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Vibrator Nation' Explores The History Of Feminist Sex-Toy Stores: BUST Review

 

vibratornation

I had a fraught relationship with feminism growing up as a young adult in the early 2000s. Although I was drawn to many of feminism’s tenets, I felt disconnected deeply from its general view on sex and pornography. Unlike many of my fellow teenage feminists, I trusted (and still do) that women can make the active choice to enjoy and engage in sex work, whether that’s watching pornography or acting as a dominatrix. I thought (and still do) that we have the power to turn a historically patriarchal and misogynist adult industry into a deep well of feminist fantasy. Being a New York native, I have to thank Babeland for influencing that sex-positive belief. The Lower East Side feminist-owned sex-toy shop represents a side of feminism that centered my desires. It was a place where anyone who wasn’t a white, straight, cisgender male could explore their needs and desires while also having decidedly intellectual conversations about those needs and desires. And no book better traces this coming-of-age experience than Lynn Comella’s Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Changed the Business of Pleasure (Duke University Press, Sep. 8, 2017) .

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Comella’s new offering is a deep, multi-year look at how Babeland and similar businesses such as Good Vibrations and Self Serve Toys renegotiated feminism’s relationship with sex, gender and race — and the intersections thereof. Within the four walls of these shops emerged a sex-positive ethos that not only tapped into our deep, hedonistic urges, but also challenged us to think about how those impulses existed in the world. As Comella’s expertly captures in Vibrator Nation, places like Babeland challenged our ideas on not only sex and pornography, but how we treated sex and pornography through the lens of gender, race and ability. They used education, community-building and social activism to push feminism way beyond its comfort zone into this mutable progressive space, where gender is nonbinary and pleasure is not a solely white, able-bodied experience — all while navigating the murky waters of capitalism and competition. Of course, no one version of feminism is perfect, and even within these stores exist chasms between what is preached and what actually occurs. But, if nothing else, Comella’s Vibrator Nation shows how feminist sex-toy shops freed us from the confines of the patriarchy — rather than reinforced our role within it — and gave us the power to feel powerful using “one conversation, vibrator, and orgasm at a time.”

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Annamarya Scaccia is an award-winning freelance journalist who covers public health and social justice issues. Like any native New Yorker, Annamarya drinks too much coffee and has strong opinions about the Yankees. She's currently based in Austin, Texas. Follow her at annamaryas.com, on Facebook/annamaryasclips, and on Twitter @annamarya_s.

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