Book review: Vibrator Nation by Lynn Comella

My first few visits to adult stores were fraught with embarrassment and shame. In my late teen years, the only adult stores I had access to were back-alley deals with black plastic covering all the windows. There was usually a surly, bearded dude behind the counter and the merchandise ranged from polyester lingerie to hens-party novelties to soft-core pornography videos. Any toys that were available were usually either hyper-realistic, comically huge or made of neon-coloured jelly plastic. I never bought anything because I was completely intimidated by the sales staff and baffled as to what most of the merchandise was for. And yet, I was still curious about sex toys and so I kept visiting the stores in the hopes that one day, something would just click.

After a few years of nervously poking around the shelves of these sleazier joints, I struck gold. One day I took a trip with my then-partner to an adult department store. The selection of goods was massive, and the layout of the store was much cleaner and easier to navigate. But the factor that made it such a great experience was the sales staff. All of the people behind the counter were friendly and knowledgeable, willing to help out but savvy enough to know when to back off and leave the customer to their own devices. It was on this occasion that a fantastic sales woman helped me to pick out my first vibrator. She helped me figure out what I wanted without making me feel ashamed or self-conscious, and she gave me some pointers for getting the most out of my purchase. That twenty-minute interaction was more valuable to me than years of awkward sex-education at school, and it has stuck with me.

When I began reading Vibrator Nation, I was reminded of that first positive interaction and how much difference the setting and staff can make towards the experience of shopping for a sex toy. Lynn Comella’s book is a fascinating look at the shift in how sex toys are sold. The book begins in the 1950’s, continuing through the rush of liberation in the 1960’s and examining the transition from brick-and-mortar stores to online outlets. When we live in an age where an incredible range of body-safe sex toys can be purchased at the click of a button, it can be hard to imagine a time when there were only one or two vibrators to choose from, and getting them was a very difficult exercise. Vibrator Nation made me take a moment to think about how far we’ve come as a sex-positive society and feel a sense of gratitude for the amazing women who paved the way.

I had just finished the final chapter of Vibrator Nation when I heard of the passing of Betty Dodson, a legendary sex educator. The book dedicated a whole chapter to discussing Betty’s early work, pioneering workshops to teach women to orgasm and her endorsement of the Magic Wand as a vital tool for female pleasure. The book talks about the work Betty did to reduce the stigma around clitoral orgasms and to empower women to take charge of their own sexual pleasure. Although I had heard of Betty and knew a little bit about her before picking up this book, Vibrator Nation gave me a deeper appreciation of Betty and the ripple effect her work has had. The book talks about a number of other women who started sex-positive businesses with a focus on educating women about sexuality, such as Joani Blank (founder of Good Vibrations), Dell Williams (founder of Eve’s Garden) and Susie Bright (the first in-store sexpert for Good Vibrations).

Vibrator Nation highlights the inextricable link between feminism and female-run sex toy shops. It doesn’t shy away from delving into the political significance of the first stores, and how their mission to empower women to seek their own pleasure was revolutionary. The book beautifully highlights how these stores drew the marketing and packaging of their products away from the male gaze and oriented them in a way that made them attractive to women. It talks about how combining sex education and a retail space has been valuable to reducing stigma and encouraging women to explore their own sexuality. The book also discusses the pitfalls that have presented themselves as these businesses grow and expand.

I found Vibrator Nation to be a very engaging read. It gave me a newfound appreciation for how far the sex toy industry has come, and the importance of sex education and empowerment. One of the reasons that I began reviewing sex toys was as a way to teach people about the different types of toys available, what to look for when buying toys and how to choose something that would work for their body. I strongly believe in the importance of teaching people about sexuality and pleasure so that they feel empowered to experiment and seek out new ways to enjoy their bodies. Reading Vibrator Nation reinforced how strongly I feel about these ideas, and gave me a chance to pause and reflect on the people who worked to move the industry forward.

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