The Juicy Cuts—Lynn Comella, Part I: Sex Ed, Toy Shops, and Stereotypes

At the end of 2018, I began work on a feature article for a notable sex-positive publication. The piece was going to be on how privately run companies educate the public about sexuality. The article never ran, which makes me sad. But I ended up with some downright AMAZING interviews.

Here’s the beginning of one of them! I spoke with Lynn Comella, PhD, a researcher, sexographer, author (of the just fantastic Vibrator Nation), and professor of gender and sexuality studies in the department of interdisciplinary, gender, and ethnic studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She’d just written Vibrator Nation, so spoke about sex shops, sex ed, and stereotypes. It was eye opening and awesome.

Lynsey G: Hi, Lynn. I’ve been getting a lot of press releases and information from private companies in the sex sector recently. Everything from smart vibrators that teach you about your body to apps that pair people one-on-one with sex coaches. Basically, private companies are looking at the sex education situation that we’re in. Which is to say there really isn’t any. And they’re looking at at what people need and they’re stepping in to fill that gap.

Lynn Comella university of michigan
Image from the University of Michigan.

Lynn Comella: And also really tapping into the whole sex tech-trend to do it, it sounds like. 

LG: Yes, very much so. Most of these are tech companies. I’ve been talking to company founders about what they’re trying to do for people that sex education and even medical research have not necessarily done. And I thought that, especially after having researched and written Vibrator Nation, you’re knowledgeable on this topic. 

LC: Vibrator Nation focuses specifically on the retail context, and even more specifically on the retail context of feminist-slash-progressive sex toy retailers who have historically been motivated by more than just making a quick buck. So they’ve used their retail spaces very strategically as resource centers and spaces for sex education. That’s a thread that goes throughout Vibrator Nation because it’s such a central part of the story of these businesses.

On Pleasure-Positive Retail Lineage

A lot of that has to do with Good Vibrations founder, Joani Blank, who, when she found a Good Vibes in 1977, didn’t come from a business background, but rather came from a background of sex education and sex therapy. She had worked for a handful of years with Lonnie Barbach at the University of California, San Francisco in their sex counseling programAnd Lonnie Barbach wrote a book that became a kind of instant classic in the 1970s called For Yourself, which was a more clinical version of what Betty Dodson was writing back in the 1970s. The importance of women learning their bodies, having exercises that build body confidence and, with that, learning about the body and [how] building body confidence can [help people] take greater control of their sexuality, including their orgasms, which was similar to what Betty Dodson was doing.

But Joani Blank was working in this kind of sex therapy/sex counseling setting, and realized early on, as did the people she was working with, that oftentimes, what people perceived as a sexual problem or dysfunction turned out to be, in reality, a lack of accurate information about their bodies and about their sexuality. So, she realized early on that there was a really important connection between accurate information about sexual anatomy, physiology, response, and people’s sexual self-esteem and sexual self-confidence. So, sex education was always a really important piece of this sex therapy program.

And I offer all of this to say that, when Joani Blank opened Good Vibrations, she of course brought all of this philosophy with her into a retail context. Because this is what she knew. She knew that there was value in open conversations regarding sexuality. There was a need for accurate information about sex. And those things became foundational for Good Vibrations, for its mission and its business philosophy. Historically Good Vibrations was a touchstone for other retailers—like, Babeland consulted with Joani Blank when they opened the first Babeland store in 1993 in Seattle. 

And other businesses were getting inspiration from Good Vibrations [as well]. So there’s this whole, really interesting, what I refer to as a retail lineage that really directly goes back to Good Vibrations. So, these businesses that emerged around the country that identified as feminist or queer or progressive were borrowing these elements. And one of the key things was, again, seeing their retail stores not only as places where people could purchase products that could potentially enhance their sex lives, but where [they] could access sex information and education around topics that maybe they’d never felt comfortable talking about before.

On Sex Ed in Sex Shops

An important piece of this was [that] by the late nineties, both Good Vibrations and Babeland designated their sales staff as sex educators. That became the parlance that they use to describe their sales clerks. So, at Good Vibrations they became SESAs, which stood for Sex Educator Sales Assistant. They still use that today. SESAs who work on the sales floor. And then at Babeland they became sex educators. So, that became a central part of the stores’ identities. It became a very integral part of the employees’ identities. A lot of people that I interviewed when I was researching Vibrator Nation were very upfront about the fact that they came from a sex ed background. Whether it was working for Planned Parenthood or working for a rape crisis center or working for their college GLBT resource center.

They were aware that, if they had an interest in finding a job where they could be sex educators, particularly around pleasure-based sex ed, they had limited options. So these sex toy stores became attractive places for them to seek full-time jobs or even part-time jobs on the side. Because there just aren’t a lot of places in the culture that support pleasure-based sex education. So, I think that these stores historically have been very important spaces for advocating for accurate sex information in a culture that’s historically quite hostile toward sex education.

And, more than that, they’ve kind of stepped into the breech or stepped into the void. They’ve done a lot of work around adult sexuality education. Because adolescents who don’t get great sex education eventually become adults who don’t have great sex education, right? And so, you have to take concerted steps to fill in the missing pieces, so to speak. 

I think in our culture, many, many adults have turned to Good Vibrations, Babeland, Early 2 Bed, Smitten Kitten, all of these progressive sex shops, to get information that they might not otherwise get. And some of that comes from the fact that these stores also have a lot of after-hours educational programs that they offer. Some of it’s sex toys, or how to give the best oral sex, or Blowjobs 101. But some of it’s ethical non-monogamy or consent in kink culture. So they do a lot of pleasure-based, consent-based sex education that looks quite different than other sex ed curriculums. 

LG: It’s not all about menstruation. 

LC: Yeah! It’s interesting that they weren’t necessarily doing anything high tech, right? These are one-on-one interactions between customers and Sex Educator Sales Assistants. Or they’re educational workshops or programs after hours for a group of five, 10, 15 people. About anything, right? It could be about, again, sex toys 101 or it could be anal sex 101 or how to find the G-spot. They really run the gamut.

But they weren’t sitting at the nexus of sex education and sex tech in the way that some of these newer companies are really tapping into. We live in a world which people are interested in technology and interested in finding ways to make technology work for people. But I think that, even though these retail businesses weren’t tapping into a high-tech realm, the impulse is similar, I would say. Kind of recognizing a need and stepping forward to  address that need around better sexual information, better sexual education. 

On Safety and Stereotypes

LG: Absolutely. There might be a similarity, also, in the desire to create a safe environment for learning.

lynn comella vibrator nation duke university pressLC: Absolutely. I mean, definitely. That that was a really important piece of the retail model that I talk about in Vibrator Nation. It was sex-positive. It focused on sex education and accurate information.

But it was also really committed to creating a safe and shame-free environment where people could ask questions and not be ridiculed for not knowing the answer, not made to feel ashamed or embarrassed. And that was something that the sales staff and employees were trained really hard [on], to be nonjudgmental. And that’s a real cornerstone of sex-positivity, right? Don’t yuck my yum.

So they were trained to not judge a question, not judge a kink, not judge a fantasy. Even if deep down inside, they might not be a fan of that kink or that fantasy or even if they might think that that’s the most basic question in the world. That emphasis on creating safe, nonjudgmental, and shame-free environments has been front and center in the type of retail environments these stores strive to create.

And it takes work, right? Because you can have a really sex-positive sales staff. But your retail store is also affected by a drunk group of guys on a Friday night who wander in and smack each other with dildos. And the safe space that you’ve tried to create is instantly not so safe anymore. Right? So it’s a process of always re-creating that. And finding ways, then, to work with customers who might not be engaging with the space in the way that you want. 

LG: Yeah. But I mean, even the drunk guys… The founder of Juicebox, which is this app that pairs sex coaches with consumers, told me that, when she started it, she was imagining that it was going to be mostly women using the app. Asking questions like, Why can’t I have an orgasm? Things like that. But she was surprised that over half of their users are straight men. They also don’t have access to a lot of the information that they need. And they’re terrified to ask anyone about it. 

LC: I’m not surprised to hear that. That statistic doesn’t surprise me whatsoever. Because I think the assumption is that feminist or women-friendly sex shops cater predominantly to women. And that’s just never been the case. There’s always been a very healthy mix of people of all genders, all sexual orientations.

Certainly, back in the day, in the late eighties, early nineties, when Good Vibrations was doing some rudimentary marketing research? The staff had questions like, Do we advertise to men? What kind of outreach do we do to men? Because there was some ambivalence, like, We really want to keep women at the center. And so do we have to change our marketing strategies to reach men? More than one person said that question was answered largely by looking at who their customers actually were. And they saw that, Hey, our customers are 50/50 men and women. Largely heterosexual couples. A lot of people who live in the suburbs. 

They had to adjust the image of who they imagined their customer base to be with who it actually was. I did six months of field work at Babeland in New York City in the early 2000s. Every single day there were dozens of men that came into that store to browse, to buy whatever they were buying, whether it was condoms or lubes, whether it was a product for themselves or a product for a partner. Sometimes it took them a little while to work up courage to ask a question, but not always. And it was really obvious that men in particular really benefited from the environment that women-friendly sex toy stores created. 

LG: That’s great to hear. 

LC: Yeah. And I think that any one of these retailers would agree with that as well. There’s a significant number of men who come in not simply to buy things but to get an answer to a question. 

LG: That’s really great to hear because I do think that a lot of the time from the very liberal feminist viewpoint, we tend to think, Oh, men have everything they need. They get better sex ed than we do. They’re not ashamed to talk about these things. But there’s still so much mystery around the topic of sex generally. 

LC: Yeah, that might be a stereotype. Because, you know, the reality is men and women move through the same culture. They move through the same sex ed curriculums. There might even be more of a stigma on men seeking information because the stereotype is that men are naturally sexual beings. And if you’re positioned as a naturally sexual being, then the assumption is you naturally know everything, right? You don’t have to be information seekers in the same way that women have to be information seekers. Women’s bodies are so much more mysterious and complicated. And it takes more to figure it out. Those are stereotypes that definitely feed into ideas about men and women’s differing relationships to the world of sex ed. 

But I think you’re right that we don’t talk about men as seekers of information in the way that we assume that women are. Women have had, for decades, magazines like Cosmo. Which positioned women as wanting to know about the best sex positions. Or wanting to know how to give the best hand job. Pop culture feeds into that idea that women are receptive to information to improve their sex lives. And there’s been less discourse in the popular culture about men also wanting and, importantly, needing that, too. 

LG: Right! There’s a perception that, like you said, female sexuality is much more complicated and mysterious. 

LC: See, that’s the stereotype. 

Drop by again in a few weeks, when Part II of this Juicy Cut with Lynn Comella will go up. But don’t miss anything that happens between then and now—sign up to my mailing list!

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