Vibrator Nation tells the story of how women changed the sex toy industry and brought new standards of quality, education, and comfort to a previously seedy industry.
The author, Lynn Comella, is an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies, which I think brings the book a bit of an academic feeling. The chapters are fairly long and it's a book based on lots of data, interviews, and "ethnographic fieldwork" (like working at babeland).
Just because it's educational doesn't mean it's a boring read. The chapters are filled with stories from sex shops, an anything but dull industry. You get to hear about how Vixen Creations founder starting making dildos in her kitchen. How Dell Williams was inspired to start a sex shop after attending nude "Bodysex Workshops" in the early 1970s, which showed participants how to use a magic wand vibrator to climax. How employees at Babeland deal with pranksters that perform BDSM scenes in the shop.
This is a must read this if you love your local sex-shop, if you are interested in working in a sex-related industry, if you like progressive business that aren't in it for the money, or if you enjoy history.
Pages: 279 (8 chapters)
Author: Lynn Comella
Price: $15 - $25
Good Vibrations and Babeland play starring roles in Vibrator Nation (they make an appearance in every chapter). I always knew they were important, but as the book makes it clear, they were pioneers that started a new movement of sex positivity.
Many other woman-owned shops and creators carve out their own sections in the book. Some of my favorite parts were the Vixen Creations studio visit, or the section about Smitten Kitten returning all the jelly toys after they started to melt in the Minneapolis summer heat.
I put together a table that shows how many times each shop was mentioned in Vibrator Nation. Good Vibrations is mentioned 459 times!
Number of mentions in 'Vibrator Nation'
San Francisco, CA
Claire Cavanah & Rachel Venning
New York City, NY
Molly Adler & Matie Fricker
Vixen Creations (Manufacturer
San Francisco, CA
Early To Bed
A Woman's Touch
Many other companies and shops made brief one time appearances like Earth Erotics, ToyBoxxx, She Bop, LoveHoney, Doc Johnson, Cal Exotics.
The first few chapters focus on the people and events that led to these businesses getting started, namely Eve's Garden, Good Vibrations, and Babeland (in that order).
Eve's Garden - Founded in 1974
The first sex shop for women was started in New York City by Dell Williams. We get to hear the story of Williams attending progressive vibrator and sexuality classes organized by Betty Dodson. The classes were incredibly progressive and involved being completely naked, meditating, doing 'genital show and tell', and teaching women how to use the magic wand vibrator.
These classes inspired Dodson to go to Macy's and get a magic wand of her own. While there, she had an awkward experience with a male salesman, who asked in a suspicious tone "What do you need to use the massager for?". After coming home she decided that only women should be selling vibrators to women and started Eve's Garden, the first women-owned sex shop.
She started in her apartment with a mail-order business and opened to the public on Fridays. After a year she quit her job and moved to her own space. There she started selling more vibrators, massage oils, and books about sexual liberation and women's health.
Good Vibrations - Founded in 1977
Good Vibrations and founder Joani Blank are a very important part of this book. Together, they take up almost an entire page in the index. Part of the reason for this is that many other shops were inspired by Good Vibrations. The creators of other important companies like Sugar and Vixen Creations were first employees at Good Vibrations. And the founders of Babeland and Grand Opening participated in the Good Vibrations internship program in 1992 before going off to other cities to set up shop.
Before starting Good Vibrations, Joani Blank was a sex therapist and professional in San Francisco. She felt that adult shops only catered to men and there was a big need for a shop by women for women.
Through quotes and stories you get a sense of the incredible passion and dedication Joani Blank had for helping other women. She deeply cared about helping women and wasn't interested in making money for the sake of getting rich. One good quote that shows her approach comes from a job interview with employee Susie Bright:
“I don’t care if you don’t sell a damn thing all day. This is about education and it’s about providing an alternative place for women to explore their sexual self-interests.” - Joani Blank, pg 51
and another comment made to Joani by an employee:
“Joani you run your business like a social service” “Right. That is exactly it. Thank you. That is a compliment.” - Joani Blank, pg 195
The vibrators were on display and you could actually touch them and get a feel for how the worked. There was even a small fitting room with a curtain where people could test vibrations on the outside of their jeans. The friendly staff were sex-educators more than they were sales-associates and could answer any questions you had about how to use and care for a vibrator. In the 90s Good vibrations would add a book and feminist pornography library and start it's own feminist pornography studio.
Joani followed the briar-patch philosophy to business, which meant she care more about social change than making money. She had no problem letting customers walk out the door without buying things. There was one funny story where she turned down a date in high school when she found out he wanted to pursue an MBA.
In 1992 Joani turned the company into a cooperative, and by the early 2000s stepped aside completely. Good Vibrations struggled in the mid 2000s do to the increased presence of online sales and competition from sites like Amazon. Eventually in 2007 they were bought by an adult wholesale company called "General Video of American and Trans-World News". The purchase was devastating for some employees because these big companies are the opposite of their mission. However so far the purchaser, Joel Kaminsky, kept the company afloat and its image mostly intact.
I found this part to be a bummer, especially since GVA recently bought Babeland as well. Who knows how much unsafe merchandise they might try to sneak onto the shelves at some point. Smitten Kitten on the other hand is still owned by the original founder, so you know they will have good education and safe products.
Babeland - 1993
As part of Joani Blank's mission to help spread sex education and awareness about vibrators she held an internship program at her shop for entrepreneurs. The first two to successfully complete the course were Rachel Venning and Claire Cavanah, who would go on to create Babeland in 1993.
The author spent 6 months during 2001 doing her dissertation at the Babeland store in New York. The beginning of chapter three goes into detail about her work there. She would open the store by herself in the morning, handle the money, straighten the dildos, and most importantly, help customers with any questions they had about products. Babeland called her position a "sex educator".
Here is a snippet that helps explain how important her work was.
I turned around and noticed a young woman holding a small, pink Hello Kitty vibrator in one hand and the Rabbit—the vibrator that had catapulted to celebrity status thanks to the HBO series Sex and the City—in the other. “I want to buy a vibrator,” she said, “but I have absolutely no idea what I’m looking for.”
Since there are so many sex toys to choose from, this role of being a sex educator, someone who helped people understand what their different choices were, was a defining characteristic of women-run sex toy shops. This was not the kind of help you would get at men oriented shops with names like XXX-World.
Smitten Kitten - 2003
Smitten Kitten is where I bought this book and my favorite shop, so i was super excited to learn more about them. Smitten Kitten plays a starring role in chapter five "The Politics of Products" which discusses how they lead the way in getting rid of toxic sex toys.
Vibrator Nation goes into more detail about the story of Smitten Kitten sniffing out toxic sex toys (you can read an excerpt from that section here for free). Basically Jennifer was suspicious of the foul smelling and melty toys she ordered, after doing more research she found they contained toxic chemicals and decided not to sell them. Instead she only stocked body safe materials like silicone and glass. Eventually she sent some of the most popular jelly toys to a testing lab and discovered most of them contained phthalates, bringing more awareness to the issue of toxic toys and the need for safe ones.
Vixen Creations - 1992
When working at Good Vibrations Marilyn Bishara noticed that the Silicone products were always on back-order. They were difficult to get a hold of because they are trickier to make. She started making colorful silicone dildos in her kitchen and eventually moved to a 5,000 square foot studio space. What makes vixen creations so great is their emphasis on beauty and design. They try to make the best of the best when it comes to silicone dildos.
On page 124 of the book, Comella heads to the Vixen Creation's studio in the Hunter's Point neighborhood of San Francisco. We hear about the shelves of dildos organized by color & shapes, the 'pops' of removing a freshly born dildo from a mold, and about they enjoyed warm peach cobbler, part of the free lunch that all employees got... I submitted my application to work there after reading this.
Vixen creations was one of the first luxury toy creators that put an emphasis on quality and was created to meet the demands of shops like good vibrations. The other dildos available at the time were wavy and didn't hit the G-Spot properly. Vixxen created arched dildos, silicone butt plugs, double-headed dildos, and magic wand attachments - all innovations for the time.
As far as manufacturers go they don't get as much attention as the shops in the book.
News since publication - One important development since Vibrator Nation was published is the purchase of Babeland by Good Vibrations in August 2017. It helps to keep the news in mind since the book focuses on these two shops.
After introducing how the first feminist sex toy stores got started the rest of the book talks about their impact on the industry and the innovations they helped inspire. As well as their attempts to strike a balance between being a business and helping people.
One of the big defining characteristics of the women-run sex shops was the cozy feel. They are clean, have good lighting, and have chairs for sitting down and read books. Chapter 4 jumps into the details about these differences.
In the beginning of the chapter Lynn visits A-Action Adult Books in Las Vegas. It is a dirty shop that carries porn, jelly toys, and let's people hookup in the "arcade" section at the back of the store. It's $4 to enter the arcade area where there are adjacent video booths with glory holes. This is the main reason most people showed up at this store and was a hot-spot for hookups and sex.
This helps setup a strong contrast when she describes how the women-run stores did things. The following table helps sum up her findings.
Class (Typical Woman-Owned Shop)
Crass (A Typical XXX Shop)
The shops were all about making people feel comfortable and safe. Curious first-time customers were shy and really appreciated this safe atmosphere.
One way they made people feel comfortable was by organizing the store from "Mild to Wild". They put the less intimidating items like books, vibrators, and lubes towards the front of the shop. Then towards the back they had more intimidating items like butt plugs, realistic dildos, and restraints. This is definitely the case in Smitten Kitten, where there is a book corner at the front of the shop with some comfy chairs, while the VixSkin realistic dildos are at the back of the shop.
Changing the negative stereotype about sex shops was a challenge too. Especially when it came to zoning laws set up to deal with strip clubs and adult businesses. Self Serve in Albuquerque wanted to put their shop in a popular shopping neighborhood, but zoning laws required shops in these areas to carry less than 25% of their inventory in adult merchandise. To get around the law they sold lots of body care products and chocolate, and always made sure to add 3 new non-sexual products every-time they added a new sex toy to the store.
After reading chapter five, the word I would use to describe the products carried by women-owned shops is 'quality'. They don't carry cheaply made products and they don't carry products that promote ideas about sexuality that are not in line with the stores' missions.
I just don’t want angry-looking toys here. We try to make sex fun and happy. Not mad and mean. - Sugar owner, Searah Deyseach
They also refuse to sell quick fix products, or products that play off of insecurities. Things like penis pumps, vaginal tightening cream, and sexual enhancement drugs. Most of these products are carried by XXX shops and don't really work or are damaging to the body.
Being a sex-toy retailer with standards is not, Deysach concedes, a method to get rich fast—or really, at all. “If I sold poppers [a recreational drug used to enhance sexual performance] and penis enlargers, I could buy myself a Cadillac.” - Searah Deysach (pg 116)
This goes back to the theme that the stores in these books all follow their own form of the briarpatch philosophy, meaning they are using their businesses as vehicles to improve the lives of others, not just themselves.
The New Sex Toy Artists
The rise of sex-positive shops created more and more demands for high quality toys. Toys that would last a lifetime instead instead of just days. Here's a snippet from the book that explains how the sex-toy industry counted on people throwing out toys:
[Retailers] would stock the same items over and over again because the model [of retailing] was based on a guy buying a product, taking it to his hotel room, using it while he was on the road with whomever, and then throwing it away; so the fact that it wasn’t going to last very long wasn’t important. What was important was that it cost $20 and it was going to be there for the here and now. And the next time, that person is going to buy the same item for $20 because it worked for them before. - Metis Black, Founder of Tantus (Pg 127)
Good Vibrations started offering warranties and stopped carrying any products that it had to send back to a company because it broke. Companies like Tantus, Vixen Creations, Crystal Delights, Njoy, and Earth Erotics were all born out of the need for high quality and luxury sex toys.
The creator of Njoy, Greg DeLong, calls his customers"Intelligent perverts with disposable incomes". DeLong was a mechanical engineer with a degree from Tufts University. He saw the market as "begging for a new paradigm of quality and design" which encouraged him to create Njoy in 2005. DeLong says that he only sells "omnisexual products", a pretty nifty term that means he wants his creations to be usable by anyone of any sexual orientation.
The increase in quality usually means a higher price, which not all shops were cool with, like Tool Shed's owner Laura Haave:
We are an old school brick-and-mortar store. I am here for Milwaukee 100 percent. So there might be something that everyone in New York City and San Francisco loves. Fuck you, East Coasters. You know what I mean? It’s too fucking expensive for Milwaukee. We are a blue-collar town. We are in the Midwest. I am not going to carry a $200 vibrator that is a weird shape that no one is asking for. But I will do legwork to carry things that people come in and say, “I want this. I have to go to another state to get it, but I’d rather get it from you.” If people ask for it, then they value it. But I am not going to bring in the latest trendy thing because everyone has it.
The school system mostly focuses on teaching children how to protect themselves from the dangers of sex. But it dosen't teach them about their sexuality, about P-spots, or G-spots, leaving many adults confused about their own bodies.
That's where sex-positive shops come in to fill the gap. They offer weekly workshops on topics like how to use strap-ons, how to tie a bondage knot, and general Q&A.
Instead of sales associates Babeland calls employees working on the floors "sex educators". Good Vibrations called employees SESAs which stands for sex educators/sales associates. The SESAs attended ongoing education events to keep their fingers "on the sexual pulse of america" they learned about new products and had lessons from staff sexologist Carol Queen.
Chapter 7 is about the shops attempt to shift from women-only shops to shops for everyone.
In the beginning many of these shops were women-only, like Eve's Garden when it opened in 1974.
“The ban [on men] had to do with creating a comfortable place for women to explore their own sexuality, and in 1974, this necessarily meant gender privacy.” She eventually relaxed this policy and began welcoming men, but only during certain hours and only if accompanied by a woman. - pg 162, about Dell Williams
Good Vibrations and Babeland eventually began to recognize that men were one of their biggest customers. Most men disliked sleazy XXX shops as much as women and preferred a clean and safe place to shop. Babeland began to carry prostate-massagers, penis toys, and add new staff. Good vibrations hired Charlie Glickman, their first male employee, in 1996.
Queer-identified, Glickman had a background that included volunteering at Alameda County’s rape crisis center as the project coordinator for Men Overcoming Sexual Assault. He’s slight of build, with small hands and an alto voice. As a result, it wasn’t unusual for him to be mistaken as a trans guy. But he also knew how to act like someone’s “gay BFF,” he said. “You know, like Will and Grace.” He never hit on customers and projected a nonthreatening vibe, which he thinks made it comfortable for many women to have him help them when they were shopping. And yet not all Good Vibrations customers were happy seeing a man on the sales floor. At least one woman wrote to the company to say, “Please take me off your mailing list. There’s a man working there.” However, Glickman found this response to be the exception and not the rule. - pg 177
Another issue has to do with race diversity. Comella highlights how if you look at the Good Vibrations staff pictures from the 1980s all the employees were white women. Nenna Joiner was a regular Good Vibrations customer, and even though she enjoyed the shop she didn't feel represented there. This inspired her to create FeelMore in 2011, a sex shop that is about including everyone.
For Joiner, “inclusiveness” is more than just a buzzword; it is the organizing principle of her business. “The goal of [Feelmore] is to make everyone feel safe, regardless of what you look like or who you are.” - pg 167
Feelmore stocks many items you can't find in other stores like chocolate and carmel colored dildos and packers.
Some of the shops also struggled financially at times. In 2001 Babeland was losing money and had to make several changes to stay afloat. They cut salaries of the owners, laid off their assistant purchasing manager, put a freeze on hiring and raises, and cut back the educational workshops to once a month.
“What we are witnessing,” she reported dryly, “is the very real struggle between capitalism and the mission. We cannot do the mission if we don’t have the money, so the two need to be balanced" Carrie Scrader, general business manager of Babeland.
Both Good Vibrations and Eve's Garden said that making money wasn't their focus.
“I don’t think I was very good at the business side of things,” she admitted. “I always seemed to have problems with money and meeting payroll. Financially I should have gotten another partner or someone to handle that aspect of it, because it always seemed to be a struggle.” - Dell Williams, page 191
In one interview, Joani Blank said in her point-blank way "I didn't give a damn about profits." Blank was fortunate enough to have a cheap living situation and her family had some property that gave her extra income. She would often sell items for the same price she bought them, just because she really wanted women to have them.
Blank made regular trips to San Francisco’s Japan Town to purchase cases of the Hitachi Magic Wand for resale. According to Winks, Blank would buy the vibrators at a slight discount only to turn around and sell them at Good Vibrations at the same price for which they were being sold in Japan Town, thereby making a profit of only about two dollars for every one sold. Pg 192
Things only became more difficult with the rise of the internet. Now many people can buy sex toys anonymously from the comfort of their homes. This means shops now have to compete with Amazon and other shops websites. Shops have become less willing to help other stores or give advice to people starting their first stores, because there is a good chance they will be competing in the online world.
There was no mention in the book of online shops like SheVibe, which I was a little surprised at. As more and more shopping moves online it seems important that for brick & mortar shops to survive they will need to have good websites in order to compete with Amazon.
It's also worrying that Babeland was purchased by Good Vibrations, which is already owned by GVA. They are essentially owned by the company they were created to provide refuge from. I worry they will become more profit oriented and won't be the briarpatch forces for good that they once were.