Vibrator Nation by Lynn Comella

During my job at a local sex toy retailer, my coworker regularly discussed writing a book of our experiences. Lynn Comella has done that and more. Pulling from her own sex retail experience and years of research, Comella has brought us Vibrator Nation, a brilliant examination of the history of adult stores.

Comella is an expert on the adult entertainment industry, and has studied many sociological themes through her research, including consumer culture, gender, sexual Screen Shot 2018-01-15 at 11.45.23 AMpolitics, and the relationship between them. Not one to slouch in academia, Comella has a Ph.D. in communication, an M.A. in gender studies and feminist theory, a B.A. in psychology, and minors in anthropology and women’s studies.

Vibrator Nation is smartly written and well-researched. Comella gives her audience a history lesson on culture, society, politics, and economics as they pertain to feminism and the sex toy industry. She also dives into the lives of the inspiring and problematic creators of the most well-known of these establishments.

While sex toy stores have been around for a long time, they started out as creepy places that catered to male audiences. As Comella points out, “many women saw the sexual revolution as a decidedly male revolution that had left sexism largely in place” (pg. 19). While the new feminist establishments were meant to do away with the sexism, they Screen Shot 2017-11-10 at 8.16.35 PMactually reversed it, refusing entry to any and all men. Women became the only audience, and a few of the owners saw women as a collective ‘we,’ a “presumed sisterhood” (pg. 35) rather than individuals of vastly different  backgrounds, experiences, and ways of thinking.

Even the products that were sold were geared towards the belief of women as a collective. If an owner hated dildos, BDSM, and porn, it was assumed that all women did. What these owners failed to realize was that “people commonly do not know their sexual desires until they find them … [People] have a stake in a culture that enables sexual variance and freely circulates knowledge about it. Without these things people have no other way of discovering what they might or might not want when it comes to sex” (pg 14).

The feminisms on which these businesses were based, and that led to this way of thinking, are picked apart by Comella throughout the book. Comella questions the meaning of ‘for women’ establishments and products, and discusses the “generational divide over what counts as feminism” (pg. 172).

Another aspect of feminism that is discussed is its approach to business. Here is where one can find proof that feminism is not simply one way of thinking, but many. To many feminists, “money, and not sex, was viewed as an impurity” (pg. 191). Good Vibrations relied on the inheritance of creator Joani Blank, because sexual well-being took Screen Shot 2018-03-03 at 1.56.24 PM.pngprecedent over profit.

Feminists argued over whether feminism and business could even go together. Part of the effort put into reconciling this notion included spreading information to make it more easily accessible. The Briarpatch Philosophy played a large part in this, meaning that small businesses had social responsibilities, and utilized skills in cooperation and sharing resources to help them thrive on less. This included providing sex education classes in the stores themselves. In Vibrator Nation, we see that sex education is not only concerned with how-tos and anatomy, but safe sex, including what makes a sex toy.

This was an inclusion that made me really proud of Comella. She told the tale of Smitten Kitten, who received a box of melted product, and put safe sex toys into their mission as a business. Outside of the blogging community and a few select stores and manufacturers, product safety doesn’t seem to be a big concern or topic of popular discussion. The fact that Comella voiced this concern in the book gives me hope that more people will hear the message.

There is nothing about Vibrator Nation I didn’t love. Comella is a great writer and historian, and her awareness of social and political influences as well as her willingness to vocalize them means she covers all her bases.

Need a new tote for your new book? Of course you do. You can order this fantastic sex toy tote bag here. Interested in more Comella? Check out New Views on Pornography: Sexuality, Politics, and the Law, which she co-edited along with Shira Tarrant.

Vibrator Nation can be purchased online or from your local bookstore. I received Vibrator Nation from Laura Sell of Duke University Press in exchange for an honest review. Curious about what else I’m reading? Check out my Goodreads profile and my bookshelf.

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