Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure, by Lynn Comella

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Even in 2017, there are not many books that take an academic study approach to the adult industry, let alone to the pleasure products industry. Lynn Comella, who spent years researching and writing Vibrator Nation, traces the movement that changed not only the way sex and sex toys are talked about, but also how they are sold, marketed, developed and more.

Comella (pictured above; photo by Krystal Ramirez) starts off with a concise yet comprehensive history of the roles women were expected for decades to happily and eagerly fill (wife and mother); research by the likes of Betty Friedan and Alfred Kinsey, which found women were not only open to more sexual experiences but also having them outside the confines of marriage; the attacks on pornography and sex toys by governments at the local, state and federal levels that seemed to unfairly target women; the emergence of sex-positive feminist sex stores; and the sea change as old-school sex stores and sex toy manufacturers catering to men came to realize the buying power of women and shifted to become more female-friendly.

From that introduction, Comella addresses specific points about the people who have made great strides in the evolution of pleasure product retailers, the economic and social factors that have forced changes in the business model through the years, and the shift to focus on women as purchasers and not just users of pleasure products.

Vibrator Nation does an excellent job of educating readers about the role women such as Betty Dodson played in encouraging women to explore their own bodies and sexuality through masturbation, as well as suggesting they find pleasure products to help achieve orgasm.

One of the more intriguing chapters is titled “Repackaging Sex.” Comella starts off the chapter by recounting her visit in 2015 to a Las Vegas adult bookstore. The store, considered a “dinosaur” by today’s standards, features video arcade booths that serve as “a space for sexual encounters, especially for gay, bisexual, bi-curious, and closeted straight men that use the arcade for anonymous or clandestine liaisons,” Comella writes. It’s the kind of store “feminists like Dell Williams and Joani Blank rebelled against when they started their vibrator businesses in the 1970s. They are also examples of a dying breed of sex shop.”

Through the chapter, Comella details the emergence of sex boutiques that dedicated themselves to providing information and education on everything from the products they stocked to the anatomy of their customers to the resources available for all types of sex and sexuality. She also details the rise—particularly in the 1990s—of stores that made changes in their aesthetics and inventory to met the wants and needs of a new clientele. She tells the stories of Babeland, Good Vibrations and other pioneering feminist stores that did away with the look and feel of “raincoater” stores and instead opted for better lighting, themed displays and a cleaner atmosphere to create a space “that was not only warm and welcoming, but communicated a set of messages about women’s sexuality that was different from those one would typically find in a traditional adult store.”

That segues into the next chapter, “The Politics of Products,” where she talks about how even feminist stores struggle with the products they carry, from finding manufacturers who share a mission of providing pleasure products made from body-safe materials to hiring staff members who are passionate about helping customers overcome their fears and find the right toys.

“While these decisions vary from company to company, feminist retailers spend a great deal of time, energy, and care evaluating—and often debating—which items will make it onto their shelves and what this merchandise communicates not only about sex and gender but also, importantly, about their businesses,” Comella writes.

Other chapters focus on the reliance of today’s feminist adult boutiques on sex experts and sex educators to train staff members and customers on the latest innovations and their benefits; branding a store and becoming a trusted resource of the community; and how feminist and sex-positive stores have changed the landscape of sex toy manufacturing.

Vibrator Nation is an essential read for anyone interested in opening an adult boutique, or who already owns one and is looking for inspiration—and for anyone who is interested in the history of adult boutiques and what they might look like in the years to come. It’s apparent Comella has a deep respect and admiration for the people she interviewed and for their missions. Unlike so many academic books, there is no condescending attitude toward the industry or its people, but it is not strictly a gushing love letter with no real substance. Comella took years to research and write Vibrator Nation, and the hard work shows. And while she hypothesizes a bit on where the industry and feminist adult boutiques are headed, it would be intriguing to see her revisit the state of the industry with an updated version of the books in a few years.

Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure, by Lynn Comella; Duke University Press; 266 pages including end notes; $25.95 list price.