Buying Sexual Liberation: A Review of Vibrator Nation

This book may not be for everyone. Not only because of the content but because of how the content is written. This is not necessarily bad thing; this book just requires a special reader. This book is information driven and requires a patient reader to get the full scope of how these feminist pioneers truly changed history. The author Lynn Comella does not do anything lightly. What started out as a dissertation ended up being a two-decade long process. She not only interviewed people and researched but she was on the frontlines. She worked in these stores to get the full idea. Vibrator Nation by Lynn Comella spans decades from the 60s to the early 2000s and if you aren’t careful, you can get lost in history.

Just like the feminist pioneers that she follows, Comella focuses on educating readers. Comella sets up all the stores like a family tree with Good Vibrations being the matriarch of the family. From Good Vibrations spawned stores like Babeland, which spawned Smitten Kitten and Feelmore, and many more stores. To watch these stores grow is to watch feminism grow and Comella does a great job showing the juxtaposition between the stores and the ideology they stand for.

Comella delves into aspects of the stores that most readers wouldn’t think about. From how shop owners dealt with city ordinances to how they styled their stores. Good Vibrations owner Joni Blank styled her store to look more like a holistic healing center. There was macramé in the windows and lots of natural lighting. This space became a place where people could feel comfortable in their own skin and changed the tone when talking about sex. This didn’t get past Comella:

“By styling her store in a way that mirrored the layout and design of the home, a sphere traditionally associated with women, Blank was effectively domesticating and, some might argue, sexually sanitizing her vibrator shop by anchoring it in the emotional comfort of a familiar space.” (95)

Babeland made sure their stores were always clean, wanting to distance themselves from typical sex stores. Other stores would separate books from toys to encourage those who wanted to learn more first instead of jumping right in. They separated toys for anal pleasure and put them separate. They took toys out their packaging so that customers could interact with them and not be intimidating by the images on the packaging. Many of the happy customers describe the stores and products as “classy.”

Comella even delves into the products that store owners sell. They have to think about what they want as feminists and sex educators, so things like anal bleach and numbing cream doesn’t follow their mission. They don’t want to work with companies that are sexist, racist, or transphobic. They want things that will either help educate or give pleasure. An example is Tyler Merriman, a product gatekeeper for Babeland, refuses to sell intimate wipes.

“These would probably sell in many, many other sex-toy stores, but we won’t sell them. It’s [a product] that’s clearly about making women’s genitals, their pussies, smell like vanilla. And that is not how women’s pussies smell; and again, it plays into women’s sexual insecurities about the way they smell.” (114)

There are also health issues to think about. A majority of all sex toys are produced in China with cheap plastic. They contain toxins like phthalates, that makes the toys soft and flexible. This chemical can cause infertilely and hormonal disruptions. So many feminist sex-toy stores only sell silicone, glass, or wooden dildos.

This is not to say everything was holding hands happy, there were many cracks in the foundation of feminism. There is a constant struggle between feminism and capitalism that Comella highlights beautifully. To them, money was a weapon used against women. Good Vibrations owner Blank didn’t need to care about money in the beginning because she was lucky enough to have some family money. So when the store didn’t do well, she supplied the extra money. But as Good Vibrations and other stores grew they needed to not only focus on the mission but the money. This was hard for employees who were mission oriented and didn’t want to do sales.

The one criticism for this book is that it’s a lot to wade through. It reads a lot like a dissertation, which can be difficult for readers. With something as fascinating as feminist sex-toy stores and their history, Comella made it feel boring at times. This could be due to her analytic voice that she had to use throughout the process. Or maybe because she was still trying to remain partial. Overall though, it’s an informative book that highlights all the work these women did for sexual liberation.


Erynn Porter has BFA in Creative Writing from the New Hampshire Institute of Art; she is currently Assistant Editor for Quail Bell Magazine, along with being a book critic for ROAR Feminist Lit Magazine. She has been published or is forthcoming in BustROAREntropyBrooklyn Mag, and more. She often jumps between her interests of writing about her chronic illnesses, fiction, and to anything else that grabs her attention. You can often find her eating candy while editing her own work; she claims that candy is the perfect editing food. When Erynn isn’t editing, she’s reading with a cat curled up beside her. You can see more of her work at erynnporter.com

Lynn Comella, Ph.D. is an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies in the department of interdisciplinary, gender, and ethnic studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. An expert on the adult entertainment industry, her research explores a number of broad sociological themes, including the relationship between sexual politics and consumer culture.

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