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

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

by Lynn Comella

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Overview

Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure by Lynn Comella

In the 1970s a group of pioneering feminist entrepreneurs launched a movement that ultimately changed the way sex was talked about, had, and enjoyed. Boldly reimagining who sex shops were for and the kinds of spaces they could be, these entrepreneurs opened sex-toy stores like Eve’s Garden, Good Vibrations, and Babeland not just as commercial enterprises, but to provide educational and community resources as well. In Vibrator Nation Lynn Comella tells the fascinating history of how these stores raised sexual consciousness, redefined the adult industry, and changed women's lives. Comella describes a world where sex-positive retailers double as social activists, where products are framed as tools of liberation, and where consumers are willing to pay for the promise of better living—one conversation, vibrator, and orgasm at a time.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780822372677
Publisher: Duke University Press
Publication date: 08/18/2017
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 296
Sales rank: 1,006,936
File size: 27 MB
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About the Author

Lynn Comella is Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and coeditor of New Views on Pornography: Sexuality, Politics, and the Law.

Read an Excerpt

Vibrator Nation

How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure


By Lynn Comella

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-7267-7



CHAPTER 1

THE BUSINESS OF MASTURBATION

* * *

We are tired of being confronted ... with the idea that the vaginal orgasm, no matter what any woman says, is the real orgasm. We are also tired of being told that we should be sexual objects, but we should not be sexual beings. For these reasons, we decided that we would like to hold a sexuality conference. ... So, we come together in the spirit of individual feminism and individual identity and decision-making, to define, explore and celebrate our own sexuality, each of us in our own ways and hopefully sharing this with our sisters.

JUDY WENNING "President's Remarks," National Organization for Women's Sexuality Conference


Betty Dodson stood stage left and looked out at the sea of women in front of her. Her dark hair was cut short, her body taut from yoga. Behind her, a six-foot-tall color slide of a woman's vulva was projected onto a large screen. It was June 10, 1973, the final day of the National Organization for Women's (now) groundbreaking conference on female sexuality at P.S. Intermediate School 29 on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Dodson's slide show, "Creating a Female Genital Aesthetic," was making its debut in front of a packed room of conference attendees.

Dodson, who had been running masturbation workshops for women out of her Manhattan apartment for the past year, was convinced that women needed to see images illustrating just how diverse and beautiful vulvas actually were. She knew what it was like to grow up feeling ashamed of her body and had encountered many women in her workshops that felt the same way. It wasn't until she was in her mid-thirties — after seeing her first "beaver magazines" — that she realized just how varied women's genitalia were. "I didn't want other women to suffer what I had gone through — struggling to have vaginal orgasms and avoiding oral sex because I believed there was something wrong with my sex organ," she wrote in her memoir.

The previous day at the conference, Dodson had talked openly about her relationship to her vibrator. "I'm probably hooked on my vibrator," she declared. "I'm probably going steady with it, but I'll worry about that later." She had also taught a workshop called Liberating Masturbation and Orgasm that was so crowded it spilled out into the hallway. Now, she was talking about women getting to know their genitals as an important first step in sexual self-discovery. As the slide show progressed, she pointed to the different shapes, sizes, and colors of the vulvas projected onto the screen. "This is a classical cunt," she said about one image. "This is a baroque cunt," she remarked about another.

The audience was quiet at first, unsure what to make of the larger-than-life vulvas displayed in front of them. Some women giggled nervously, while others stormed out, offended by Dodson's use of the word "cunt." One attendee later recalled, "I started out watching [the slide show] with a huge 'Ugh! Cunts look revoltingly unaesthetic ... no, ugly, to me.'" But as the slide show progressed, the woman's attitude began to shift. She forced herself to look at each slide, and as she listened to Dodson's running commentary about the beauty of women's genitals, she became what she called a "cunt-appreciator."

The now Women's Sexuality Conference was one of the first events of its kind. According to reports, more than a thousand women and nearly a hundred men attended the two-day conference, which featured more than forty workshops for women on topics as varied as older women's sexuality, lesbianism, race and sexuality, sexual fantasies, and nonmonogamy, with a separate series of workshops for men. Although previous feminist conferences had addressed issues such as sex roles, marriage, and women's health, the now event was heralded in the popular press as the first major conference "to concentrate on ... 'physical liberation' and sexual pleasure," and to explore what it meant to be both sexual and a feminist.

The conference opened with a stirring "speak-out." Borrowing from the tradition of feminist consciousness-raising, in which women shared their personal experiences as a basis for political analysis, a number of women took turns at the microphone to talk about their sexuality. While Dodson joked about her vibrator, others spoke candidly about open marriage, swinging, bisexuality, childhood sexual abuse, and heterosexual power dynamics. They shared stories about sexual exploration and expressed frustration about the sexual double standard. "I am thankful to the people in the women's movement and in the gay movement who have paved the way to loosening the shackles on sexuality," said one speaker. "I'm optimistic that, by sharing our experiences, ridding ourselves of myths, by exploring our sexuality, by conferences like this, [and] most of all, by talking honestly with each other, we will all be able to enjoy our sexuality more and more fully."

The event was not without moments of controversy and dissent, a sign that not all feminists were on the same page when it came to sexuality. Some women objected to the presence of men; others felt that the image that Dodson had drawn for the conference flyer and poster was too masculine in appearance. Despite these dustups, the conference organizers and attendees alike considered it an overwhelming success. Laura Scharf, one of the event's key coordinators, described it as a "marathon consciousness-raising experience" and claimed that for many women it was the "first time we could verbally explore our feelings about our sexuality, confront our doubts and questions, cut through the traditional rhetoric handed to us, and establish our own priorities and definitions."

The now conference created a space for women to come together and talk about their sexuality at a time when there were few opportunities to do so. It also presented female sexuality in explicitly political terms, a part of women's lives that intersected with power in ways that feminists needed to take seriously. As conference coordinator Dell Williams wrote in the proceedings, "If freeing ourselves from sexual imprisonment is not a political issue, I don't know what is." The real sexual revolution, she predicted, "will begin in the women's movement."

By the start of the 1970s, many women who had been active in and influenced by the social movements of the 1960s, including the so-called sexual revolution, had become disillusioned. Sex outside of marriage and non-monogamy may have offered women new ways of thinking about their sex lives, but open relationships did not bring an end to the sexual double standard, and the freedom to sleep with whomever they wanted did little to eliminate unequal power dynamics between men and women. Suddenly, according to historian Ruth Rosen, "peer pressure to say yes replaced the old obligation to say no." Many women saw the sexual revolution as a decidedly male revolution that had left sexism largely in place. "Most of us found out [the sexual revolution] was not liberation at all, but only a different game," now's Judy Wenning recalled. "We were supposed to be performing well and we no longer had the option of not performing." As a response, women began participating in sexual consciousness-raising groups and openly discussing the benefits of masturbation. They were challenging the idea of the vaginal orgasm and, in some cases, working with sex therapists in an effort to become orgasmic. Women were sharing information with each other and developing an expressly political language for talking about sexuality.

The history of sex-positive feminist activism and entrepreneurship in the United States has its roots in these heady days, when female masturbation and orgasm were being framed as fundamental ingredients of women's liberation. What was for many women a search for the elusive orgasm helped produce new kinds of cultural spaces — feminist sexuality conferences, consciousness-raising groups, and vibrator shops — where women could learn about their bodies and talk openly about their sexuality. The first wave of sex-positive feminist entrepreneurs in the 1970s combined elements from a grassroots, do-it-yourself liberal feminism with key tenets from humanistic sexology, the latter of which asserted that women had a fundamental right to sexual information and pleasure. Pioneers such as Betty Dodson and Dell Williams placed sexual liberation at the forefront of their feminist agendas, helping to establish a foundation upon which future generations of feminist entrepreneurs would build.


The Politics of Female Orgasms

Feminist writers and activists of the early 1970s were beginning to develop a radical analysis of sex and power that upended traditional ways of thinking about female sexuality. Sexuality was not just a matter of biology, they argued; rather, it was a set of practices and beliefs firmly embedded in and shaped by a complex web of social arrangements, scientific discourses, and gendered power relations that supported the patriarchal status quo.

Feminists took off their gloves and took aim squarely at Sigmund Freud and his theory of the vaginal orgasm. Freud had popularized the idea that the vaginal orgasm was an essential part of a healthy female sexuality. In Freud's schema, the clitoral orgasm reflected an infantile sexuality, whereas the vaginal orgasm represented a more mature and therefore desirable state of female sexual development. "With the change to femininity from an earlier stage of development the clitoris should wholly or in part hand over its sensitivity, and at the same time its importance, to the vagina," Freud wrote. Women who failed to achieve vaginal orgasms through sexual intercourse were labeled as frigid, a condition that was thought to require psychiatric intervention and even medical treatment.

Anne Koedt, a founding member of the New York Radical Feminists, railed against Freud in her influential essay, "The Myth of the Vaginal Orgasm." Koedt argued that Freud and those who subscribed to his ideas defined female sexuality almost exclusively in terms of what pleased men. "Women are fed the myth of the liberated woman and her vaginal orgasm — an orgasm which in fact does not exist." Koedt denounced Freud's theory of the vaginal orgasm, which, she argued, had caused undue distress for countless women who either "suffered silently with self-blame or flocked to the psychiatrist looking desperately for the hidden and terrible repression that kept them from their vaginal destiny." Women's sexual situation could be vastly improved if people engaged with facts instead of fiction: The clitoris, and not the vagina, was the center of female sexual pleasure and orgasm.

In "Organs and Orgasms," writer Alix Shulman wasted no time declaring that the term "vaginal orgasm" must go. "The penis and the vagina can either make babies or male orgasms, but very rarely do the two together make female orgasms." According to Shulman, a concern with female sexual pleasure was nowhere to be found in the male-oriented definition of sex: "The word about the clitoris has been out for a long time, and still, for political reasons, society goes on believing the old myths and enforcing a double standard of sexuality."

Feminists drew on the work of Alfred Kinsey and Masters and Johnson to bolster their claims about the primacy of the clitoris in female sexual response. A zoologist turned sex researcher, Kinsey was one of the first scientists to approach female sexuality as a topic worthy of serious inquiry. According to sociologist Janice Irvine, "Kinsey discussed [women's] sexual pleasure, separated the concept of sexual pleasure from reproduction, cited the pleasures of masturbation, and regarded women as sexual agents." He challenged many taken-for-granted assumptions about female sexuality, including the idea that sexual intercourse was the primary source of female sexual pleasure. Kinsey also took psychoanalysts to task for minimizing the importance of the clitoris: "Some of the psychoanalysts and some other clinicians insist that only vaginal stimulation and 'vaginal orgasm' can provide a psychologically satisfactory culmination to the activity of a 'sexually mature' female. It is difficult, however, in the light of our present understanding of the anatomy and physiology of sexual response, to understand what can be meant by the 'vaginal orgasm.'" Kinsey maintained that far too many women had been needlessly distressed by what he described as a "biologic impossibility." His bold challenge to the concept of the vaginal orgasm, an idea that had held sway for decades, was later described by Irvine as planting a "time bomb that would not explode" until the sex research of Masters and Johnson was published in the mid-1960s.

Masters and Johnson's research on female sexuality corroborated Kinsey's findings and added an important physiological dimension to Kinsey's ambitious sex surveys. Masters and Johnson argued that the clitoris had suffered from decades of "phallic fallacies" that had ignored both the anatomical evidence and the lived reality of women's subjective experiences. The clitoris was the center of the female orgasm and the claim that there were two separate and distinct kinds of orgasms — the vaginal and clitoral — was simply not supported by scientific evidence.

The essays that emerged from within the women's movement about the politics of female sexuality were self-consciously political tracts, feminist interventions into what women's health writer and activist Rebecca Chalker has described as a "male-centered, heterosexual model of human sexuality." Feminists argued that the myth of the vaginal orgasm, as a discourse and a corresponding set of practices, produced a version of female sexuality that was anchored in heterosexual intercourse, a social-sexual arrangement that ultimately benefited men and supported patriarchy. Good Vibrations founder Joani Blank put a finer point on it: "In those days," she said, "when we were discussing vaginal and clitoral orgasms, we used to say that the only people who reliably have vaginal orgasms are men."

Feminists of the early 1970s were beginning to fill in the gaps of missing information about their bodies, which included rediscovering the clitoris. Women took off their pants, grabbed their speculums, and reclaimed their vaginas — and their orgasms — from the medical establishment, all while advancing the idea, popularized by the women's health movement, that knowledge is power. "Using self-examination, personal observation and meticulous analysis," a group of women from the Federation of Feminist Women's Health Centers "arrived at a new view of the clitoris." They found that there was far more to the clitoris than just the visible glans and shaft. It was a complex structure with hidden parts under the skin — erectile tissue, glands, muscles, blood vessels, and nerves — that surrounded and extended along the vagina. The fact that women experienced pleasure during sexual intercourse was not surprising, they argued, given just how extensive the anatomy of the clitoris actually was. For once and for all, they declared, we can "put to rest forever the controversy over clitoral and vaginal orgasms."

Feminist writers and activists generated new ways to think about women's bodies and sexual responses that were not necessarily contingent upon what author Ti-Grace Atkinson referred to as the "institution of sexual intercourse." 26 They drew attention to the gendered dimensions of power embedded in the social construction of heterosexuality and made a compelling case for how the theory of the vaginal orgasm supported women's sexual subordination. They also, importantly, expressed women's sexual concerns in explicitly political rather than individual terms. As Shulman noted, "Now that women ... are beginning to talk together and compare notes, they are discovering that their experiences are remarkably similar and that they are not freaks. ... It is not they who have individual sex problems; it is society that has one great big political problem." This shift in emphasis, from the personal to the political, and the individual to the social, would prove crucial to feminist analyses of, and interventions into, the patriarchal status quo. In privileging the clitoris as the site of female orgasm, feminists were producing a powerful set of counterdiscourses that would eventually be incorporated into a number of feminist projects aimed at educating and empowering women around their sexuality. Women's sexuality could no longer be reduced to their vaginas. Women had clitorises — complex organs with thousands of nerve endings — and they were encouraged to learn how they worked.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Vibrator Nation by Lynn Comella. Copyright © 2017 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgments  ix
Introduction. The Making of a Market  1
1. The Business of Masturbation  15
2. Out of the Therapist's Office, into the Vibrator Shop  43
3. Living the Mission  63
4. Repackaging Sex  88
5. The Politics of Products  113
6. Sexperts and Sex Talk  136
7. Selling Identity  161
8. Profitability and Social Change  188
Conclusion. Grow or Die?  211
Appendix. Studying Sexual Culture and Commerce  229
Notes  235
Selected Bibliography  257
Index  267

What People are Saying About This

The Feminist Porn Book: The Politics of Producing Pleasure - Constance Penley


"No one is better placed than Lynn Comella to take us on a journey through the evolution of feminist-owned sex-toy stores. Through years of interviews and participant-observation, she brilliantly traces how the difficult conversations about race, class, and gender among feminist sex-toy store owners, their workers, and customers created a new kind of sexual public sphere. Vibrator Nation will brilliantly inform all future efforts to address the difficulties of blending progressive politics with capitalism, social change, and profit making."

Coming Out Like a Porn Star: Essays on Pornography, Protection, and Privacy - Jiz Lee


"Sex shops were my entry into a brazen new world of gender and sexuality, eventually channeling my career in adult film. Lynn Comella's masterful book documents the 'sex-positive' ethos of gender and sexual progress and its complex junctures within capitalism, feminism, and education. Recounting a pivotal moment, Vibrator Nation is a fascinating history lesson for the uninitiated, a gift to all who were there, and a love letter to those who call these sex shops home."

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