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

Review of Lynn Comella’s Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure. Duke University Press. September 2017 (HB £79.00 and PB £20.99). 296 pages. 41 illustrations.

review by Caroline West, Dublin City University.

Lynn Comella’s newest book Vibrator Nation is an engaging expedition across more than 30 years of the history of feminist sex stores in the US. Comella provides a multilayered context, detailing the cultural climates, sex education histories and social positioning of female sexuality that the stores operated and flourished under. Depicting how these stores came into existence, the author highlights the vision of pioneering women who have spent their lives sharing their passion for pleasure, such as Joani Blank (the founder of sex-toy business Good Vibrations), Betty Dodson, and ‘trailblazer Susie Sexpert’ a.k.a. Susie Bright

Comella highlights how sex stores such as Good Vibrations and Eve’s Garden were set up not just as businesses but as sex education resource centres, providing a space for women to discuss their bodies, desires and pleasures in ways they had previously felt unable to. In interviews with the sex-store entrepreneurs the author details how customers would often write letters of gratitude, finally feeling heard in their efforts to navigate their sexuality in a culture that did not prioritise female sexual pleasure. Customers would go into detail with shop assistants about their sex lives and ask their advice, so much so that Blank argued that the focus of her store Good Vibrations was to be less of a retail space and more of a resource centre, with the emphasis being on empowerment rather than profit. This mission led to arguments over what to call employees; were they retail assistants or sex educators? Comella shares the personal testimonies of employees to highlight these nuances, gathered across almost 20 years of extensive field work, in addition to her personal experiences working in this area. 

These arguments between employees over business practices and ideology also extended to how to move the businesses forward, as the clash between feminist, co-op ideologies and the harsh realities of operating a business in a capitalist system increased. Comella explores the personal and professional challenges faced as competition expanded from newer retailers across the country and how developments such as the Internet forced retailers to change their business models or risk going bust.

As well as ever-evolving financial concerns, challenges existed in other forms. Comella outlines how sexual pleasure revolutionaries defined feminism, decided what their customer base was and who was allowed to work for them. Issues of race and class are also highlighted. While Nenna Joiner, African American entrepreneur and founder of Feelmore (Oakland’s first sex-toy store), is profiled, Comella is conscious to outline how most of the women she features are white and the historic client base has been white women. It would be a welcome addition to this research area to hear more about the experiences of women of colour as entrepreneurs and consumers alongside the challenges they faced.

These arguments over identity and feminist ideology also extended to considerations about which products to stock and whether they would enhance or inhibit customers in claiming ownership of their sexual pleasure. Comella describes the heated politics in different companies of stocking various products from porn to panties and the important differences between vibrators versus dildos. Featuring commentary from current and former employees, Comella provides a fascinating look at how the arguments over these products showed the passion held by those involved. The entrepreneurs profiled in Vibrator Nation state that their mission was to provide space for women to freely explore their sexuality instead of navigating typical heteronormative, patriarchal spaces found in the existing male-owned and operated sex stores. 

Indeed, the author also examines how the stores envisioned their physical spaces, striving to differentiate themselves from the stereotypical ‘sleazy’ sex shop. Utilising examples of customers responses to these efforts, Comella describes how decor became influential for customer engagement with stores and yet some customers such as queer women rejected these sanitisation efforts. 

It is clear from reading how the women featured have one major characteristic in common: a fiery passion for changing how female sexuality and sexual pleasure is embodied in society. Striving for empowerment, they took personal, financial and professional risks to make their mission become reality in order to enhance the lives of their customers, valuing pleasure over profit. The work is an important documentation of this stage in the battle to free sexual pleasure from patriarchal constraints and Comella’s passion for this process comes through in the detail and personal experiences she shares. An inspiring read, Vibrator Nation will engage those interested in the history of sexual pleasure as well as provide valuable information for those researching feminist activism and the broader field of female sexuality. 

Contributor

Caroline West is a PhD researcher at Dublin City University, Ireland. Her research focuses on the experiences of women working in the American porn industry and how these experiences are discussed by the feminist movement. This also involves examining the history of pornography and the relationship between power, sex and knowledge. She also holds an MA in Sexuality Studies.

caroline.ryan67@mail.dcu.ie / @carolinewest_IE

You might also like to read:

Susie Bright, Good Vibrations and the Politics of Sexual Representation by Lynn Comella. August 2017.

Interview – Lynn Comella, author of Vibrator Nation. September 2017.

Telling Stories: Annabel Chong, Instrumentality and Exploitation by Caroline West. August 2017.

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