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Selling sexual liberation: Women -owned sex toy stores and the business of social change

Lynn Comella, University of Massachusetts Amherst


This study considers the history and cultural specificity of women-owned sex stores in the United States, and the particular model of sexual retailing that has evolved alongside these businesses—what I refer to as the Good Vibrations model, a “tasteful,” educationally based, and quasi-therapeutic approach to selling sex toys designed to appeal “especially but not exclusively” to women. Drawing upon extensive participant observation research, in-depth interviews, and archival materials, I examine how discourses of sexual liberation, education, feminism, and consumer-capitalism coalesce within these retail environments, helping to establish what one proprietor describes as the “alternative sex vending movement.” I trace the emergence of public discourses about female masturbation and orgasm in the early seventies, and explore how these ideas were incorporated into sexual consciousness-raising groups, sex therapy programs and, eventually, women-run vibrator businesses. I analyze the underlying “sex positive” philosophies, representational strategies, and retail norms and practices that define the Good Vibrations model, and consider how ideas about gender, class, and sexual taste are mobilized by various storeowners and staff in an effort to cultivate “respectable” retail environments that stand in contrast to the stereotype of sex stores as inherently base and “sleazy.” I argue that for many women-owned sex toy stores in the US, including Good Vibrations and Toys in Babeland, the marketplace doubles as a platform for sex activism and education, which has enabled these businesses to carve out a distinct and profitable niche in the sexual marketplace. By way of contrast, I discuss the impact that anti-vibrator statutes have on sexual speech and retailing in Texas, one of several states in the US where it is illegal to sell sex toys. Despite the growth and commercial success of women's sex businesses over the past thirty years, my research suggests that there is nothing straightforward about practicing sexual politics through the market; indeed, it is a project fraught with challenges and contradictions as storeowners and staff attempt to negotiate the shifting terrain of identity politics on the one hand, and the tensions between feminism, consumer-capitalism, profitability, and social change on the other.

Subject Area

Mass media|Sociology|Womens studies

Recommended Citation

Comella, Lynn, "Selling sexual liberation: Women -owned sex toy stores and the business of social change" (2004). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI3152682.