'Vibrator Nation': Inside the Rise of Women-Run Sex Shops

New book dives into how feminist sex-toy stores changed the way women – and marginalized communities – embrace sex

Women admiring the wares at Babeland, a sex shop in Brooklyn. Credit: Liz Clayman/Flickr

It's white, about twelve inches long with a bulbous head and a couple of buttons, and it became an icon of sexual liberation in the 1970s. It's the Hitachi Magic Wand and, though it's name has since changed, it's still one of the most popular vibrators on the market today, available in brightly-lit boutique sex-toy stores across the country. Forty years ago, women bought their "personal massagers" at the local department stores, hoping the sales clerk wasn't going to give them a dirty look. By the mid-1970s, though, women were tired of these awkward transactions, and a few of them decided to take matters into their own hands, opening the first "women-friendly" sex-toy stores.

In her new book, Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure, Lynn Comella walks us through the evolution of these stores and how they ushered in an era of sex-positive thinking. For these feminist entrepreneurs, their stores weren't just businesses – they were educational and community resources. These women learned as they went, figuring out how to stay sex-positive and progressive within a capitalist system, creating a model feminist sex-toy stores still use today – much like that original Hitachi.

As a graduate student in the late-1990s, Comella – now an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Nevada in Las Vegas – was interested in how representations of women's sexuality came to public presence. Incidentally, a feminist-identified sex-toy store had recently opened in Northampton, the Massachusetts college town where she was living. Comella did her first interview for her dissertation – which would become Vibrator Nation – with the store owner. She says two things that stuck out to her. "The first is that she said, 'I see my store as a feminist way to empower women,'" Comella says. "The second is that she based her business on the Good Vibrations retail model."

She was referring to Good Vibrations, San Francisco's legendary women-friendly sex-toy shop, founded by Joani Blank in 1977. While Good Vibrations wasn't the first feminist-identified vibrator business – that was Eve's Garden in New York, founded by Dell Williams in 1974 – it ended up becoming nationally known and amassed a cult-like fan following because of the way it embraced the community. Comella quickly realized that these small, independent businesses paved the way for a whole network of feminist-identified, mission-driven sex-toy shops located in cities from coast to coast.

In the earlier days of Good Vibrations, Blank was passionate about helping other businesses like hers start up. She shared her distributor list with other new owners for a very small fee, and even trained some of them herself. For a number of years, the store was a worker-owner co-op, so all of the employees and Blank owned equal shares of the business. This changed as more employees were hired and the business grew.

Comella found it especially fascinating that many of the feminist sex-toy shop owners didn't like thinking of themselves as business people. "They were far more comfortable seeing themselves as feminist activists and sex educators," Comella says. By putting emphasis on education over sales and offering free workshops, they resisted traditional forms of capitalism. This resistance helped these stores become spaces for other types of political resistance and liberation as well – particularly during times of national stress.

Comella saw just how important these spaces were in the wake of September 11th. The morning of the attacks, Comella was in her Brooklyn apartment getting ready to go to work at Babeland, where she was doing research for Vibrator Nation. (Originally known as "Toys in Babeland," Babeland was Seattle's first feminist sex-toy store and eventually opened several locations in New York.) Babeland went dark that day, and when it re-opened the following Saturday, workers expected the store to be quiet. "[But] it was as busy as you can imagine," Comella says. "People just flooded through the doors. They wanted a community space. They wanted to support a business they believed in. They wanted to be consumer activists and make sure that the small businesses that had to close in the wake of catastrophe felt supported."

Searah Deysach, owner of Early to Bed, a toy shop on Chicago's North Side, sits among countless neon-colored sex toys. Not only does she want to create a community, she sees these shops as places to promote pleasure as self-care. Deysach says that even today – during what seems like a constantly negative news cycle – "there is still attention to preservation of the self. We have a space that not only provides the goods for that, but [anyone] can walk in here and they're going to find somebody who's going to support them."

This doesn't surprise Comella, who believes feminist sex-toy shops have always been spaces of resistance. "These stores take women's sexuality seriously," says Comella. "[As well as] the sexuality of queer people and other marginalized groups. They communicate to their customers messages of inclusion, solidarity, and self-care."

Feelmore, a store owned and operated by Nenna Joiner in Oakland, California, is a perfect example of this kind of space. In Vibrator Nation, it's described as "part art gallery, part adult store, and part community resource center." Joiner opened Feelmore in 2011 after visiting Good Vibrations, which she loved, but ultimately, she didn't see anything that represented her as a black woman.

"Black women and women of color don't just need stores to sell us things, but stores that understand our stories," she says.

Joiner feels passionately about the intersections between race, culture, and sex. "For me," she says, "owning Feelmore extends our ownership to every black woman in America. We are not just a commerce space, but a space that gives voice to the body, identity to gender, and context to race within our community."

As sexual politics shift, stores like Feelmore continue to shift with them. When Blank started Good Vibrations, she wanted it to be different from the conventional adult store. It was years before pornography or lingerie was found on the shelves, because Blank felt they were anti-feminist sex shop clichés. Perhaps the most heated debate was the one about whether or not to carry dildos because there was so much effort at this time to educate women about the power of the clitoris and the "myth" of the vaginal orgasm. As for changes in more recent years, some stores have adjusted their language to be more gender-inclusive to better serve the needs of the trans community. No longer thought of as just "women-friendly" stores, they welcome customers of all genders and sexualities.

For some folks, these stores are just a place to buy sex toys, but for others, they offer a space that feels positive, affirming, and welcoming. "I think it's so important that these businesses exist," Comella says. "They provide a safe space for people who desperately need one now, in such a politically tenuous time. [People are] feeling untethered not only from a sense of community but from themselves and their bodies as well." Vibrator Nation tells one part of our country's feminist story, but it may just as well be a call to action to grab a vibrator – or whatever tool of liberation you choose – and resist.