one of the big stereotypes is that they were sexual prudes, and they were kind of anti-sex. That sex positivity really came later. But in fact, the early 1970s was an important historical time for emerging discussions and public discourses around female sexuality, including female masturbation and the politics of the female orgasm. There were a number of second wave feminists that really made a case for the ways in which female sexuality was not just political, but a key issue that needed to be factored into a second wave feminist agenda.
I talk about the 1973 NOW conference on women’s sexuality where Betty Dodson boldly stood up on stage and talked about her great affection for her vibrator. That was so groundbreaking at the time, to be in a public setting at a conference—and, granted, the conference was devoted to female sexuality. But she was really blazing a trail by being very open about her affection for her vibrator and calling on women to learn about their bodies, and one way to do that was through masturbation. You had feminist writers that were writing almost sexual manifestos, right? We need to rethink the female orgasm, we need to blow apart this long-standing Freudian theory of the vaginal orgasm and really teach women about the power of the clitoris. There were all these cross currents. There were essays that were being published and conferences that were being organized and then you have people like Betty Dodson, who started to have sexual consciousness raising groups in her Manhattan apartment, where she would get together with a group of women and they would get in touch with their bodies and talk about sexuality, and Betty Dodson started to do masturbation demonstrations. Because she really felt like there was no good visual representation of female sexuality and the female orgasm, and what better way to learn what female orgasms really looked like than seeing them?
So there was all this out of the box thinking, and all of that was the backstory and catalyst to this first feminist vibrator business, which was Eve’s Garden. And that story I think is just really great. You have Dell Williams who, by that point, was in her early ’50s. She had been active in NOW and she had attended one of Dodson’s bodysex workshops. Her mind was blown. She felt really empowered around her sexuality and she thinks, this is great! Vibrators are tools of sexual liberation, I am going to march down to Macy’s department store in Midtown Manhattan and I am going to buy a Hitachi Magic Wand. And in the process of getting her “body massager,” which is how they were marketed at the time, she had a really embarrassing encounter with a male clerk who made her feel a bit humiliated. He asked her, according to her story, “Well, what do you want to use this for?” There were other people watching. And she said, well, to massage my back. And she left the store and she was just mad. She thought, “Here I was, feeling so newly empowered around my sexuality, I go to this store, I feel embarrassed. Why aren’t women selling vibrators to other women? We have feminist bookstores, we have these other feminist businesses that are starting. Why don’t we have feminist vibrator shops? She asked a couple of her friends who she thought might want to open one of those businesses if they were interested and they weren’t, so she just thought, okay, I’ll do it myself.
One of the things I love about that moment—and it wasn’t just Dell Williams starting Eve’s Garden, but it was other feminist activists and entrepreneurs—everything was a possibility. These were women who were out there, guns blazing, wanting to change the world. Wanting to change the workplace, wanting to change family dynamics, striving for more inclusive, anti-racist spaces. Striving for all sorts of things that they thought would make a better world. And they just rolled up their sleeves and did it. There’s this really wonderful, kind of entrepreneurial DIY ethos that was very apparent in the early feminist sex toy businesses. Definitely very apparent in Eve’s Garden. I mean, she started to sell vibrators out of her kitchen in her Manhattan apartment. This woman who’s working as an advertising executive, she puts in a full day of work and she comes home and takes the elevator or climbs the stairs up to her apartment, and there’s mail orders waiting for her that need to be filled. She’s opening up these orders and sitting at her kitchen table getting vibrators ready to be shipped out all over the country.
And those women are just beside themselves with excitement, because they’re able to get their vibrators without being made to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. They don’t have to go into a more conventional adult store. They don’t have to go into a department store and risk embarrassment. They can make their order through the mail and know on the other end is an open-minded feminist who’s not going to judge them for wanting more pleasure in their lives.
That was so novel. It’s easy to take for granted. I’m a college professor, my students are 18, 19, 20, 21, and I always make a point to remind them, so much of what is so easy to take for granted in 2017 was very different in the 1970s. There weren’t a lot of places where women could talk about sex comfortably. And they certainly weren’t encouraged by the larger culture and the messages that they were getting were very narrow, right? That it’s not about your pleasure. If you’re in a relationship with a man, it’s really about his pleasure. To blow that all apart in a way that some of these feminist activists and entrepreneurs from the 1970s were doing was really radical.
I guess that’s a testimony to how thoroughly these stores have succeeded, right? People still refer back to that stereotype of the nasty, gross adult toy store. Which I’m sure still exists somewhere, but I live in New York City and I’d probably have to work to find one of those place at this point, while there’s three different Babelands I could go to.
Right. And I think that’s a key point—it’s almost like a complete inversion in 2017.
It wasn’t even that somebody like Dell Williams would have to think really hard where to find a women-friendly vibrator shop that had a friendly proprietor and maybe a little sex information that they could provide. It just simply wasn’t available.
When I started this research I was really interested in the story and the history and retail culture of feminist sex toy shops. But by about 2008, there was a really pretty dramatic shift in the larger adult industry. All of the sudden, a lot of mainstream adult retailers and wholesalers and distributors sat up and realized that the adult novelty sector was booming and who was buying all those products? Well, it was women. And so around 2008, profits from porn had started to tank, because it was the economic recession. There’s instances of piracy, free tube sites. So mainstream pornography was taking a considerable hit at the same time that the pleasure product sector was booming, and everybody wanted a piece of women all the sudden.
It was really fascinating as a researcher to see, because I was going to these adult trade shows and sitting in these business seminars and literally in every seminar people were on the edge of their seats. They wanted to know, how can we get more women into our stores? How can we appeal to women? And so you had expert panels at adult industry trade shows that were comprised of people from Babeland, people from Good Vibrations. All of the sudden these feminist business that had been kind of marginalized for all of these years, everybody wanted to do what they were doing. And I thought, I’m not just writing about the history of feminist sex toy stores. I’m writing about the history of an entire market. I’m writing about how the women’s market for sex toys came into being, and all of these retailers are sitting in this room acting as though the women’s market just fell from the sky fully formed yesterday. “Oh my gosh, women are buying sex toys! Who knew?” Well, I’ll tell you who knew.
It’s like that old concept of the 30 year overnight success story, right?
Exactly! There was complete, within the larger adult industry, historical amnesia it seems like, which is fascinating to me.
It really did make me think about my project differently and that was very valuable. That’s why it took even longer to finish. Because I realized it isn’t just the history of these businesses, like Eve’s Garden, Good Vibrations, Babeland, Early to Bed, Smitten Kitten, Self Serve, etc, that have made a name for themselves in different cities across the country. That what was being talked about, all of the sudden, as this huge, hot growth market, had everything to do with feminist entrepreneurs. The formation of that market had everything to do with feminist sex toy shops. In the early 1970s, those founders, Dell Williams who started Eve’s Garden and Joani Blank who started Good Vibrations, they stood someplace, figuratively speaking, where no market existed. They weren’t starting businesses because they wanted to tap into an existing market. They started businesses because they thought there’s a need for this. We’re telling women to discover their bodies, vibrators can help them do that, and they’re looking around and saying great, where am I supposed to get one? And they were like, right, why don’t we start these businesses not because we aspire to be business people, but because we want to fill this need? Whereas if somebody was starting a business in 2017, whether it was a brick and mortar shop, or if it was an online sex toy business, they’re starting a business in 2017 with a really very well formed market.
So in 2008, everybody sits up and wants to figure out how to do what Good Vibrations and Babeland and other feminist sex toy stores are doing. What were they doing all those years that allowed them to create and foster this market? What were the common threads? Obviously in the ’70s it was hard to go get a “marital aid” or a “personal massager.” Now we live in this world where I turn on Netflix and I’m always greeted with this season’s promo image for Grace and Frankie, which is a vibrator. It conjures up this entire modern image of what a vibrator is. There’s clearly a network of these business and something they have in common. What were they doing that allowed us to get from Dell Williams being mortified at a Macy’s to being greeted with vibrators on the TV?
It’s such an evocative historical timeline that you’ve just painted. So I think—Dell Williams or Joani Blank didn’t have a business plan per se. Joani didn’t have a business plan for the first ten years of Good Vibrations. You have these entrepreneurs that just have this inkling that there was a need for what they were going to do. And they set out to start these businesses, to get vibrators into the hands of as many women as possible, create a space that ideally in the case of Good Vibrations is welcome to everyone. And they were just doing what felt right to them, and doing what felt natural to them.
For example, they had had or they had heard of other women who had had shopping experiences that were uncomfortable. They had been treated poorly by a sexist man behind the counter or they had been given the side-eye just by virtue of stepping into this space that had been a male-coded space. So they knew, for example, we want to create comfortable shopping environments. We want to be welcoming and friendly. We’re going to create a store that is pretty much the antithesis of the stereotype of the adult store. If the stereotype of the adult store is dark and unwelcoming, we’re going to create a bright store that’s really friendly and welcoming. If the stereotype of the adult store is that it’s nothing but a money grab, they just want to sell products, they don’t care about the quality, we’re going to lead with sex education and we’re going to lead with quality. Because we think those things are important. We want to create a space where people can ask questions, where we have a knowledgeable staff.
So they didn’t necessarily have, from the get-go, a fully formed vision, but they had these ideas about how they could be different. Comfortable, warm, welcoming, light, bright, educationally oriented. I think, as I talk about in the book, by virtue of those things, they were unconsciously or maybe a little bit consciously trying to imbue a sex business with a degree of cultural respectability that it had previously not had. And that I think was very important. These early businesses, again, consciously or unconsciously, were kind of catering to women like them. White, predominantly middle class, educated women who wanted a comfortable shopping experience. They were shopping in an environment that was as “respectable” as any department store that they could be going in. So they started to code these stores around a kind of middle class sexual sensibility and respectability that I don’t even know if they were fully conscious of doing. But they were. Indirectly. By the way they decorated the store, by the tasteful advertising and merchandising. And so what it meant was that people who previously hadn’t felt comfortable or welcome in these “seedy” adult businesses felt like, oh, I can go into Eve’s Garden or Good Vibrations and not feel embarrassed. I’m not being made to feel ashamed. Buying a vibrator isn’t something that I have to duck my head when I go in and out of the store because I’m afraid if my neighbor’s down the block parking his or her car they’re going to see me.
So I think one of the early things that these businesses did was, again, consciously or unconsciously, they kind of cloaked it in a veil of sexual respectability. And that made it easier for some people to feel comfortable and the more people that felt comfortable the more the businesses succeeded and the more that the model succeeded. So I think that growing the market, if we look at the historical trajectory, had a lot to do with making the act of going into a sex toy shop an ordinary, everyday, respectable activity that you didn’t have to be ashamed of.
And then a lot of these businesses led with sex education. And so a lot of people felt like going into a shop like Eve’s Garden or Good Vibrations or Babeland, there’s nothing to be ashamed of. This is an investment in myself. This is an educational outing.
If you look at their advertisements, if you unpack their marketing and advertising strategies, they were also leading with the sex education piece and they were leading with the ways in which they were warm and welcoming and friendly and well lit. That they were resource centers, not more traditional businesses. And I think all those things coalesced into a model that had appeal for at least a certain subset for women. And men. And that’s the other thing that I want to underscore. Even though a number of feminist sex toy businesses began because they wanted there to be a comfortable welcoming shop for women in their community where they could buy their vibrators and dildos and butt plugs, etcetera, they realized really quickly that there were many men who also wanted that kind of shopping experience too. It’s really important to note the degree to which feminist sex toy shops have historically been places that many men enjoy shopping, as well.
Generally, how inclusive would you say this world is? As your book makes clear, a lot of the work of building these retailers and their communities was done by lesbian and queer-identified women, but then especially as you get further back in the history—honestly, reflecting the history of feminism generally—it can be very white in many cases.
Oh, yeah. Incredibly. It is worth noting that many of the entrepreneurs who started the feminist sex toy stores that I write about are white, middle class, college-educated women who also have access to capital, who were able to get their hands on the money that they needed to start these businesses. And there’s a lot of variability in how much money.
So that’s very notable. The ownership of these businesses is very white, and the earlier businesses very much were coming from what we might think of as a second wave feminist tradition, where they didn’t have a very nuanced, if at all, sense of intersectionality. Or it was very universal ideas of “sisterhood is powerful,” that as women we’re all in this together. The perspective that shaped the early businesses was coming from a very white female perspective in those early businesses, for sure.
Nenna Joiner, who owns Feelmore in Oakland, was inspired to start her business in part as a response to the kind of overwhelming whiteness of the businesses that she was encountering. She was a fan of Good Vibrations, she lived in the Bay Area, she shopped at the store, but she couldn’t help but notice that when she would go in, the majority of people on the cover of books, people on the cover of videos and DVDs, were white people. And so she thought, where are people like me? Where are the brown people and the black people? And really made it her mission to start the sex toy store with the specific goal of catering to her community, because she felt it was underserved. And she is an amazing businesswoman, not only in terms of how she runs her store, but just the community outreach that she does on an ongoing basis. If there’s a town hall, if there’s a community meeting, if there’s a fundraiser, she is there. She wants to be that face of black business ownership for her community but, importantly, be a face of black female sex shop ownership. It’s so radical. Within the world that I study of these small, progressive feminist sex shop owners, she’s the only black lesbian business owner, to date.
But the history of these businesses has been a very white history, and they’ve had to really work hard to move beyond the white vantage point that historically has shaped their businesses. There’s been growing pains involved in that for many businesses. Difficult but necessary conversations around race and racism and classism and things like that. And I think for many years, Good Vibrations in particular had a kind of reputation as being a white woman’s store, and they’ve worked really hard to challenge that stereotype. And I’ve talked to trans-identified non-white employees who report today, in 2016, 2017, that their experience working at Good Vibrations is very, very different. It’s never been to them a white woman’s store. And they’ve been really happy for the work that earlier generations of employees put into making sure it moved beyond that.
What should we think about their legacy of these feminist sex toy shops as being? (Although, of course, they still exist.) What should we think about them as having done for us?
I think one of the legacies is, they’ve created spaces that have really encouraged and supported people, including and especially women but people in general, to engage with and take seriously their sexuality and their sexual pleasure in a culture that doesn’t do that very often or very well.
They’re certainly not utopian spaces for all sorts of reasons. Because, you know, there’s always been drama behind the scenes, right? They’re businesses with competing personalities and competing philosophies and competing agendas. But I think historically what these businesses have meant to people is they’ve offered them a sense of utopian possibilities around their sexuality and who they can imagine themselves to be as sexual people. And I think that’s significant, because we just don’t have many of those places in our culture.