How the Vibrator Conquered America 

Photo courtesy Lynn Comella.

Not so long ago, vibrators—when they were sold at all—were
generally available in seedy surroundings or marketed in a
thick protective layer of double entendre. (Promising to
massage you, for instance, “delightfully all over.”) In 2017, however,
Dolly Parton can stand onstage at the Emmys and
joke about wanting one in her swag bag.

What brought vibrators and other sex toys into the mainstream
of popular culture? Before you suggest Sex and the
City
or Fifty Shades of Grey, read Lynn Comella’s
new book
Vibrator Nation
: How Feminist Sex Toy Stores
Changed the Business of Pleasure.
Comella charts the rise
of stores like Good Vibrations, Babeland and others, which she
argues shared a sensibility and a sense of feminist mission to
empower women in their sexuality and, over time, gradually
transformed both the sex toy business and cultural attitudes to
the industry.

Basically, it’s the story of how we got hot pink Broad
City
branded vibrators that say “Yas Kween.”

It’s a deep, thoughtful chronicle of a phenomenon and a recent
history that is illuminating and useful to have. Comella spoke
to many of the people intimately involved in creating this
market. She did years of interviews and research and several
months of fieldwork on the sales floor at Babeland. She spoke
with Dell Williams, founder of the first of these stores, Eve’s
Garden, and dug into her collection of grateful letters from
customers in the 1970s. “I want to thank you for offering this
service to help women fulfill themselves sexually,” said one
correspondent, who signed off “Yours in Sisterhood.” Comella
argues these founders weren’t simply after a business
opportunity; they were on a mission. “A vibrator to them wasn’t
just a device for sexual stimulation,” she told me. “They did
genuinely see a vibrator as a tool of sexual education, a way
to learn about your body, as a tool of liberation.”

I recently spoke to Comella about her work; our conversation
has been edited for length and clarity.

JEZEBEL: Why sex toys and why these retailers? What got
you into this particular topic?

Lynn Comella: The big catalyst was just being
really interested in those spaces and places where women could
assume an unapologetic public sexuality. Men had a lot of those
places, and I was wondering, where is it that women can go and
own their sexuality? And I thought, well, I know of Good
Vibrations.

There were these feminist sex toy stores that were really
invested in providing an alternative space for women in
particular, although also for everyone, and it just so happened
that a feminist sex shop had opened in the small college town
where I was living at the time, Northhampton, Massachusetts. It
was the late 1990s, and I was taking a graduate seminar in
field methods in cultural studies, and I decided to make that
tiny little sex shop the subject of a graduate school seminar
paper. I was just fascinated by the very first interview that I
ever conducted on the topic with the store’s owner. She said,
“I see my store as a feminist way to empower women, and I based
my business on Good Vibrations in San Francisco and the Good
Vibrations model.”

And I thought wow, there’s a whole model of how to do this, how
to talk about sex and sell sex toys in a way that’s educational
and informative and welcoming and friendly, and there’s not
just this one store, but there’s this growing network of
businesses all over the country. That seminar paper grew into
my PhD dissertation, and then I just continued the research and
interviewing more people and digging back further into the
history, and that eventually became this book.

To go back to the moment where your book opens,
contextualize for me the conversation about female pleasure and
the female orgasm within the wider world of the second wave
feminist movement in the 1970s.

There’s still so many stereotypes around feminists of the late
’60s and ’70s, what we would have characterized as those
quote-unquote second wave feminists. And one of the big
stereotypes is that they were sexual prudes, and they were kind
of anti-sex. That sex positivity really came later. But in
fact, the early 1970s was an important historical time for
emerging discussions and public discourses around female
sexuality, including female masturbation and the politics of
the female orgasm. There were a number of second wave feminists
that really made a case for the ways in which female sexuality
was not just political, but a key issue that needed to be
factored into a second wave feminist agenda.

I talk about the 1973 NOW conference on women’s sexuality where
Betty Dodson boldly stood up on stage and talked about her
great affection for her vibrator. That was so groundbreaking at
the time, to be in a public setting at a conference—and,
granted, the conference was devoted to female sexuality. But
she was really blazing a trail by being very open about her
affection for her vibrator and calling on women to learn about
their bodies, and one way to do that was through masturbation.
You had feminist writers that were writing almost sexual
manifestos, right? We need to rethink the female orgasm, we
need to blow apart this long-standing Freudian theory of the
vaginal orgasm and really teach women about the power of the
clitoris. There were all these cross currents. There were
essays that were being published and conferences that were
being organized and then you have people like Betty Dodson, who
started to have sexual consciousness raising groups in her
Manhattan apartment, where she would get together with a group
of women and they would get in touch with their bodies and talk
about sexuality, and Betty Dodson started to do masturbation
demonstrations. Because she really felt like there was no good
visual representation of female sexuality and the female
orgasm, and what better way to learn what female orgasms really
looked like than seeing them?

So there was all this out of the box thinking, and all of that
was the backstory and catalyst to this first feminist vibrator
business, which was Eve’s Garden. And that story I think is
just really great. You have Dell Williams who, by that point,
was in her early ’50s. She had been active in NOW and she had
attended one of Dodson’s bodysex workshops. Her mind was blown.
She felt really empowered around her sexuality and she thinks,
this is great! Vibrators are tools of sexual liberation, I am
going to march down to Macy’s department store in Midtown
Manhattan and I am going to buy a Hitachi Magic Wand. And in
the process of getting her “body massager,” which is how they
were marketed at the time, she had a really embarrassing
encounter with a male clerk who made her feel a bit humiliated.
He asked her, according to her story, “Well, what do you want
to use this for?” There were other people watching.
And she said, well, to massage my back. And she left the store
and she was just mad. She thought, “Here I was, feeling so
newly empowered around my sexuality, I go to this store, I feel
embarrassed. Why aren’t women selling vibrators to other women?
We have feminist bookstores, we have these other feminist
businesses that are starting. Why don’t we have feminist
vibrator shops? She asked a couple of her friends who she
thought might want to open one of those businesses if they were
interested and they weren’t, so she just thought, okay, I’ll do
it myself.

Early Eve’s Garden classified ad from Ms.
magazine. Courtesy Lynn Comella.

One of the things I love about that moment—and it wasn’t just
Dell Williams starting Eve’s Garden, but it was other feminist
activists and entrepreneurs—everything was a possibility. These
were women who were out there, guns blazing, wanting to change
the world. Wanting to change the workplace, wanting to change
family dynamics, striving for more inclusive, anti-racist
spaces. Striving for all sorts of things that they thought
would make a better world. And they just rolled up their
sleeves and did it. There’s this really wonderful, kind of
entrepreneurial DIY ethos that was very apparent in the early
feminist sex toy businesses. Definitely very apparent in Eve’s
Garden. I mean, she started to sell vibrators out of her
kitchen in her Manhattan apartment. This woman who’s working as
an advertising executive, she puts in a full day of work and
she comes home and takes the elevator or climbs the stairs up
to her apartment, and there’s mail orders waiting for her that
need to be filled. She’s opening up these orders and sitting at
her kitchen table getting vibrators ready to be shipped out all
over the country.

And those women are just beside themselves with excitement,
because they’re able to get their vibrators without being made
to feel embarrassed or uncomfortable. They don’t have to go
into a more conventional adult store. They don’t have to go
into a department store and risk embarrassment. They can make
their order through the mail and know on the other end is an
open-minded feminist who’s not going to judge them for wanting
more pleasure in their lives.

That was so novel. It’s easy to take for granted. I’m a college
professor, my students are 18, 19, 20, 21, and I always make a
point to remind them, so much of what is so easy to take for
granted in 2017 was very different in the 1970s. There weren’t
a lot of places where women could talk about sex comfortably.
And they certainly weren’t encouraged by the larger culture and
the messages that they were getting were very narrow, right?
That it’s not about your pleasure. If you’re in a relationship
with a man, it’s really about his pleasure. To blow that all
apart in a way that some of these feminist activists and
entrepreneurs from the 1970s were doing was really radical.

They set out to start these
businesses, to get vibrators into the hands of as many women as
possible.

I guess that’s a testimony to how thoroughly these
stores have succeeded, right? People still refer back to that
stereotype of the nasty, gross adult toy store. Which I’m sure
still exists somewhere, but I live in New York City and I’d
probably have to work to find one of those place at this point,
while there’s three different Babelands I could go to.

Right. And I think that’s a key point—it’s almost like a
complete inversion in 2017.

It wasn’t even that somebody like Dell Williams would have to
think really hard where to find a women-friendly vibrator shop
that had a friendly proprietor and maybe a little sex
information that they could provide. It just simply wasn’t
available.

When I started this research I was really interested in the
story and the history and retail culture of feminist sex toy
shops. But by about 2008, there was a really pretty dramatic
shift in the larger adult industry. All of the sudden, a lot of
mainstream adult retailers and wholesalers and distributors sat
up and realized that the adult novelty sector was booming and
who was buying all those products? Well, it was women. And so
around 2008, profits from porn had started to tank, because it
was the economic recession. There’s instances of piracy, free
tube sites. So mainstream pornography was taking a considerable
hit at the same time that the pleasure product sector was
booming, and everybody wanted a piece of women all the sudden.

It was really fascinating as a researcher to see, because I was
going to these adult trade shows and sitting in these business
seminars and literally in every seminar people were on the edge
of their seats. They wanted to know, how can we get more women
into our stores? How can we appeal to women? And so you had
expert panels at adult industry trade shows that were comprised
of people from Babeland, people from Good Vibrations. All of
the sudden these feminist business that had been kind of
marginalized for all of these years, everybody wanted to do
what they were doing. And I thought, I’m not just writing about
the history of feminist sex toy stores. I’m writing about the
history of an entire market. I’m writing about how the women’s
market for sex toys came into being, and all of these retailers
are sitting in this room acting as though the women’s market
just fell from the sky fully formed yesterday. “Oh my gosh,
women are buying sex toys! Who knew?” Well, I’ll tell you who
knew.

It’s like that old concept of the 30 year overnight
success story, right?

Exactly! There was complete, within the larger adult industry,
historical amnesia it seems like, which is fascinating to me.

It really did make me think about my project differently and
that was very valuable. That’s why it took even longer to
finish. Because I realized it isn’t just the history of these
businesses, like Eve’s Garden, Good Vibrations, Babeland, Early
to Bed, Smitten Kitten, Self Serve, etc, that have made a name
for themselves in different cities across the country. That
what was being talked about, all of the sudden, as this huge,
hot growth market, had everything to do with feminist
entrepreneurs. The formation of that market had everything to
do with feminist sex toy shops. In the early 1970s, those
founders, Dell Williams who started Eve’s Garden and Joani
Blank who started Good Vibrations, they stood someplace,
figuratively speaking, where no market existed. They weren’t
starting businesses because they wanted to tap into an existing
market. They started businesses because they thought there’s a
need for this. We’re telling women to discover their bodies,
vibrators can help them do that, and they’re looking around and
saying great, where am I supposed to get one? And they were
like, right, why don’t we start these businesses not because we
aspire to be business people, but because we want to fill this
need? Whereas if somebody was starting a business in 2017,
whether it was a brick and mortar shop, or if it was an online
sex toy business, they’re starting a business in 2017 with a
really very well formed market.

So in 2008, everybody sits up and wants to figure out
how to do what Good Vibrations and Babeland and other feminist
sex toy stores are doing. What were they doing all those years
that allowed them to create and foster this market? What were
the common threads? Obviously in the ’70s it was hard to go get
a “marital aid” or a “personal massager.” Now we live in this
world where I turn on Netflix and I’m always greeted with this
season’s promo image for Grace and Frankie, which is a
vibrator. It conjures up this entire modern image of what a
vibrator is. There’s clearly a network of these business and
something they have in common. What were they doing that
allowed us to get from Dell Williams being mortified at a
Macy’s to being greeted with vibrators on the TV?

It’s such an evocative historical timeline that you’ve just
painted. So I think—Dell Williams or Joani Blank didn’t have a
business plan per se. Joani didn’t have a business plan for the
first ten years of Good Vibrations. You have these
entrepreneurs that just have this inkling that there was a need
for what they were going to do. And they set out to start these
businesses, to get vibrators into the hands of as many women as
possible, create a space that ideally in the case of Good
Vibrations is welcome to everyone. And they were just doing
what felt right to them, and doing what felt natural to them.

The Business End of Pleasure.” From On Our Backs
magazine, June-July 2002.

For example, they had had or they had heard of other women who
had had shopping experiences that were uncomfortable. They had
been treated poorly by a sexist man behind the counter or they
had been given the side-eye just by virtue of stepping into
this space that had been a male-coded space. So they knew, for
example, we want to create comfortable shopping environments.
We want to be welcoming and friendly. We’re going to create a
store that is pretty much the antithesis of the stereotype of
the adult store. If the stereotype of the adult store is dark
and unwelcoming, we’re going to create a bright store that’s
really friendly and welcoming. If the stereotype of the adult
store is that it’s nothing but a money grab, they just want to
sell products, they don’t care about the quality, we’re going
to lead with sex education and we’re going to lead with
quality. Because we think those things are important. We want
to create a space where people can ask questions, where we have
a knowledgeable staff.

So they didn’t necessarily have, from the get-go, a fully
formed vision, but they had these ideas about how they could be
different. Comfortable, warm, welcoming, light, bright,
educationally oriented. I think, as I talk about in the book,
by virtue of those things, they were unconsciously or maybe a
little bit consciously trying to imbue a sex business with a
degree of cultural respectability that it had previously not
had. And that I think was very important. These early
businesses, again, consciously or unconsciously, were kind of
catering to women like them. White, predominantly middle class,
educated women who wanted a comfortable shopping experience.
They were shopping in an environment that was as “respectable”
as any department store that they could be going in. So they
started to code these stores around a kind of middle class
sexual sensibility and respectability that I don’t even know if
they were fully conscious of doing. But they were. Indirectly.
By the way they decorated the store, by the tasteful
advertising and merchandising. And so what it meant was that
people who previously hadn’t felt comfortable or welcome in
these “seedy” adult businesses felt like, oh, I can go into
Eve’s Garden or Good Vibrations and not feel embarrassed. I’m
not being made to feel ashamed. Buying a vibrator isn’t
something that I have to duck my head when I go in and out of
the store because I’m afraid if my neighbor’s down the block
parking his or her car they’re going to see me.

So I think one of the early things that these businesses did
was, again, consciously or unconsciously, they kind of cloaked
it in a veil of sexual respectability. And that made it easier
for some people to feel comfortable and the more people that
felt comfortable the more the businesses succeeded and the more
that the model succeeded. So I think that growing the market,
if we look at the historical trajectory, had a lot to do with
making the act of going into a sex toy shop an ordinary,
everyday, respectable activity that you didn’t have to be
ashamed of.

And then a lot of these businesses led with sex education. And
so a lot of people felt like going into a shop like Eve’s
Garden or Good Vibrations or Babeland, there’s nothing to be
ashamed of. This is an investment in myself. This is an
educational outing.

From On Our Backs, August – September, 2001.

If you look at their advertisements, if you unpack their
marketing and advertising strategies, they were also leading
with the sex education piece and they were leading with the
ways in which they were warm and welcoming and friendly and
well lit. That they were resource centers, not more traditional
businesses. And I think all those things coalesced into a model
that had appeal for at least a certain subset for women. And
men. And that’s the other thing that I want to underscore. Even
though a number of feminist sex toy businesses began because
they wanted there to be a comfortable welcoming shop for women
in their community where they could buy their vibrators and
dildos and butt plugs, etcetera, they realized really quickly
that there were many men who also wanted that kind of shopping
experience too. It’s really important to note the degree to
which feminist sex toy shops have historically been places that
many men enjoy shopping, as well.

Generally, how inclusive would you say this world is?
As your book makes clear, a lot of the work of building these
retailers and their communities was done by lesbian and
queer-identified women, but then especially as you get further
back in the history—honestly, reflecting the history of
feminism generally—it can be very white in many cases.

Oh, yeah. Incredibly. It is worth noting that many of the
entrepreneurs who started the feminist sex toy stores that I
write about are white, middle class, college-educated women who
also have access to capital, who were able to get their hands
on the money that they needed to start these businesses. And
there’s a lot of variability in how much money.

So that’s very notable. The ownership of these businesses is
very white, and the earlier businesses very much were coming
from what we might think of as a second wave feminist
tradition, where they didn’t have a very nuanced, if at all,
sense of intersectionality. Or it was very universal ideas of
“sisterhood is powerful,” that as women we’re all in this
together. The perspective that shaped the early businesses was
coming from a very white female perspective in those early
businesses, for sure.

Nenna Joiner, who owns Feelmore in Oakland, was inspired to
start her business in part as a response to the kind of
overwhelming whiteness of the businesses that she was
encountering. She was a fan of Good Vibrations, she lived in
the Bay Area, she shopped at the store, but she couldn’t help
but notice that when she would go in, the majority of people on
the cover of books, people on the cover of videos and DVDs,
were white people. And so she thought, where are people like
me? Where are the brown people and the black people? And really
made it her mission to start the sex toy store with the
specific goal of catering to her community, because she felt it
was underserved. And she is an amazing businesswoman, not only
in terms of how she runs her store, but just the community
outreach that she does on an ongoing basis. If there’s a town
hall, if there’s a community meeting, if there’s a fundraiser,
she is there. She wants to be that face of black business
ownership for her community but, importantly, be a face of
black female sex shop ownership. It’s so radical. Within the
world that I study of these small, progressive feminist sex
shop owners, she’s the only black lesbian business owner, to
date.

But the history of these businesses has been a very white
history, and they’ve had to really work hard to move beyond the
white vantage point that historically has shaped their
businesses. There’s been growing pains involved in that for
many businesses. Difficult but necessary conversations around
race and racism and classism and things like that. And I think
for many years, Good Vibrations in particular had a kind of
reputation as being a white woman’s store, and they’ve worked
really hard to challenge that stereotype. And I’ve talked to
trans-identified non-white employees who report today, in 2016,
2017, that their experience working at Good Vibrations is very,
very different. It’s never been to them a white woman’s store.
And they’ve been really happy for the work that earlier
generations of employees put into making sure it moved beyond
that.

What should we think about their legacy of these
feminist sex toy shops as being? (Although, of course, they
still exist.) What should we think about them as having done
for us?

I think one of the legacies is, they’ve created spaces that
have really encouraged and supported people, including and
especially women but people in general, to engage with and take
seriously their sexuality and their sexual pleasure in a
culture that doesn’t do that very often or very well.

They’re certainly not utopian spaces for all sorts of reasons.
Because, you know, there’s always been drama behind the scenes,
right? They’re businesses with competing personalities and
competing philosophies and competing agendas. But I think
historically what these businesses have meant to people is
they’ve offered them a sense of utopian possibilities around
their sexuality and who they can imagine themselves to be as
sexual people. And I think that’s significant, because we just
don’t have many of those places in our culture.

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