Interview – Lynn Comella, author of Vibrator Nation

Last month, we featured an excerpt from Lynn Comella’s recent publication, Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure. This month, we caught up with the author and asked her about the academic appeal of sex toys, finding surprises in research and which sex toy she believes has been the most culturally significant.

Screening Sex: Firstly, congratulations on such an extensive and enlightening piece of work. So… what’s the academic appeal of sex toys? 

LC: I think there’s academic appeal in knowing more about the objects, spaces, places, and practices that shape our everyday lives, including our sexual lives. When I began this project, more than 15 years ago, almost nothing had been written about the history of feminist sex-toy shops and the women who pioneered them, or the world of sex toys, for that matter. I felt that these areas were ripe for academic study, because they had something to teach us about feminist entrepreneurship and cultural production, cultures of consumption, and the discursive production of sexuality and its effects, among other things. I was hooked after my very first interview with a sex shop owner, in which she described her business as a ‘feminist way to empower women.’ I quickly realised that this wasn’t a story about just one store, but an entire network of businesses across the country that had all adopted a certain way of selling sex toys and talking about sex. I wanted to know more about how these retailers had taken a cultural form traditionally associated with men – the sex shop – and turned it on its head, imbuing their stores – and the products they sold – with new kinds of cultural and political possibilities. How did they distinguish their women-friendly businesses from more traditional sex shops ostensibly designed with men in mind? What were the sexual vernaculars and modes of representation they used to market sex toys to women and with what significance? What did it mean to cast vibrators as tools of liberation and not just devices for sexual stimulation? As a researcher, I was completely captivated.

The opening quote in your book is from Betty Dodson who describes women-run sex shops as ‘little pockets of sanity’. What do you think she meant by this?

That quote is from an interview I conducted with Betty Dodson in which she talked quite openly about her frustration with the women’s movement, which she felt had failed to develop an adequate theory of pleasure. By the early 1980s, feminism had taken a wrong turn, according to her, and whatever inroads had been made in the 1970s around carving out more space in the culture for women to talk openly about sex and make their sexual pleasure a priority had been hijacked by the anti-pornography movement. Sex was no longer seen by the feminist establishment as a potentially liberating force, but a danger zone. A new kind of sexual hysteria had taken hold and the forward momentum that had been generated by Dodson and other sex-positive pioneers seemed to ground to a halt. This is what we were talking about when Dodson asserted that feminist vibrator shops were those ‘little pockets of sanity’ where women could go to get their sexual information and products. That’s where feminism, she said, lives if you want to deal with sex. I just loved the image she conjured of feminist sex-toy stores as sex-positive sanctuaries, places of refuge in a world that’s frequently hostile to both female sexuality and feminist politics. 

In its bid to encourage women to own and enjoy their sexual pleasure Good Vibrations adopted the tagline ‘especially but not exclusively for women’. Where do you locate men’s attitudes and sexual education during this time and do you think feminist sex stores have had an impact male perceptions about female sexuality?  

I absolutely think that feminist sex-toy stores have had an impact on men’s perceptions about female sexuality and, importantly, their own sexuality, too. Men made up about fifty percent of the customer base at Babeland when I was doing my fieldwork there. Sometimes they would come into the store with a female partner, other times they’d come in alone. They could be looking for anything: condoms, a book about the G-spot, the vibrator from Sex and the City, or information about the best dildos and strap-ons for pegging. In the process of whatever it was they were looking for, they got to have a really positive interaction with a woman they weren’t dating or married to, who might be a lesbian or queer-identified, and who had the authority to speak knowledgeably about sex in a culture that often punishes women for doing so. I heard many stories during my research about men who would call or write to a feminist business after a visit to say, ‘Thank you, thank you, thank you.’ The product, information, tip, whatever it was they got at the store, was something they took back to a girlfriend, wife or lover, and their sex lives were better and more satisfying as a result. Good Vibrations founder Joani Blank, in all of her prescient wisdom, knew from the start that it was just as important for men to have access to accurate sexual information and quality products in a friendly and welcoming environment as it was for women. And she was right. The more people that come into contact with positive messages about sexuality, the better – for them, their partners, and the culture as a whole.

Joani Blank
Good Vibrations founder Joani Blank, 1977. Courtesy of Joani Blank.

You talk at length in the acknowledgments about the rich support you had in working on the book but, given its topic, did you encounter any resistance while writing Vibrator Nation

I encountered more curiosity than anything else, especially early on in my research. The fact that I was writing an entire dissertation about the history and retail culture of feminist sex-toy shops and, eventually, a book, struck some people as… unusual. Even if they didn’t say anything directly, it wasn’t difficult to read their body language or see the look of surprise on their faces. What this meant was that I learned early on in my career how to make a case for why my research mattered and why it was important to study sexual culture with the same seriousness and rigour with which we would approach any other cultural phenomenon. What I’ve noticed over time, interestingly, is that people’s responses to my research have changed. Now, fewer people raise their eyebrows or look puzzled when I tell them what I study. Instead, they said things like, ‘Oh, you mean like Good Vibrations?’ or they happily talk about their last sex-toy shopping excursion or their favourite vibrator. This shift in reception has coincided with the growing popularity and mainstreaming of sex toys and their increased visibility in popular culture. A research topic that many people viewed as unconventional, esoteric, or even a little strange fifteen years ago, is far less so today. It’s been an interesting shift and one that I think bodes well for the academic study of sexuality.

What was the most surprising thing you found in your research? 

There were so many surprises, both big and small, but if I had to choose just one, it would be learning that Dell Williams, who founded Eve’s Garden in New York City in 1974, had kept many of the letters that customers had written to her over the years. The letters came from people all over the country who wrote to share their sexual frustrations, hopes, and desires, or to simply thank Williams for the vibrator they had purchased. They clearly saw her as a confidante and resource, someone who would be sympathetic to their needs and concerns. In many instances, Williams wrote back, offering her support and encouraging people’s sexual self-discoveries. We know this, because Williams kept carbon copies of many of her replies. The letters, which are part of the Dell Williams Papers in the Human Sexuality Collection at Cornell University, offer an extraordinary glimpse into the mindset and motivations of the burgeoning sexual consumer class for women in the 1970s and 1980s. 

Eve's Garden ad
Early Eve’s Garden classified ad from Ms. magazine.

You indicate how women have been at the centre of a commercial industry in which they have often thought of as being excluded, subjected to or spoken for. How does your work challenge these popular perceptions? 

I think my research challenges stereotypes about women and the adult industry in several ways. Since the late 1970s, the anti-pornography and anti-sex work factions of the women’s movement have been quite successful in painting the adult industry in such broad strokes that it’s easy for many people to reduce a diverse and multi-faceted industry to little more than predatory capitalists and sketchy men in trench coats, a sexist world that’s deeply inhospitable to women. My research disrupts industry stereotypes by positioning women as sexual agents, entrepreneurs, and consumers who are not just participating in the sexual marketplace, but actively redefining it. The other way I think my research challenges popular perceptions is that it fundamentally troubles the idea that feminism and capitalism are, by definition, incommensurate. The businesses that I write about show that it is possible – although not always easy – to practice progressive politics through the marketplace. So those are two ways that I hope my research intervenes into and unsettles commonly held assumptions about women and the sex industry on the one hand, and feminism and capitalism on the other. 

In recent years, numerous publications including Forbes magazine and UK newspapers The Guardian and The Independent, have remarked on the economic growth of the sex toy industry during times of economic decline. Why do you think this is? 

It’s interesting, isn’t it? For a little background and context, I should say that I moved to Las Vegas to start my job at UNLV in August 2007, just as the first indicators of the economic downturn were hitting Nevada. My introduction to Las Vegas took place against the backdrop of housing foreclosures, rising unemployment numbers, and a dramatic drop in tourism, the last of which fuels the economic engine of Nevada. So, it was interesting when, a few months later in January 2008, I attended my first AVN Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas, and discovered that everyone was talking about the buying power of women. Sales of sex toys were skyrocketing at the very moment that the global economy – as well as sales from pornography – were in free fall. Some writers at the time chalked it up to the mantra, ‘Sex sells,’ arguing that purchasing a sex toy was a relatively inexpensive investment in one’s pleasure and cheaper than springing for dinner and a movie. While there’s certainly some truth to that, there were other, larger cultural forces and market shifts at play that just happened to coincide with the recession and contribute to the boom in sex toys sales. By 2008, when the mainstream adult industry suddenly sat up and realised that women had disposable income and they were spending it on things that enhanced their pleasure, including sex toys, there had already been more than 30 years of the feminist sex-toy store movement. Feminist retailers had created a market that was suddenly big enough to register mainstream recognition. Sex-positivity had also begun to permeate the wider culture, finding its way into books, films, magazine articles, and television shows. It was the post-Sex and the City era and mainstreaming of sex toys was already well underway. All to say, I think there were a number of cultural forces that just happened to align at a point in time when the economy was in decline. 

The impact of early sex-positive feminist stores is noted in the book. Besides the stores, what toy do you think has been most culturally and politically significant? 

That’s such a good question. Perhaps more than any other vibrator, the Magic Wand – formerly known as the Hitachi Magic Wand – has achieved a kind of iconic status as a symbol of female sexual liberation, with a fan base and popularity that has spanned generations. Dell Williams liked to tell a story in which, after attending one of Betty Dodson’s Bodysex Workshops in the early 1970s, she marched to Macy’s Department store in Manhattan to buy a Hitachi ‘body massager’ only to be embarrassed by a male clerk in the process. (That incident actually prompted her to start her business.) The Hitachi was part of the early product inventory at Eve’s Garden and, later, Good Vibrations, and was prominently featured in their mail-order catalogues and advertising. In Good Vibrations’ first book-like catalogue, which debuted in 1985, the Hitachi was described as the business’s ‘most popular vibrator’, and it continues to be a top-selling item at many stores today. Interestingly, the item underwent rebranding a few years ago and ‘Hitachi’ was dropped from the product name. The story was that it finally got back to Hitachi’s home office in Japan that people were using one of its products for sexual purposes. The company didn’t want their brand image associated with the adult industry and decided to stop making the item. Vibratex, which had been the Magic Wand’s US import agent since the late 1990s, got to work figuring out how to save it. They improved the item’s technology, updated its packaging, and rebranded it as the Magic Wand Original in 2013. 

Hitachi Magic Wand
Babeland advertisement showcasing the Hitachi Magic Wand. From Bitch magazine, summer 2003.

Finally, as we’re an academic blog that focuses on the screen, what scenes from film or television featuring sex toys do you find interesting? 

I’m completely charmed by the discussion of vibrators and older women’s sexuality in season three of the Netflix series Grace and Frankie (2015-2017). The show’s namesakes (played by Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin), who are in their seventies, hatch a plan to start a vibrator business with products geared toward older women. They design a prototype, with an easy-to-grip gel sleeve for women with arthritis, a rotating head, and a glow in the dark control panel. Unlike other television shows, where a sex toy makes a brief cameo appearance in a bedroom scene, Grace and Frankie’s efforts to get their vibrator business up and running is a central storyline. We watch as they attempt to get a bank loan, visit a hip business incubator, and run a focus-group of their peers. Their efforts are entertaining, for sure, but the show’s writers don’t reduce older women’s sexuality, masturbation, or orgasms to a punchline, which is so refreshing. The show also offers a glimpse into the business of and market for sex toys, which is novel to see on television.

Vibrator Nation is also reviewed on the blog this month.

Lynn Comella, Ph.D. is an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies in the department of interdisciplinary, gender, and ethnic studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. An expert on the adult entertainment industry, her research explores a number of broad sociological themes, including the relationship between sexual politics and consumer culture. She is also the co-editor of New Views on Pornography: Sexuality, Politics, and the Law (2015).

lynn.comella@unlv.edu / @LynnComella

Featured image credit: Krystal Ramirez.

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