Orgasming To Liberation“Vibrator Nation” Celebrates the History of Sex Toys


Book Reviews{ Duke University Press Books }
Released: September 08, 2017
$25.95

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This article appears in our 2017 Fall issue, Facts. Subscribe today!

Reading Lynn Comella’s Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure summoned memories of buying my first vibrator. After a sex educator showed my college sexuality workshop dildos, butt plugs, and lube, we visited a shop she recommended, where the sales clerk declared that the G-spot massager I bought may lead to female ejaculation. These were the first sex talks I received that focused on pleasure instead of warnings. Seeing sex as a source of enjoyment rather than harm made me more comfortable in my body. 

However, sex toys weren’t always instruments for empowerment. Based on her time working at Babeland, her research as a gender and sexuality studies professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, and interviews with more than 80 members of the industry, Comella traces their journey from seedy roadside stores to friendly feminist boutiques. Beyond filling people’s bedside drawers, sex toys got people talking about sex—and changed how they talked about it. From pegging to clitoral stimulation, the practices taught by these sexperts expanded people’s perspectives on relationships along with their bedroom repertoires. 

Dense with historical background and quotes from gender theorists, Vibrator Nation is not light beach reading, nor should it be. Its highlights are Comella’s examinations of cultural ideas that shaped and were shaped by the adult industry, including two delightful definitions of “queering”: former Good Vibrations education director Charlie Glickman’s “pushing past limits that really don’t need to be there” and product and purchasing manager Coyote Days’s “breaking open boxes.”

But too often, the narrative loses sight of what’s at stake: our sense of safety and power in bodies constantly devalued. The story rarely strays outside sex-shop walls. Comella’s analysis also falls short when examining feminist retailers’ definition of “woman.” She acknowledges that it favors rich, white, straight, cis women with vanilla tastes, but fails to illustrate how such exclusion is accomplished. Though the gender studies nerd in me ate this book up, the feminist in me was left hungry for more. 

This article was published in Facts Issue #76 | Fall 2017
by Suzannah Weiss
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Suzannah Weiss is a writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Village Voice, Vice, Salon, Glamour, Cosmopolitan, Elle, Marie Claire, Seventeen, Bitch, Bust, Paper Magazine, and more. She holds degrees in Gender & Sexuality Studies, Modern Culture & Media, and Cognitive Neuroscience from Brown University, which she uses mainly to over-analyze trashy television and argue over semantics. You can read some of her work at www.suzannahweiss.com and follow her on Twitter at @suzannahweiss.
 

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