Q&A: 'Vibrator Nation' Author Lynn Comella Talks Feminist Sex Shop Revolution

Q&A: 'Vibrator Nation' Author Lynn Comella Talks Feminist Sex Shop Revolution
Colleen Godin

LOS ANGELES — If a professor's duty is to educate, enlighten and occasionally bust closed minds wide open with historical proof, then Lynn Comella has definitely earned her tenure. Possibly unbeknownst to her, Comella has just become the unofficial instructor of Feminist Sex Toy History 101.

As an associate professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies, Comella indeed has a lot to profess. It took an entire book of tireless interviews and curated research for this University of Nevada-based academic to instruct the public on her topic of choice: sex toys, pleasure boutiques and the women who turned the tables on the adult industry.

In the book “Vibrator Nation,” which was released last month, Comella sets the record straight on the sex toy business. The book’s debut was celebrated last night a t The Pleasure Chest in West Hollywood, Calif., during a lively discussion on feminism’s role in the sex toy revolution that also featured famed feminist author, sex educator and author Tristan Taormino.

“Vibrator Nation” tells the story of the pleasure products industry, which may have begun as a mafioso-type boys' club, but evolved far beyond their seedy beginnings thanks to female-owned adult boutiques. Comella's book tells the tales behind the fearless females who spun the business of selling vibrators into a reclamation of women's sexual freedom.

In this exclusive interview, Comella tells XBIZ about her inspiration for the book, what she’s learned about the pleasure products industry and what’s in store for the professor/pleasure products industry expert.

XBIZ: What piqued your interest in studying sex toys, eventually enough to write an entire book on the topic?

Lynn Comella: When I began the research for “Vibrator Nation” there was virtually no academic writing on the history of feminist vibrator shops and the women who pioneered them, or the world of sex toys, for that matter. I was intrigued by the early trailblazers such as Dell Williams, who started Eve’s Garden in 1974, and Joani Blank, who founded Good Vibrations in 1977, and wanted to know more about how these women had taken a cultural form traditionally associated with men — the sex shop — and turned it on its head, infusing it with new cultural and political possibilities. For them, vibrators weren’t simply sexual devices but tools of liberation, and sex shops were more than just retail venues, they were spaces for sex education and personal empowerment. I was fascinated by the history of these businesses and figured that other people would be too.

XBIZ: Adult boutiques and pleasure products have exploded over the last decade. Was it a challenging experience narrowing down your research and interview subjects?

Comella: It was a pretty organic process, because my research focused primarily on the history of women-friendly sex shops such as Eve’s Garden, Good Vibrations and Babeland, and the making of the women’s market for sex toys and pornography. In that sense, the cast of colorful characters and supporting players that I write about — Dell Williams, Joani Blank, Susie Bright, Carol Queen and others — emerged rather seamlessly.

XBIZ: What surprised you the most as you conversed with toy manufacturers, sex educators, retailers and consumers?

Comella: It’s been really interesting to see so many sex toy businesses that a decade ago weren’t paying that much attention to women dramatically switch up their merchandising and marketing strategies, and adopt elements of the women-friendly and educationally oriented retail model that Good Vibrations pioneered. When I began my research in the late 1990s, feminist sex-toy shops existed in their own galaxy, rarely, if ever, overlapping with the larger adult industry.

By 2008, that had started to change. I began to see these changes at adult industry trade shows, where it was standing room only in business seminars that addressed the buying power of women — which is something I talk about in the opening pages of my book. It was fascinating to watch this women-friendly business model move from the margins and into the mainstream, becoming in the process the industry standard.

XBIZ: What made consumers begin to demand higher quality from their pleasure products and shopping experience? 

Comella: This had a lot to do with the work that businesses like Good Vibrations and Babeland did to normalize sex toys and make their stores inviting places, especially for customers who would’ve never dreamed of walking into a more traditional adult store. They took their customers’ sexual pleasure seriously and, over time, many of those same customers began to expect more from their shopping experiences and the products they were buying.

By the early 1990s, feminist businesses were placing new demands on the industry. Good Vibrations, for example, began offering warranties and sending defective merchandise back to manufacturers, who had to put a little bit more thought and effort into making products that would last longer, look better, and have prettier packaging. Industry standards were starting to change; in part because women-friendly retailers were cultivating a more sophisticated consumer class that wasn’t afraid to demand more from the products they were buying to enhance their sexual pleasure.

XBIZ: What kinds of educational resources are easily accessible to consumers today that weren't as reachable in the past, and how has this shift affected the pleasure industry?

Comella: When it comes to educational resources, it’s a completely different world compared to what it was like in the 1970s. Depending on where you shopped, you might have found “Our Bodies, Ourselves,” Betty Dodson’s “Liberating Masturbation,” Lonnie Barbach’s “For Yourself,” and a few other books that addressed women’s sexuality and pleasure. Today, a thriving business of sex publishing exists, offering “how to” guides on almost anything you can imagine, from pegging to polyamory. It’s also relatively easy to find educational videos on almost any sex-related topic.

In addition, there’s a growing community of sex educators, bloggers and sex toy reviewers who are making sure that information about sex is packaged in ways that can reach a wider audience. And of course, many sex toy shops offer after-hours workshops on everything from Sex Toys 101 to Oral Sex Basics. The internet has also been a huge game-changer. Increasingly, sex toy businesses see themselves as resource centers where customers can buy their vibrators and get some really great information in the process.

XBIZ: The sex toy craze has spawned all sorts of super fans, from dedicated bloggers to collectors with hundreds of vibrators and kink accessories. Did you get to interact with these types of consumers during your research? What was most memorable or interesting about them?

Comella: The closest thing to sex toy “super fans” I’ve met are the retailers that I write about in “Vibrator Nation.” Good Vibrations founder Joani Blank, for example, was purchasing antique vibrators at garage sales and amassing an impressive collection of vintage vibes long before she opened Good Vibrations in 1977. Blank published “Good Vibrations: The Complete Woman’s Guide to Vibrators” a year before she started her business. In what was one of the earliest vibrator guides, she talked about the ins and outs of buying and using vibrators, showcasing the different models that were available at the time. Although the original Good Vibrations location was very tiny, Blank made space in the small store for a large display case that housed her collection. Early Good Vibrations ads describe the business as both a vibrator store and a museum. Blank was a vibrator enthusiast and super-fan long before being one was trendy or cool.

XBIZ: How has your book release played into your academic career? Are students clamoring to study under the professor who wrote a book about sex toys?

Comella: I teach mostly undergraduate students and I’m usually pretty happy when they remember my name! Most college students, who are busy balancing school, jobs and life, don’t pay much attention to the research their professors’ conduct or the books they write. But if my book draws more students to my classes or, even better, encourages them to declare a gender and sexuality studies major or minor, I would consider that a terrific bonus.

XBIZ: What's next for you in the study of sex toys? Are there any similar categories within the pleasure products industry that have grabbed your attention?

Comella: I’m endlessly fascinated by the people and companies that make up the adult industry. From sex toy manufacturers and retailers, to porn producers and webcam models, to the Free Speech Coalition and performer advocacy organizations, there are so many compelling yet under-examined segments of the industry. I have a couple of new research projects underway, but I haven’t yet narrowed down the focus of my next book. For now, I want to enjoy the publication of “Vibrator Nation” and the warm reception and positive attention it’s receiving, especially from mainstream media outlets.

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