The Making of A Feminist Market — A Review of Vibrator Nation by Lynn Comella

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In this month’s Consume This! essay, Consumers and Consumption member Shelly Ronen reviews Vibrator Nation (Duke University Press, 2017) by Lynn Comella, a book which traces the feminist origins of the political market for vibrators at the confluence of liberation and consumerism. It is also a reminder of the limits of retail activism, as feminist stores for women’s sexual pleasure ultimately tempered their radical aims with profit imperatives. Ronen’s is a witty and thorough review which traces an important historical thread to today’s discussions of female empowerment amid #MeToo. Enjoy, share, comment.

– Ashley Mears

 

The Making of A Feminist Market: Sex Toys, Identity Politics, and Discontents
A Review of Vibrator Nation (Duke University Press, 2017) by Lynn Comella

By Shelly Ronen

“My other car is a vibrator.” So reads a bumper sticker put out by Dame Products, a “woke” female-run company profiled in the New York Times, no less. The bumper sticker riffs off the iconic phrase “My Other Car is a Porsche,” and its resonance with the automobile is particularly apt. As a textbook symbol of twentieth century American consumer capitalism, the automobile represents values of nationalism and liberty. The surprisingly insightful linking of the car and the vibrator would not be lost on Lynn Comella, whose recent book, titled Vibrator Nation (Duke University Press, 2017) tells the history – or rather herstory – of the vibrator in the US and its rise to mainstream New-York-Times-reportability.

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Comella’s account rests on three institutional pillars: Eve’s Garden, a store founded by Dell Williams in 1974, Good Vibrations, which was founded in 1977 by Joanie Blank, and Toys in Babeland, which was cofounded in 1993 by Claire Cavanah and Rachel Venning (and later renamed just Babeland). In addition, Comella interweaves the stories of other feminist foremothers including author and educator Betty Dodson, and one of Blank’s most influential hires, the trailblazing “sexpert” Susie Bright. In essence, however, the book is an account of the formation of a politicized market – a sexual market for American women, with the symbol of the vibrator standing in for political values of feminism and liberation. Indeed, the vibrator’s symbolic power was taken up as a third wave feminist battle cry, “vibrators in hand we’re ready to fight the good fight!” (Henry 2004, p. 110).

Vibrator Nation thus offers not just new insight into the twentieth century history of sexuality, but also an investigation of the relation between consumer capitalism and identity politics. It is worth reading alongside scholarship on ethnocentric consumption and consumer nationalism (see Castello and Mihelj 2017), in order to consider how consumer markets are loaded with political content. For as we learn in the book, it is not merely the case that feminists turned to retail sites to do their work of consciousness raising and education, but it is also the case that the constitution of their sex-positive feminist project was shaped by economic logics of market segmentation and consumer liberty.

Comella engages in the more academic aspect of her venture with a remarkably light touch. Foregrounding the stories of these sex positive matriarchs the book is driven by characters and their pioneering. Using each woman’s story – without exploiting it – Comella illustrates some of the social forces at play. Betty Dodson was a champion of masturbation at second wave feminist conferences and workshops. For her part, Dodson illustrates the significance of second wave feminist consciousness raising and medical manuals like Our Bodies, Ourselves (1971) in shaping sex toy retailers.

Williams, after attending a masturbation workshop at Dodson’s house in 1973, went to buy a vibrator of her own only to be humiliated by the sales clerk at Macy’s. She redirected her embarrassment into founding a store aiming to “change the world” (p. 33). Williams brought feminist separatism (no men allowed, thank you) to a politically inflected eastern spiritualism of her time, reasoning that “if all the energy in the world was connected, from orgasms to oceans to world peace, a shift in women’s erotic energy had the potential to affect other kinds of energy in the universe” (p. 35).

Soon after, Blank founded her store, influenced both by her medicalized expertise (she worked as sex therapist), and her commitment to communitarian “Briarpatch” businesses practices. Blank even shared her business secrets with others interested in starting stores, creating a “feminist diaspora” that includes Babeland, where Comella conducted field work.

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The first half of the book has the quality of a heroic second wave feminist tale. It documents the bravery of feminist pioneers, to whom Comella dedicates the book, writing, “You make the world a better place.” Comella’s main argument is that these sex-positive heroines have “used consumer culture as an instrument for sexual consciousness-raising and social change by imbuing sex toys and sex-toy stores with new kinds of cultural and political possibilities” and “created a viable counterpublic sphere for… retail activism, one where the idea that the personal is political is deployed in the service of a progressive – potentially transformative – sexual politics” (p.13). And indeed, they have.

But the second half of the book, like many histories of the left, departs from its exhilarating beginning. As time passes, the story must balance early gains (like the five pages that document countless letters Williams received from grateful women customers) against setbacks and disappointments. Taken together, these two halves present a more contradictory – and for that reason, more interesting – account of sex toy retail.

The germinal brand of “transformative” sexual politics was premised on gynocentric exclusionism and suspicion of male sexual desire. To wit: both Eve’s Garden and Good Vibrations either didn’t carry dildos or hid them in the back of their stores so as not to encourage yearnings for vaginal orgasms rather than clitoral ones, or so as not to invite men customers. Good Vibrations didn’t sell pornography until the late 1980s at the behest of Susie Bright, who also advocated for BDSM paraphernalia. And what’s more, even two and a half decades later successful mainstream sex-toy stores like Babeland needed to perfect standards of “tasteful,” décor that conveyed nonthreatening codes of middle-class sexual respectability (p.99 emphasis added). Further, stores continually demonstrated the kind of racial insensitivity and tone deafness critiqued decades prior by Black feminists. It’s a wonder that intersectional insights from academia didn’t permeate into these retail settings. But even as recently as 2011, Neena Joiner felt a need for stores catering to African American customers.

Her story is instructive. Visiting Good Vibrations in the late 1990s, Joiner felt, “All the empowered images were of white women. Being a black female, I wondered ‘Where are we?’” and so, given this “need in the African American community for more diverse sexual images and resources” (p.166), Joiner went about a painstaking five-year process of navigating the city ordinances and raising money for her business. Joiner’s story underscores the significant material obstacles to women of color and poorer women from accessing this brand of political empowerment. One needs a lot of capital to get involved, whether as retailer or customer. But not only that. Joiner’s hopes of inclusion sadly don’t seem to materialize. Joiner says, “Being black and brown. Those are my primary constituents,” and yet she admits that, “in order to stay afloat financially… The people buying my products… don’t necessarily look like me” (p.168). Here the reader really sees the limits of retail activism’s transformative potential.

Comella dismisses “cultural critics [who] have argued that radical politics are at odds with or hostile to consumer capitalism…. [Or suggested] that the sex industry is the epitome of crass commercialism and gendered exploitation” (13). But as readers we are left with a more ambivalent conclusion. After all, the second half of the book shows how feminist retailers and staff have had to navigate “imperatives that are not always in sync with their progressive ideals” (p. 175). Running a store is, at the end of the day, an enterprise limited by one’s ability to produce profit, and even a feminist will have to do what she has to do. Such is the consensus from retailers who repeatedly tell Comella that making profits is the only way to sustain the political work.

Skeptics may therefore balk at the quotes that sniff of self-congratulatory idealism, as when educators open their sex toy workshops with, “we are doing something revolutionary here tonight” (136), but Comella’s ability to capture these retailers’ commitments to transformation through consumption is one of the things I most appreciate about Vibrator Nation. Where I wish she would press further is in asking whether consumer politics as a strategy for feminism has taken its course. When sex positive pioneers like Claire Cavanah play the role of union-busting retail managers (p. 215-216); and the coop model fails Good Vibrations, which goes bankrupt and is forced to sell to a traditionally shunned porn distributor (p. 219), have we reached the limits of liberation through consumption? Such skeptical readers may prefer a more cynical take like the one Alexandra Chasin (2001) offers of the “selling out” of gay and lesbian markets. Chasin writes that when “consumption becomes a form of political participation, perhaps supplanting other, more direct, models of participation… [the result is] inimical to progressive political change” (p. 24).

But whether readers are skeptics or supporters of consumptive identity politics, this book has a lot to offer. Its reconstruction of the emergence of feminist vibrator politics is a worthwhile contribution. It is a chapter of history we may need more than ever now, during our #MeToo moment when the promises of pleasure are again being eclipsed by specters of heterosexist danger. We cannot therefore afford to ignore this book’s rich documentation of feminist identity politics. We must search it for both its implications for theories of consumption as activism as well as its lessons about feminism through retail.

 

Works Cited

Castelló, E. and Mihelj, S., 2017. Selling and Consuming the Nation: Understanding Consumer Nationalism. Journal of Consumer Culture, p.1469540517690570.

Chasin, A., 2000. Selling out: The Gay and Lesbian Movement Goes to Market. Palgrave Macmillan

Comella, L., 2017. Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure. Duke University Press.

Henry, A., 2004. Not My Mother’s Sister: Generational Conflict and Third-wave Feminism. Indiana University Press

 

Shelly Ronen is a PhD candidate at New York University. Her dissertation project asks how notions of morality are produced in the work of sex toy designers. She has written about youth sexuality, workplace culture, sex and technology, and postfeminism. She lives in Philadelphia and teaches at Temple University. She blogs irregularly.

 

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