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

2004 2004

Other formats: Order a copy

Abstract (summary)

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.

Indexing (details)

Mass media;
Womens studies
0708: Mass media
0626: Sociology
0453: Womens studies
Identifier / keyword
Communication and the arts; Social sciences; Sex toy stores; Sexual liberation; Social change; Women-owned
Selling sexual liberation: Women -owned sex toy stores and the business of social change
Comella, Lynn
Number of pages
Publication year
Degree date
School code
DAI-A 65/11, Dissertation Abstracts International
Place of publication
Ann Arbor
Country of publication
United States
9780496132157, 0496132156
Henderson, Lisa
University of Massachusetts Amherst
University location
United States -- Massachusetts
Source type
Dissertations & Theses
Document type
Dissertation/thesis number
ProQuest document ID
Database copyright ProQuest LLC; ProQuest does not claim copyright in the individual underlying works.
Document URL
Access the complete full text

You can get the full text of this document if it is part of your institution's ProQuest subscription.

Try one of the following:

  • Connect to ProQuest through your library network and search for the document from there.
  • Request the document from your library.
  • Go to the ProQuest login page and enter a ProQuest or My Research username / password.