She's Picking Up Good Vibrations: Lynn Comella, "Vibrator Nation" at Literati
When it comes to other adults’ sexual choices, I’m very live and let live. And in my personal life, I’m very willing to make a joke or tell a story laden with sexual innuendo, and I’ve long ago accepted that I’m the person who will robustly fall face-first into a strange double-entendre, I found myself a bit shy at the bookstore when I purchased my copy of Lynn Comella’s Vibrator Nation in advance of attending her discussion of the book which took place on November 14th at Literati.
This book was based on more than 80 in-depth interviews with sex-toy shop owners, employees of said stores, and pornographers. Comella herself worked at Babeland in New York City, which provided her ethnographic access from both sides of the sales counter. Her book synthesizes this and examines the role of feminist sex-toy stores on the larger adult industry.
Why study sex-toy shops?
Comella knew to answer that question for the audience right away.
It turns out that this project began as a part of her graduate coursework. She had taken a field methods class in cultural studies and had an interest in sexual politics. The class required her to conduct a small-scale ethnographic project. She asked herself, "Where are the places that women can be sexual subjects as opposed to sexual objects?" As a part of her work, she spoke with Aileen Journey, the owner of a store called Intimacies, which had just opened in the town where she studied. The owner told Comella that she saw her store as a feminist way to empower women and that she had modeled her store after Good Vibrations, a store that had opened in the 1970s in San Francisco’s Mission District.
Good Vibrations shared the idea that sex education could be empowering and helped Journey on the road to establishing her own store. This help included selling a vendor list for a mere $50 -- such magnanimity is an anomaly in the business world. But it turns out that this, as Comella calls it, “non-competitive ethos” was a reason why some saw the businesses as activism.
In 2008, there was a shift in the adult store industry. According to Comella, before this point, the industry had catered to the perceived desires of stereotypical men. She argues that 2008 was a game-changer due to both the recession and also the proliferation of free Internet pornography. Suddenly, the women’s market became appealing, as it was a rare growth area in the industry. Comella, however, became interested in the history of this already growing market, which had been building since the early 1970s.
Comella read from a chapter in her book titled “Living the Mission,” where she talked about the lived experience of working at Babeland. Here, she says, “Every shift I worked at Babeland put me on the front lines of its mission, which was ‘to promote and celebrate sexual vitality by providing an honest, open and fun environment, encouraging personal empowerment, educating our community and supporting a more passionate world for all.’”
Feminism provided a healthy dose of friction inside of this passionate world. For example, early on, men weren’t allowed into some of these spaces. Joani Blank of Good Vibrations, however, recognized that not all men were comfortable in the more traditional shops and that her store was appealing to some men. These business owners, then, were forced to decide whether or how to include men. Feminism also complicated things, raising the question of how erotic videos fit into the equation. How does one respond to such a market demand when some of the feminist thought behind these shops was anti-pornography? How do shops adjust to the construction of feminism, how do they embrace intersectionality? How do they become trans-inclusive? How do these businesses remain responsive?
There was also the matter of what sort of bedfellows feminism and capitalism made. Some individuals felt that a store, a capitalist enterprise, was antithetical to feminism. Others feared that once the market for women-centered sex shops became viable it would be co-opted and would no longer be about empowerment, liberation, and education. Babeland faced this matter head-on. The store had sold shares to its employees, yet the management still felt like profits weren’t as important as the social work that they provided. The employees, now owners, disagreed.
Comella argues that it’s “easy to think about sexuality as something we own,” but larger forces that act upon sexuality, such as cultural norms and public policy, impact it.
In the Q&A portion of the evening, the audience’s questions pushed at the larger cultural forces. Economic class factored in, as Comella acknowledged. For instance, finding body-safe materials from ethical sources sometimes priced-out certain consumers. She also acknowledged that within the field that storeowners talk a great deal about gender equality and sexuality, but not as much about class or race. This presented her with a challenge; it’s difficult “to write about things people aren’t really talking about.”
In examining this segment of the adult industry, Comella answers many questions about the rise of the business and the circuitous paths that female and queer-friendly sex-positive sex-toy stores have taken. She also begs the question of what happens next within this dynamic trade.
Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at sherlonya.net.