Review by DMac: Vibrator Nation, by Lynn Comella

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vibrator nation comella

Vibrator Nation, by Lynn Comella
Publisher: Duke University Press Books
Release Date: September 8, 2017

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

summary

In the 1970s a group of pioneering feminist entrepreneurs launched a movement that ultimately changed the way sex was talked about, had, and enjoyed. Boldly reimagining who sex shops were for and the kinds of spaces they could be, these entrepreneurs opened sex-toy stores like Eve’s Garden, Good Vibrations, and Babeland not just as commercial enterprises, but to provide educational and community resources as well. In Vibrator Nation Lynn Comella tells the fascinating history of how these stores raised sexual consciousness, redefined the adult industry, and changed women’s lives. Comella describes a world where sex-positive retailers double as social activists, where products are framed as tools of liberation, and where consumers are willing to pay for the promise of better living—one conversation, vibrator, and orgasm at a time.

tropes-tags

Non-fiction
Human Sexuality
History
Feminist Theory
Straight, Lesbian, Transgender

Some background for you before I start the review. I have my BA and MA in History, so I’m coming at this from an academic history background. I’m going to do my best to not make this a homework assignment, but I’m also going to give you a bit of an academic review on this since this is an academic work.

Although Vibrator Nation is an inherently academic work, it is incredibly readable for non-academics. The language is not overly complex and the author doesn’t couch everything in three dollar words and field specific language. If you are interested in how female-run sex shops shaped feminism, female sexuality, and sex politics, I think you would get a lot out of this.

In this book, she argues “that feminist sex-toy stores have created a viable counterpublic sphere for sex-positive entrepreneurship and retail activism, one where the idea that the personal is political, is deployed in the service of progressive—and potentially transformative—sexual politics.” This book provides ample sources to prove her argument and she does a good job of not letting the sources overwhelm her own arguments and point of view.

To some, the book might seem to get repetitive at some points since she talks about the same shops in different chapters, but she is using these shops to talk about different points she is focusing on. This is very smartly done because she could have ended up with long narrations about each shop, instead she focuses on her chapter themes and brings the shop into that discourse. In this way, it was very well organized and made the chapters clearer.

In my opinion, this book did a really good job dealing with two really important ideas that I appreciated as a feminist and an academic, who focused a lot of Subaltern history (google that because the explanation would take up this page):

  1. It clearly deals with intersectionality in Feminism (i.e., women of different backgrounds, races, ethnicities, and incomes will have different experiences as feminists).
  2. It also shows how sex shops and sex toys benefited men who did not fit in with the “masculine ideal”, so to speak.

These things are really important to the progression of feminism, because feminism is supposed to be helping everyone and it’s not helpful to ignore certain perspectives just because you have yours.

The author made the point several times that when women started opening up sex shops they were picking out things based on their specific tastes. So when different people with different tastes started working and shopping there, then what the shop sold expanded. I liked that she was talking about how they weren’t trying to purposefully exclude other people, but they did have a limited view on sexual preferences, because it was such an unspoken thing at the time. It really shows how the sex-positivity movement grew to be more inclusive towards trans, genderfluid, and lesbian women as well as straight cis men as more people got involved.

A plus for queer readers is that the author discusses queer (lesbian, genderfluid, and transgender people) experience with these stories as well. She explicitly talks about how they had different experiences with sex toys and how this was encouraged by sex shops because they wanted women to discover their own sexuality. In summary, this book was very active instead of passive about its queer positivity and discussing queer positivity in the sex shop community. Her main focus was the shop owners and the shops themselves, which limited that part of the discussion. That being said, I don’t know enough about this topic to really assess if she included as much as she should/could have about the queer perspective in this.

I would recommend Vibrator Nation to both academic and non-academic readers.  Comella did a great job of making this a readable book without turning it into a “popular history” book, that skimps on scholarly analysis in favor of gaining readership.

If you are interested, here is a review the author did about the book on her publisher’s site.

more-from-author

Lynn Comella is Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. An award-winning researcher, she has written extensively about sexuality and culture for numerous academic publications and popular media outlets. She’s interviewed porn legend Nina Hartley, covered the red carpet at the AVN Awards, reported on the business of adult webcamming, and investigated the state of sex education in Nevada. She is coeditor of the comprehensive New Views on Pornography: Sexuality, Politics, and the Law, and a frequent media contributor.

Twitter: LynnComella

You can purchase Vibrator Nation from:
Publisher
Amazon
iTunes
Google Play
Barnes & Noble

Or add it to Goodreads

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I received an advanced copy of this novel in exchange for a fair and honest review.

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