Vibrator Nation: An Interview with Lynn Comella

Have you ever wondered what people mean when they talk about feminist sex toy stores? Do you love learning about feminism, sex toys, and history? Are you just looking for a fascinating book to read? Then Lynn Comella's new book, Vibrator Nation, is for you! Vibrator Nation tells the story of feminist sex toy stores and the women who created them. It traces the history of those stores from their origins in the 1970s to their modern incarnations, offering insights about feminism and culture along the way. I interviewed Lynn and asked her to share some findings from her book as well as offer her thoughts about the state of sex (and sex ed) in the U.S.

Vibrator Nation is about feminist sex toy stores. What even makes a sex toy store feminist in the first place?

That’s a great question. First and foremost, a storeowner needs to identify their business as “feminist” and incorporate feminist values into the way they run it from the get-go. What that looks like, as I talk about in the book, often varies from business to business, and depends on an individual storeowner’s understanding of what feminism is and who it includes, which can, and often does, shift over time.

That said, there are certain elements that all the businesses I write about have in common: they position their stores as sex-positive resource centers, not traditional capitalist enterprises; they prioritize access to accurate sexual information and quality products, which also means carrying items that reflect a range of price points; they work hard to be body-positive, queer-friendly, and trans-inclusive spaces; and strive to run their businesses in ethical ways, which also means treating their employees well and paying them fairly. They also, importantly, prioritize honest and frank conversations about sex in a culture where there are still very few spaces available to talk openly about the nitty gritty details of sex.

At the end of the day, being a feminist business is about much more than simply hiring a woman to run the cash register, or painting the walls of your store lavender. It really does start with a different philosophy and set of ethics about what kind of spaces sex shops can be and who they are for. What that means, and how that takes shape, is something I explore throughout the book.

What are some of the biggest cultural/social contributions of feminist sex toy stores and their founders over the last forty years?

Businesses like Good Vibrations, Babeland, Early to Bed, Smitten Kitten, Self Serve, among others, have been at the forefront of helping to bring sex-positive ideas and messages into the cultural mainstream. I spoke to many people during my research who told me that the first time they encountered positive messages about sex and pleasure was at one of these businesses, and that being in a space where they could talk openly about sex was personally transformative. Over time, these sex-positive messages began to travel beyond the walls of these stores. That became the foundation of their mail-order catalogs and, eventually, their websites, and began to reach people in far flung places who perhaps didn’t have a store like Good Vibrations or Babeland in their city or town. Feminists wrote “how to” guides about sex, started making feminist and queer pornography, and began manufacturing silicone sex toys, contributing to and becoming part of a much larger, sex-positive revolution.

It was also the case that when journalists needed a quote for a magazine story or newspaper article about the latest sex toy or newest sex craze, they’d often call a feminist store to get a smart, sex-positive quote from someone who was likely to be a woman and who might also be queer and who actually knew a thing or two about sex. In these and other ways, feminist sex toy stores have played a key role in helping to change cultural conversations around sex and sex toys by bringing honest, frank, and smart conversations about sexuality and pleasure into the cultural mainstream.

Have there been any big changes in how feminist sex toy stores operate between the 1970s and now?

One of the biggest changes over the past four decades is who these stores see as their customer base, which has really expanded beyond the initial “for women” context of Eve’s Garden, which was founded by Dell Williams in 1974. If you had walked into Eve’s Garden retail showroom in the 1970s, you wouldn’t have seen any men milling around. Williams believed—like so many feminists at the time—that women needed spaces and places to call their own. In the early years of the business, she initiated a “women’s only” policy. She eventually relaxed that policy and began welcoming men, but only during certain hours and only if accompanied by a woman. Flash forward to today and it’s a very different scene at stores such as Good Vibrations, Babeland, Self Serve, and others, where everyone, regardless of gender, sexual orientation, and background, are welcomed as customers. This shift is reflected in who’s working on the sex shop floor, the products these businesses carry, and even their marketing and promotional strategies, all of which are far more inclusive than what they were in the early years of the feminist sex-toy store movement.    

How has the rise in online retail of sex toys changed the industry, given that it wasn't something available when the first feminist sex toy stores came into being?

The internet has dramatically changed the sex toy industry, including ideas about competition, which I discuss in the book’s conclusion. During the first wave of feminist sex toy retailing in the 1970s, when businesses like Eve’s Garden and Good Vibrations were founded, and later, during the second wave, when Babeland and Grand Opening opened their doors for businesses in the early 1990s, feminist vibrator shops didn’t have to worry about competition from online businesses. They were able to carve out their own sex-positive niches in their respective cities of New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Boston, and build a loyal following of customers and fans. With the emergence of online retailing, however, these same businesses all started competing for customers in cities that didn’t have a friendly, feminist sex shop of their own. Good Vibrations, for example, became less willing to share information with other upstart businesses, which it had routinely done for years. Resources that had once been freely shared were now recast as “trade secrets.” It was profoundly disappointing for some people to realize that this was not the friendly world of feminist businesses they had imagined it to be. But the internet also had other effects, including the fact that small brick-and-mortar businesses, such as Early to Bed in Chicago, Self Serve in Albuquerque, and Sugar in Baltimore, among others, are trying to figure out how to be profitable and keep their businesses afloat in a world in which they are now competing with huge corporations like Amazon. It’s very challenging.

There’s been some discussion in the last few years about how feminism is used as a “brand” to sell things to women. Did you find any indicators of this trend in the sex toy industry during your research?

One of the interesting things about feminist sex toy stores, which I discuss in the book, is that marketing themselves as feminist businesses, especially in mainstream outlets, has always been a little bit tricky.

In the 1980s, for example, Good Vibrations had its ads rejected from both Playboy and Ms. magazine. The business was apparently too feminist for Playboy and too sexual for Ms. Another complicating factor is that many people, sadly, understand feminism to be anti-sex and anti-male, so using the word “feminist” in marketing campaigns can pose a challenge for feminist sex toy businesses, because it risks alienating certain segments of the population that they ideally want to reach. The trend we’ve seen over the past decade in the adult industry has more to do with using “women” as a buzzword for a kind of “classy” and “respectable” version of sex toy retailing. In some ways, it’s less about using feminism as a brand, and much more about co-opting the model of sex-positive capitalism that feminist businesses have developed, including its emphasis on sex education and sexual health, and using it to enhance their bottom line.

You worked as a vibrator clerk at Babeland in New York City while researching your book. Can you tell us what it was like to work there?

I loved working on the sales floor at Babeland. If I could figure out a way to be both a university professor and a vibrator clerk, I’d do it in a heartbeat. From a research perspective, it was invaluable because it allowed me to see firsthand what was involved in running a mission-driven, feminist sex toy business—warts and all. Being on the sales floor, interacting with customers, and attending staff and marketing meetings meant that I was able to observe things that I otherwise wouldn’t have had access to if I was relying solely on other people’s accounts of the business or just analyzing historical documents.

On a more personal note, I really enjoyed being part of Babeland’s women-powered, feminist and queer community. For someone who grew up with little access to sexual information, being on the front lines of a movement that was committed to empowering people around their sexuality was deeply rewarding.

You live and work in Nevada, a state many people associate with sexual openness. Do you find that same openness in the sex ed offered in the state? If not, why do you think that is?

Nevada is a really fascinating and contradictory place, especially Las Vegas, where I live.

On the one hand, Las Vegas markets itself as “Sin City” and projects an image to tourists that “anything goes” sexually, but in many ways, it’s the most conservative place I’ve ever lived. When it comes to school-based sex education, Nevada, like many other states, suffers from limited, hit or miss, abstinence-based sex education, which leaves a lot of young people in the dark. I wrote about the state of sex education in Nevada a few years ago for a local magazine and what I found was pretty shocking. For many students, their big takeaway from sex ed—if they were lucky enough to take it—was: “Don’t have sex.” The focus of the class was often STIs, which involved showing students graphic pictures to scare them. One young women I spoke with, who had her first child at eighteen, and found out she had an STI the same day she learned she was pregnant, wondered how her life might have been different if she had access to better information about birth control and sex. And a sexual health educator at UNLV, where I teach, told me she’s had young women in her classes refer to their genitals as a “cookie” or a “flower,” because that’s what they’d been taught by their parents. I found that much of what young people learned about sex had everything to do with their teacher and how committed they were to accurate, fact-based information. But it was entirely hit or miss, and sadly, often more miss. 

What would you change about the way sex ed is done in the U.S.?

Oh gosh, where do I start? I just completed a stop on the Vibrator Nation book tour at Self Serve Toys in Albuquerque, and there were three young women at the event who were foreign exchange students at the nearby University of New Mexico. When the discussion turned to the state of sex education in the U.S., one of the women, who was from the Netherlands, said that she was shocked to see just how little some of her American peers knew about their bodies and about sex. Her American roommate, for example, didn’t know what ovulation was. She couldn’t believe that a college-aged woman didn’t know basic information about how her body worked. For those of us in the room that knew more about the reality of sex education in the U.S., we weren’t surprised to hear this. One of the big things I would change about how sex education is done in the U.S. is to stop treating sex and bodies as taboo or dangerous topics that need to be whispered about in secrecy. It’s long past time that we start treating sex education as the essential subject matter that it is, much like reading, writing, and arithmetic.

What are you optimistic about when it comes to the culture of sex and sexuality in the United States?

I’m optimistic about the growing community of sex-positive educators who are thinking outside the box about how to dispel sexual myths and get accurate information about sex into the hands of as many people as possible, of all ages and backgrounds. Obviously, many feminist and queer-friendly sex toy shops are doing important work around adult sexuality education, but I also think about YouTube sex educators and, of course, websites like Scarleteen, which are working to ensure that accurate sex information gets into the hands of the people who need it the most. I’m also really encouraged to see more mainstream adult companies stepping up their sex education efforts. Adult film performer Jessica Drake is a certified sex educator and has spearheaded an entire line of sex education videos for Wicked Pictures. Alicia Sinclair, the founder of sex-toy company b-Vibe, is also a certified sex educator. It’s exciting to see more and more members of the adult business community step up their sex education game.

If you could go back in time and give your teenage self advice about sex or relationships, what would you tell her?

I grew up with very limited information about sex. I was fed a pretty steady diet of all the ways in which it was potentially dangerous: it could lead to pregnancy, disease, and a so-called bad reputation. None of that inspired a sense of teenage sexual exploration. Even dating seemed risky. If I could go back in time, I’d tell my teenage self that she has a right to date, to explore, to be sexually curious—pretty basic stuff, but important messages all the same.