Lynn Comella on Her New Book, Vibrator Nation

If the title of this book, Vibrator Nation: uow Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed to Business of Pleasure or the dildo-decorated exterior don’t draw you in right out of the gates, its content most certainly will. Lynn Comella, Ph.D. poured heart, soul, and countless hours of research into this project, or this “labor of love” as she sweetly refers to what is now Vibrator Nation.

Did You Know…

When we spoke to Lynn, she was just in the middle of generating a Twitter thread about the laws which existed in Texas that deemed it illegal to sell vibrators. Lynn stumbled upon some heated debates on Twitter and, having done research in Texas herself, she decided to give Twitter a little vibrator-related history lesson. Luckily, she shared her wealth of knowledge with us as well. Check this out:

There were a number of states, many of which in the US south, that – starting in the mid-1970s – extended their obscenity laws to included “sexual devices that were sold for the purpose of stimulating human genitals. They didn’t target people who were purchasing them, but they targeted people who were selling and distributing them. If you were selling vibrators, you could face arrest.

“There were a lot of high-profile cases in the early 2000s with women working for home pleasure parties in Texas who would get arrested because they would get pulled over and if you had more than 6 vibrators or dildos in your possession you could be charged with intent to distribute.” So, women who were seeking to help other women gain pleasure and claim their sexuality were literally being treated like drug dealers. Literally. These laws were overturned in 2008 (which is pretty damn recent, if you ask us), though there is still an anti-obscenity law on the books in Alabama which includes vibrators.

This wacky and maddening history lesson was the perfect way to set the scene of Lynn to tell us about herself and what she’s been up to. Because, at the end of the day, we’re still living in a pretty sex-negative world. Voices like Lynn’s are necessary, so very appreciated, and far too few. Without further adieu, Vibrator Nation:

Through setting Vibrator Nation free into the world, Lynn hopes to not only challenges readers’ ideas about the woman’s relationship to the sex industry but also challenge people’s stereotypes about the role that women have played in transforming the adult industry. Lynn believes that women haven’t just played a role in developing it, but that in many ways they’ve fundamentally redefined ideas about who sex shops are for and what kind of spaces they can be. In short, Lynn and the women whom she speaks about in Vibrator Nation have each contributed to the adult industry in a way which is by women, for women. These bad asses have inspired us, and countless other women to claim our sexuality and claim a space within the public sexual sphere, such as sex shops, pornography, etc.

What are these ideas and stereotypes she’s hoping to combat? 

“Anti-pornography and anti-sex work feminists have unfortunately done a very good job of painting the adult industry with such broad strokes that people think that everything that has to do with the sex industry is inherently harmful to women; that the adult industry is inhospitable to women.” Though it took someone stating it, plain as day, we agree whole-heartedly. When we think of women as victims of the adult industry, aren’t we just perpetuating the idea that the industry is for men? Vibrator Nation affirms the fact that women aren’t just pawns in the adult industry, but rather, key players in its very foundation.

We all see women’s sexuality as private like it needs to be domesticated

says Lynn, and this is exactly the frame of mind she wants to alter through her research and her book. Let’s work together and seek to understand “women as sexual agents and subjects as opposed to sexual objects. Provide them with books, information, and products to enhance their sexual lives and allow them to be authors of their own sexual narratives.” A book born of such passion and purpose could simply be nothing less than chilling, informative, and inspirational. Before we dive any further into everyone’s new favorite book, let’s talk a bit more about Lynn.

The Woman Behind The Book

When we come across a sex-positive individual, we are often inclined to inquire about how they came to be this way because we are deeply and tragically aware of the ways in which sex is discussed in many homes and schools. I.E. children are being fed horror stories and notions taboos rather than being given tools to explore and understand their sexual selves. Sex positivity ain’t easy, it’s often a deliberate choice one has to make and a whole lot of unlearning then needs to take place. So, what exactly is the origin story of a certain Lynn Comella?

“In many ways, I’m a very unlikely sex-positive academic, sex-positive voice, and sexuality researcher. I did not at all grow up in a house where sex and sexuality were discussed. It was not talked about. The lessons that I got about sex were not unlike, unfortunately, the kinds of lessons that lots of young people get. ‘don’t have sex outside of marriage (and with that, obviously the presumption of heterosexuality),’ ‘don’t ever come home pregnant,’ and the sense that sex was a big taboo, a scary realm that nothing good could come of.”

For Lynn, sex was described simply as something with which you risk pregnancy, disease, or bad reputation.

Now, if you’re anything like us, your fists are probably clenched  with rage thinking about the horrific truth that countless children receive this sort of introduction to sex. We know we did, Lynn did, and chances are many of you did as well.

“I didn’t date in high school. I literally didn’t have my first kiss until my 18th birthday.” Lynn shared. She didn’t feel equipped to delve in and “what that meant as a young adult is that I really had to be proactive in terms of learning about sex. It was NOT handed to me, quite the opposite. As I got older, it became really important for me to seek out those places, spaces, magazines, and cultural texts that felt positive. It was the counterpoint to what I had encountered as a young person. It was a revelation when I was in my early 20s and I discovered On Our Backs Magazine.” On Our Backs is a pornographic magazine created by sex-positive lesbians *swoon*.

I’m Pickin’ Up on Good Vibrations

Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure is an incredible, women run, sex-positive sex shop founded by Joani Blank. If you are ever in San Fran it’s a must-see for countless reasons. We are head-over-heels for this business and all that they stand for, and you should be too! But, back to Lynn. “The first time I went to San Fransisco in the early 1990s, I was in my mid-20s and had taken a cross-country road trip. I actively sought out Good Vibrations, in part because I saw the ads in On Our Backs magazine.” When she arrived, she was in awe, as many of their first-time visitors surely are. “It just felt SO good to be in a space like that which was open and welcoming. I remember walking around looking at the books and sex toys that were openly displayed, you were encouraged to put them in your hand and normalize them.” Because, friends, normalization is the name of the game! We’re all freaks, nothing is weird, there is NO reason to be ashamed of your sexuality, and spaces which allow for these sort of realizations should be celebrated.

Hitting the Books: Lynn Comella & Academia

The wonderful thing about post-secondary education is that the learner is able to embark upon an educational journey that is far more personalized and vastly diverse than that which is offered in typical grade-school settings. Lynn was surprised and delighted by the many directions which were available for her academic career. She began with a Bachelor of Arts in Psychology with minors in Women’s Studies and Anthropology, she then went on to do her Masters in Gender Studies and Feminist Theory, and finally, a Ph.D. in Communication. As many individuals experiences during their post-secondary experience, she was introduced to topics, thinkers, and texts that further expanded her areas of interested while simultaneously putting forth questions and answers about her topics of study.

“In my graduate studies we did a seminar in which we had to do a small ethnographic study, and there was this really cool feminist sex shop that just opened up in North Hampton Massachusetts, where I was living at the time, so I did a mini-study there. By the end of that semester I was like ‘wow, there is so much of interested here in terms of how the store owner talks about her philosophy and her mission and what she’s trying to do in terms of empowering women around their sexuality. And how interesting is it that she’s doing that through a retail store.’ I had all of these questions about what she was doing, how she was doing it, and how it all came together. What did it mean to try to practice feminist sexual politics or to embark upon a mission of sex positivity in the context of a commercial venue? Many people see an inherent tension between feminist politics and capitalism – in the 70s there were very interesting articles written were some feminists argued that it’s impossible to have a feminist business because these two things are in direct competition with each other.”

Amidst all of this, “here were these businesses were describing themselves as feminist and trying to find a way to make it work. It had challenges, to be a mission-driven for-profit business. I was really intrigued by all that I was discovering.” During Lynn’s initial research, there were two main topics that were consistently jumping out a there and peaking her intrigue:

“I was very intrigued by the fact that this business owner described her retail model as “the Good Vibrations model” – ‘I based my story on good vibrations in San Fransisco and its founder, Joani Blank actually helped me get my business started.’ She had said. I was so interested that there was a whole model and I wanted to learn more about it and how it was different from other, mainstream adult retail models.”

“This one particular business was not the only business that Joani Blank helped start. The founders of businesses around the world had interned at Good Vibrations and learned how to sell sex toys like Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure does and how to talk about sex positively – I thought ‘okay, there’s something here. There’s a story to tell. This isn’t just about one business, it’s about a whole network of businesses, and I want to tell this story.’ That small project then became my Ph.D. dissertation and after additional years and years of research, it became this book.”

Vibrator Nation came from a place of burning necessity, questions that needed answering and voices that needed to be heard. Lynn Comella did not sit down with a pen and paper hoping to write something people would read, she merely sought out to find answers and became deeply aware that these answers and questions should be shared with the masses. Her research came rather organically because her wonderings already existed, but Vibrator Nation took a whole lot of TLC before it became the masterpiece we see today.

The Making of Vibrator Nation

“It was many many years of research. Far more than I anticipated, to be honest – part of it had to do with a shift in the larger sexual marketplace. When I started this research I was mostly interested in the history of these businesses that identify as feminist sex toy shops – Good Vibrations, Babeland, Grand Opening, Eve’s Garden, etc. But about nine years ago, right after I signed my book contract with Duke University Press, it was a moment in time where the larger sexual marketplace almost all at once, sat up and thought ‘huh, the adult novelty sector is really booming’.”

Women have disposable income and they were to spend that income on things that give them pleasure; including their sexuality.

People were beginning to see the value in this once-taboo market. The marketplace that these small feminist sex shops had created was now beginning to buzz. Vibrators were starting to go into the mainstream – there was the famous rabbit episode of Sex in the City which first aired in the 1990s, so there was some traction picking up in the larger culture. All of a sudden, sex toys were trendy.

 

All of these mainstream adult businesses are acting like the women’s sex toy industry just fell from the sky one day like the house from Wizard of Oz.

“My research had to change, I thought ‘it’s not only about the history of these feminist businesses, but now it’s also a story about how these feminist businesses created a market and grew it to a point where it was large enough that the mainstream industry took note of it.’ My project expanded. Instead of winding it down I ended up doing many, many more interviews.” Haven’t we all been there? You’re tying up an essay and something new jumps out at you, something you simply can’t ignore.

“I wanted to be able to tell the history of these businesses but by virtue of that, track the way in which feminist sex toy stores created the foundation for the ways in which women’s sex toys and pornography could grow. Maybe eventually there would have been something called “the women’s market for sex toys” without these feminist sex shops, but I argue that businesses like the ones mentioned above really fundamentally created the conditions so we have this sizeable market today. This was an unexpected shift in my research.”

So, all of a sudden, Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure became far more than it had begun in the most beautiful of ways. When asked if Lynn has any specific takeaway she’d like readers to have when they finish the final page of Vibrator Nation, she was hard-pressed to think of just one. But, in the end, she told us the following: “I hope the book expands people’s ideas about women in the adult industry, feminism, and sex” she goes on to say that “related to that idea of challenging stereotypes, I think that my research challenges the stereotypes around feminism and sexuality as well. I still think that many people have a knee-jerk reaction when they hear the word ‘feminist.’ That word evokes all sorts of stereotypes: ‘you must be anti-man, must be anti-family, you must, of course, be anti-sex.’ Sex positivity and sexual liberation are a huge part of feminism.”

Feeling Inspired? Us too!

Feminists like those who were on the ground-floor of the women’s sex-shop movement did not boycott the market for fear there wasn’t space for them, but rather, they rolled up their sleeves and carved a space for themselves. Everyone has a voice and a space to exist within sexuality and sexual contexts, sometimes we just need to find it like Lynn Comella did, or create it like Joani Blank and Dell Williams. We have gained inspiration beyond compare from speaking with Lynn Comella, and we hope you have, too. Please, for your sake and the sake of humanity, pick up a copy of Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure. You will adore it and undoubtedly fall in love with Lynn, just as we have.

Thank you all for helping us create and foster an open space for everyone to explore, understand, and enjoy their sexual selves. We love and celebrate each and everyone one of you. No shame, friends, we’re all freaks after all.

Get Your Copy Now!

 

Britanny Burr

Britanny is a Freelance Writer and Editor with a Bachelor of Arts in English. She grew up in the Rocky Mountains and is currently dwelling in Vancouver. She loves pool parties (though they are few and far between because she lives in Canada), hairless cats (though she hasn’t yet met one in real life), and people who make her laugh. You can find her dancing, reading, drinking coffee or wine (dependent on the time of day), and watching Boy Meets World re-runs. @britburr

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