Nowadays, sex-positivity is mainstream: Amazon sells vibrators for as little as a few dollars, and the honest, open-minded sex-advice podcast Savage Love is consistently at the top of downloads charts.
There was a time, not all that long ago, when such things were not quite so out in the open. In her new book, Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stories Changed the Business of Pleasure, Lynn Comella traces the link between the contemporary adult-toy industry and the small groups of feminist retailers who, starting in the 1970s, started their own vibrator stores explicitly for women. In the book, Comella, an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, interviews the founders of and workers at some of the country’s oldest feminist sex-toy retailers, including Dell Williams of Eve’s Garden in New York (which opened in 1974), Joani Blank of Good Vibrations in San Francisco (1977), and Claire Cavanah and Rachel Venning of Seattle’s Babeland (1993).
For these women and others who opened similar businesses across the country, selling vibrators was a way to educate women about their bodies. This then-niche market has become significantly more mainstream since the 1970s. Fifty years after vibrators entered the mainstream market as sex toys, researchers are starting to measure their use. Citing the first study of the how and why of American vibrator use by researchers at Indiana University in 2009, Comella writes that more than half of American women have used a vibrator during sex.
I recently spoke to Comella about how these entrepreneurs influenced contemporary understandings of sex, the challenges of running mission-driven businesses, and the place of feminist sex-toy stores today. The interview that follows has been edited and condensed.
Manisha Aggarwal-Schifellite: Before feminist sex-toy stores started opening up, what did the the industry look like?
Lynn Comella: In the early 1970s, there were few places for the average woman to comfortably buy a vibrator. They could muster the courage to walk into a conventional adult store, maybe in a so-called “red-light district” or “combat zone” of their city, hopefully without too much harassment along the way. There were few reputable mail-order options that would sell what were commonly referred to as “marital aids.” There was the option, in some cases, of going into a department store such as Macy’s, and buying what was being marketed as a back massager. But they never knew what kind of interaction they might contend with from a salesperson.
What makes these early businesses in the 1970s so remarkable is that it’s a different experience to start a business for something where there really wasn’t a market. The entrepreneurs were saying, “I’m having this conversation with women expressing a need. I’m going to fulfill this need, and I’m starting a business.”
Aggarwal-Schifellite: Who were the imagined customers of these early stores?
Comella: If you think of Eve’s Garden and Good Vibrations, the women starting these businesses saw themselves stepping into a breach and filling this gap in the marketplace. They were creating these feminist-identified vibrator shops to reach, first and foremost, female customers. Once you start peeling back the layers, their early idealized female customer is the mirror image of them: white, middle-class, and predominantly heterosexual, with a feminist background and politically progressive ideas.
White female respectability played an unspoken but important role in how the early stores designed their interiors and choose their products. Some early businesses didn’t initially carry dildos, because they were competing with vibrators and because of the cultural messaging for women about exploring their bodies, discovering their clitoris, and working against the myth of the vaginal orgasm. Some didn’t carry pornography, either because they personally didn’t like it or found it to be a sex-shop cliché.
In the book I write about the debate at Good Vibrations about carrying sexually erotic videos: They avoided that for many years because of the stereotypes that porn was degrading to women. It took the store manager, Susie Bright, to convince the founder, Joani Blank, that there was a value in thinking of pornography as a tool for enhancing a customer’s sex life. Good Vibrations also didn’t have lingerie initially because the founder thought it carried very limited ideas of female sexuality. There was this sense that they were creating these stores to meet the needs of women, but at the end of the day they were using their own experiences to gauge what they thought women would want.
Aggarwal-Schifellite: How has the feminist sex-toy store evolved to suit the needs of more-diverse customers?
Comella: Many retailers I interviewed didn’t realize that their stores would have widespread appeal that would cut across age, gender, socioeconomic background, race, ethnicity, and sexual orientation. They also found that many men wanted to shop at feminist stores. As they realized that, they had to change up their businesses accordingly. They had to make sure they were carrying products that other people, such as a transgender-identified customer, might want. By the early 1990s, you have lesbians and queer-identified women founding businesses based on Good Vibrations, like Babeland in Seattle. It wasn’t just about creating a women-friendly sex shop; they wanted to create a women-friendly, lesbian-friendly, queer-friendly sex shop. The businesses have really become more pan-gendered and pansexual in recent decades than they were in the early 1970s.
Aggarwal-Schifellite: In the book, you write about how these stores have marketed themselves as feminist, and then not, over time. Why is it so hard to sell a feminist business to consumers?
Comella: On one hand, these entrepreneurs fight against stereotypes by virtue of what they do every day—come into their businesses and talk openly about sex. The majority of these businesses strongly identify as feminist, and yet there’s debate on the extent they want to use that term in their marketing materials. For many people, the stereotype of feminism has been inherently anti-sex. It’s a powerful cultural construct. Some people can’t wrap their heads around the fact that there are feminist sex-toy shops. The ways in which feminism and capitalism come together within the context of these businesses is complicated and contradictory.
Aggarwal-Schifellite: How did those contradictions play out for the business owners you talked to?
Comella: One of the threads that goes through the book is the tension between profitability and social change. I was studying feminist businesses, but the majority of feminist entrepreneurs that I interviewed were very reluctant to describe themselves as businesswomen. It was very important for these entrepreneurs to see what they were doing as a mission-driven project for social change. What I’ve noticed is that newer sex shops have a different relationship to profitability, and I attribute that to the fact that many of the people who started newer businesses had worked at shops that underwent some financial strain.
Aggarwal-Schifellite: Where can you see the legacy of these stores in today’s sex-toy marketplace?
Comella: In the ‘70s and ‘80s, a woman-owned sex-toy shop was much more of a unicorn. And now there are a lot of those unicorns. That’s a double-edged sword: On the one hand, it speaks to the success that businesses like Good Vibrations, Babeland, and others have had. They had helped to transform these larger cultural dynamics, making it easier to speaking openly about sex. But helping to normalize conversations about sex also means more competition.
Today, you can buy luxury vibrators that are so beautiful and sculptural that you could set one on your coffee table. The retail businesses that are small are doing their best to navigate the new internet-driven consumer reality while also promoting their mission-driven businesses. But they also have Amazon breathing down their neck because Amazon sells sex toys too. As the book notes, we don’t really know what the future holds for feminist sex-toy shops, but the model that they created of sex-positive capitalism has really become the industry standard. These feminist sex-toy stores do a great job at educating their customers, and there’s always going to be a certain segment of the consumer base that feels that where they spend their money is a political act.
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