What tensions arise when sex-positive feminists and queer folk get into the sex toy business? How can scholars get their institutions to recognize their public writing as scholarship? What ethical commitments do ethnographers have to their communities and research subjects?

In episode 59 of the Imagine Otherwise podcast, host Cathy Hannabach interviews writer and professor Lynn Comella about the fierce women and queers who jump started the feminist sex toy revolution, how scholars can up their public engagement game (not to mention why they need to), pragmatic advice for writing a crossover or trade book, and how feminist, fat-positive, and trans-justice sexual cultures are key to how Lynn imagines otherwise.

Guest: Lynn Comella

Lynn Comella is an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. An expert on the adult entertainment industry, her research explores the relationship between sexual politics and consumer culture. Lynn’s research on the history of the women’s market for sex toys and pornography has been published in the International Journal of CommunicationPorn StudiesFeminist Media StudiesThe Feminist Porn BookCommodity ActivismSex for Sale, and New Sociologies of Sex Work, among other venues. She is also a frequent television, radio, and podcast commentator and has also regularly publishes articles about sex and culture in local and national media outlets, including Bitch magazine and Pacific Standard. Lynn is the author of the book Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure, published by Duke University Press. She is also the co-editor of the book New Views on Pornography: Sexuality, Politics, and the Law. Lynn was the recipient of the 2015 Nevada Regents’ Rising Researcher Award in recognition of early-career accomplishments.

We chatted about

  • Lynn’s new book Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure (02:29)
  • Digging into public scholarship (09:58)
  • Translating academic research for different audiences and genres (15:08)
  • The ethical commitments of ethnographic work (19:19)
  • Imagining otherwise (20:56)

Bokeh background with text reading "Gather your resources, gather your models, have an idea of the kind of scholarship that you want to do--the types of articles and books you want to write. Make it happen using the kind of voice that you most want to bring to any project. Lynn Comella on episode 59 of th Imagine Otherwise podcast"Takeaways

On Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure

It is a book that looks at the history of feminist sex toy stores in the United States and the women who founded them. I make the argument that what we now see today as this booming market for sex toys stands on the shoulders of these early feminist pioneers who in the 1970s looked around and realized there was really no place for women who were looking for vibrators to get them. Someone need[ed] to take charge and create those spaces in the marketplace that not only catered to straight women, lesbians, and queer folks of all kinds but also disrupted the male dominated hegemony of the sexual marketplace and infused it with sex-positive and queer-positive feminist ethos. The book takes on a variety of issues related to the relationship between feminism and consumer capitalism, identity politics and the marketplace, and also just politics and business. That’s one of the dominant themes in the book: trying to disentangle the very complicated and at times quite contradictory ways that business and politics go together—or, as the case may be, not go together.

Digging into public scholarship

I’m a huge proponent and advocate of community engagement and public scholarship. To those contemplating it, I would say simply just do it….Look around your local community and ask, what are those outlets where you could position yourself as an expert voice? Where are those entities in the community that you can establish relationships with so that when they have programming that’s relevant to your areas of expertise, you become a go-to person for them to call.

Translating research to different audiences and genres

The process of translation makes authors think about audience. Who is your intended audience? Vibrator Nation went through numerous iterations, some of which were very theory heavy and more traditionally academic in terms of chapter outlines, narrative flows, and engagement with literature and theory. As I developed more a journalistic voice from my popular writing, Ken Wissoker, the editorial director at Duke University Press who is the one who recruited my project to the press, really encouraged me to bring my journalistic voice to this project and to think of my audience as the average reader for Bitch magazine. And I did that. It meant that I wrote and rewrote my introduction 5 times until I got it right, and I thought about what was the most essential information to have in certain places, and what could go in footnotes for example.

Finding models for the voice you want to inhabit

Gather your resources, gather your models, and have an idea of the kind of scholarship that you want to do—the types of articles and books you want to write. Make it happen using the kinds of voice that you most want to bring to your project.

Ethical commitments of ethnographic research

I was trained as an ethnographer and there is a lot of discussion in the anthropological and sociological literature about research ethics, particularly when you’re studying humans and communities—people with feelings and histories and lives. Years ago, when I was teaching at Indiana University, one of my colleagues who’s a historian said to me “the difference between us is that I study dead people and you study people who are still alive.” It was a very powerful thing to hear because it really reminded me of the kind of ethical commitments we have to our research communities and subjects. That’s true of a lot of people, particularly ethnographers. I wanted to write a book that did justice to this history  and that the people I studied (the majority of whom are alive, are running businesses, and are dealing with the kinds of contradictions and complexities that I write about) felt good about.

Imagining otherwise

One of the big things that I’m working for is a world in which people of all ages have access to comprehensive, accurate sex information and education. The state of sex education in the US is just so abysmal and in doing the research for Vibrator Nation, I saw how for many adults of all ages these progressive, feminist-orientated sex shops that advanced an agenda for sex education were safe havens and lifelines for them….There are not a lot of opportunities for adults to ask questions about sex, so there’s a sex education piece [to these stores] that I really think is important. When people have accurate information about their bodies, about sexual anatomy and physiology, and when they have a sense that they know what they’re doing, they’re just going to feel more confident in themselves and their lives and their relationships. We still live in a really sex-negative world, so I want to see more sex positivity in the media, in magazines, in our conversations, in our sex education. I want to see the eradication of slut shaming. I want to live in a world without sexual harassment. I want to live in a world without sexual assault. So all of the work that I do is a part of changing the types of conversations we have around sex and sexuality in a number of different venues.

More from Lynn

Projects and people discussed

About Imagine otherwise

Imagine Otherwise is a podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice, and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining and creating more just worlds. Check out full podcast episodes and show notes at ideasonfire.net/imagine-otherwise-podcast. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire, an academic editing and consulting agency helping progressive, interdisciplinary scholars write and publish awesome texts, enliven public conversations, and create more just worlds.

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Episode transcript

Cathy Hannabach [00:03]: [upbeat music in background] Welcome to Imagine Otherwise, the podcast about the people and projects bridging art, activism, and academia to build better worlds. Episodes offer in-depth interviews with creators who use culture for social justice and explore the nitty-gritty work of imagining otherwise. I’m your host, Cathy Hannabach. [music fadeout]

[00:22] This is episode 59, and my guest today is Lynn Comella. Lynn is an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. An expert on the adult entertainment industry, her research explores the relationship between sexual politics and consumer culture. Lynn’s research on the history of the women’s market for sex toys and pornography has been published in venues such as the International Journal of Communication, Porn Studies, Feminist Media Studies, the Feminist Porn Book, Commodity Activism, Sex for Sale, and New Sociologies of Sex Work, among other venues. She’s also a frequent television, radio, and podcast commentator and regularly publishes articles about sex and culture in local and national media outlets, including Bitch magazine and the Pacific Standard.

Lynn is the author of a fantastic new book, which Ideas on Fire had the privilege of indexing, called Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure, which was published by Duke University Press. She’s also the co-editor of the book New Views on Pornography, Sexuality, Politics, and the Law. Lynn was the recipient of the 2015 Nevada Region’s Rising Researcher Award in recognition of Early Career Accomplishments.

In our interview Lynn and I explore the fierce women and queers who jump-started the feminist sex toy revolution, how scholars can up their public engagement game (not to mention why they should), some very pragmatic advice for how to write a crossover or trade book, as well as how feminist, fat positive, and trans justice sexual cultures are key to how Lynn imagines otherwise.

[to Lynn ] So thank you so much for being with us, Lynn.

Lynn Comella [02:04]: Oh, thanks for having me. I’m really excited to do this interview with you today.

Cathy [02:09]: So you are the author of a fantastic new book that is getting a lot of press called Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure. I’d love for you to tell our listeners a little bit about what that book covers.

Lynn [02:25]: It is a book that looks at the history of feminist sex toy stores in the United States and the women who founded them. And at the same time, in that book I attempt to make the argument or the case that what we now see today as this kind of booming market for sex toys really stands on the shoulders of these early feminist pioneers who in the 1970s looked around and thought, “you know, there is no place for a lot of women who are looking for vibrators to get those. And someone needs to kind of take charge of this and create those spaces in the marketplace that not only cater to straight women, lesbians, and eventually queer folks of all kinds, but you know, really kind of disrupt the male-dominated [inaudible] and the sexual marketplace and at the same time infuse it with sex-positive, queer, positive feminist ethos.” So the book really takes on a variety of issues related to the relationship between feminism and consumer capitalism, identity politics, and the marketplace, and also just politics and business.

You know, one of the dominant themes in the book is really trying to disentangle the very complicated and at times quite contradictory ways that business and politics go together or, as the case may be, not go together. So I really try to engage with those types of questions in the book.

Cathy [04:03]: What was one of the surprising things that you came across in the process of doing research for it?

Lynn [04:08]: Yeah. Well, let me say a little bit about the research just so listeners have a sense of how I attempted to study this segment of the sex toy industry. I did more than 80 in-depth interviews over a period of about 15 years and in a number of cases, those interview subjects were people I returned to again and again as the research developed. So I did in-depth interviews combined with a lot of rigorous ethnographic research and also detailed archival research. So it’s a very multimethod approach.

So in terms of surprises, I would have to say one of the things that I found really interesting as I moved through this research and as I talked to feminist entrepreneurs who started businesses in the ‘70s and the ‘90s and 2000s, was the degree to which many of the business owners and employees that I was interviewing hated to think of themselves as business owners, hated to kind of see themselves as participating within this larger system of capitalism that they were uncomfortable with and that didn’t necessarily align with their feminist or progressive politics. So it was really fascinating to be working on a project about businesses, interviewing women who owned businesses who are deeply uncomfortable thinking of themselves as business women.

Cathy [05:42]: One of the things that struck me intensely about the book is that relationship between people’s sense of politics or ethics and the position that they’re actually in, which is running a business, as you point out. And not many books tackle that, right? We kind of dance around it and, and you know, maybe allude to it, but you have these really fantastic quotes and conversations with these business owners who love what they’re doing and they create products that people need and that marginalized people need in particular and there’s a huge demand for and that’s what drove them to create feminist sex toy stores to begin with, but then they find themselves in this weird position of, “Oh crap, but that does that mean I’m the man?”

Lynn [06:25]: Right, exactly. And that is a tension that I really tried to explore, you know: what does it mean to be part of dominant practices at the very same time that you’re attempting to, you know, rework the paradigm from the inside? And that’s always a challenge and oftentimes uncomfortable and sometimes created challenges, as I talk about in the book. The feminist- and queer-identified entrepreneurs that I write about lead with these activist and educational impulses and saw themselves as social activists and sex educators to the extent that they often downplayed running a business. And for a while they could do that. They could kind of keep the demands of running a business to the side because in the early years of these businesses, they were growing hand over fist with very little effort because the competition wasn’t there and they were novel, right?

[07:30] Women-friendly sex shops in the ‘70s and ‘80s—journalists were writing about them. Customers were writing to get their mail-order catalogs. There was a lot of word of mouth buzz that was spreading through feminist communities and queer communities that just naturally seemed to generate business. And that worked for awhile, but when these businesses became multimillion-dollar enterprises, it was no longer sufficient to have a CEO whose background was in film studies. You know, it creates some problems to try to manage a multimillion dollar business at the same time that you’re going home at night reading business books. So in the book I try to kind of disentangle these tensions and really point to some of the contradictions.

I think one of the things that’s been interesting to me in talking to some people and reading a few of the reviews—which have been overwhelmingly, I should say, quite positive and I have been, of course very pleased about that—but I’ve read a few reviews where people were a little bit, um, perhaps disappointed that I didn’t resolve once and for all, you know, the question of whether or not there can be such a thing as feminist businesses or you know, kind of felt I needed to do more to kind of come down harder on the ways in which capitalism taints feminist enterprises.

[08:54] And those are really interesting responses for me as a writer to read. Because on the one hand, I thought this is really interesting that this particular reviewer wants me as a researcher to reconcile the contradiction that the people I’m researching and writing about can’t reconcile. You know, that’s not my job as a researcher, to tie up into a pretty package these contradictions that are very real and that operate sometimes on a daily basis for these businesses.

Cathy [09:27]: So you’re a very frequent expert commentator in a variety of different media forms—in television and print media, community panels, in-person events—particularly discussing the politics of women’s sexuality and this research that you’ve been doing over the course of the past 15 years. And I’m curious if you have any advice for other scholars who want to do more of that kind of public intellectual work, who want to do more public engagement, but maybe don’t know where to start.

Lynn [09:55]: Yeah, that is such a good question and it’s something that I’ve definitely been thinking about a lot because I’m a huge proponent and advocate of community engagement and public scholarship. You know, I would say, I think, just do it. And that might sound like a really easy or might sound like a kind of cliché—you know, just roll up your sleeves and do it. But what I mean by that is look around your local community and think about what are those outlets where you could kind of position yourself as an a value-added or as an expert and voice. Where are those kind of entities in the community that you can establish relationships with so that when they do have programming that’s relevant to your areas of expertise, you become a go to person for them to call?

[11:00] So in terms of my own story, which might be useful for people to hear is that, you know, I live in Los Vegas and I’ve been at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas now for just over ten years. And Vegas is a very enterprising entrepreneurial town. So when I got here as a gender and sexuality studies professor, I was really struck by the fact that here I’m living in this city, which is this ethnographic petri dish of a highly gendered and sexualized culture and economy, and no one, no one it seemed, was writing smart takes on sexuality and culture in Las Vegas. A lot of the reporting was really cliched and it was really sensationalistic and click-baity and very sexist, simplistic fluff. So I pitched a number of years ago. I pitched a column to a local weekly in Las Vegas and they really liked the idea and I started writing a monthly column for one publication and then continued for another publication. I did that for over four years and it was kind of intended to be smart commentary on gender and sexuality with a kind of Vegas twist. Some of the stories were unique to Vegas, but I also wrote about other stories that had more of a kind of national profile.

[12:23] So that was one way that I really started to develop a profile that was not just as a professor and a researcher, but also as a writer. That was really significant in terms of building a portfolio of what I call public scholarship. And I deliberately call it that. I have an entire section on my CV that is called public scholarship and every single thing I’ve ever written for the popular press is listed there.

[13:25] Now the advice I want to give to academics who are doing work in the public sphere and doing public scholarship is: be prepared to make the case to your academic institution why your public scholarship should count as scholarship and not as service. Because a lot of institutions, as much as they claim they want their faculty to engage with the wider community—you know, you’re hearing that more and more about the need for community engagement and civic engagement—but it’s oftentimes the case that they want you to list that under service. When I was writing my columns, I would spend hours doing research. I would spend hours writing a thousand words. I mean it was academically-inflected writing for popular outlets and I made a strong case to my unit, to my university, to my tenure committees, you know, why that should be counted under the rubric of public scholarship. And they agreed. So it obviously is a different type of publishing than peer-reviewed academic journals or a peer-reviewed book for an academic press. But I would strongly encourage, as younger scholars and even more senior scholars start to build out a profile of media engagement, civic engagement, public scholarship, that they really think about how they’re going to make a case for that counting in significant ways for their cases going up for tenure or their cases going up for promotion.

Cathy [14:39]:Have you learned any things in particular that you’d might want to share about translating academic research across those different realms? Because it’s very different to explain even the project Vibrator Nation, to explain it on TV in a sound bite clip versus on a podcast like this versus in an academic journal. Any tips on that kind of translation?

Lynn [15:02]: That the process of translation. Obviously authors are thinking about audience, right? Who is your intended audience? Vibrator Nation went through numerous iterations, some of which were much more kind of theory-heavy and more traditionally academic in terms of chapter outlines and narrative flows and engagement with literature and theory. I had developed more of a journalistic voice from my popular writing and it was Ken Wissoker, the editorial director at Duke University Press, who was the one who kind of recruited my project to the press, really encouraged me to bring my journalistic voice to this project and to think of my audience as the average reader for Bitch magazine. And I did that, you know, and it meant that I wrote, wrote, and rewrote my introduction five times until I felt like I got it right and I thought about kind of what was the most essential information to have in certain places, what could go in footnotes, for example.

[16:13] So I really thought a lot as I was writing Vibrator Nation about audience and about that process of translation because I wanted a book that of course would be of interest to an academic audience, but even more than that, I wanted to write a book that would be of interest to people within the adult industries who are running stores, who are thinking about running stores, or just who wants to know more of the history of their industry. But I also thought quite a lot about general readers. So, you know, I’ve thought about different kinds of audiences, but I really kept the idea of accessibility in mind. That was really important to me.

[17:00] I wanted that person who would be going into a Good Vibrations or Babeland or a Sugar or a Smitten Kitten to buy their new sex toy, to also see a book and think, “Oh my gosh, a book about the history of these businesses, including the one I’m standing in right now. How cool! You know, let me get that.”

It’s really good to have a stack of books that you can look at as models for the type of scholarship that you really like and that you gravitate towards. Gather your resources, gather your models, you know, have an idea of the kind of scholarship you want to do, the types of articles, books you want to write, and then make it happen using the kind of voice that you most want to bring to any project.

I would love to do more talking with scholars and amongst scholars about our writing practices. I think it’s something that does not get talked about enough in graduate school. I don’t even think it’s talked about enough at various stages of, you know, academic careers—you know, just talking about what does good writing look like and how can we do it better? How can we bring our research to life? How can we produce books with the potential for crossover?

Cathy [18:22]: So you mentioned the relationships that you had built over many, many years with the people that are in organizations and companies that you were writing about. And I want to, I want to talk more about that and maybe think of that in relationship to the way that you blend your academic interests, your creative interests, and your social justice or activist interests. Like a lot of other guests on this show—E. Patrick Johnson, I’m thinking of in particular—you all are very committed to making scholarship about people relevant to and accessible to those very people. So not wanting to write a book about somebody that they can’t or don’t want to read, right? And I’m curious if that plays into your ethical or political relationship to how you want to do research or how you think the academy should do better research.

Lynn [19:15]: Well, you know, I was trained as an ethnographer and so there’s a lot of discussion in the anthropological and sociological literature about research ethics, particularly when you’re studying humans and communities and people with feelings and histories and lives. Years ago, when I was teaching at Indiana University (I had a gig there for two years, which I really enjoyed), one of my colleagues there who is a historian said to me, “the difference between us is that I study dead people and you study people who are still alive.” And that was a kind of very powerful thing to hear because it really reminded me of the kind of ethical commitments we have to our research communities and subjects. And I know that’s true of a lot of people, particularly ethnographers. And yeah, I mean I wanted to write a book that did justice to this history, for sure, and to the people that I studied, the majority of whom are alive and are running businesses and are, you know, dealing with the kind of contradictions and complexities that I write about that they felt good about.

Cathy [20:28]: So this brings me to my favorite question that I get to talk with folks about, which gets at the heart of why you do what you do, why you do this kind of research, why you are so committed to public engagement and public scholarship. And that’s that vision of a better world that you’re working towards when you do these things. So I’m curious, what is that world that you’re working towards? What kind of world do you want sore?

Lynn [20:50]: Well, in terms of, you know, specifically my scholarship on gender and especially on sexuality, you know, one of the big things that I’m working for is a world in which people of all ages have access to comprehensive, accurate sex information and education. The state of sex education in the US is just so abysmal. And in doing the research for Vibrator Nation, I really learned that for many people, many adults of all ages, these progressive, feminist-oriented sex shops that really advance an agenda of sex education are safe havens and lifelines for them, you know, all of the bad or absent sex education they didn’t get growing up. They’re aware of the things they don’t know and they’re not a lot of opportunities for adults in particular to ask questions about sex without being judged, without shane.

[21:55] So there’s the sex education piece that I really think is important. When people have accurate information about their bodies, about sexual anatomy and physiology, if they have a sense that they know what they’re doing, they’re just going to feel more confident in themselves and their lives and their relationships. So there’s the sex education piece.

And then I think we still live in a really sex-negative society and sex-negative world. So I want to see more sex positivity in the media, in magazines, in our conversations, in our sex education. I want to see the eradication of slut shaming. I want us to live in a world without sexual harassment, within a world without sexual assault. So all of those things. The work that I do is really part of hopefully changing the types of conversations we have around sex and sexuality in a number of, of different venues.

Cathy: Thank you so much for being with us and sharing your version of imagining otherwise.

Lynn: Well thank you for having me. It’s been fun.

Cathy [23:07]: [upbeat music in background] Thanks for listening to another episode of Imagine Otherwise. Imagine Otherwise is produced by Ideas on Fire and this episode was created by Christopher Persaud, Rebecca Reynolds, Michelle Velasquez-Potts, and myself, Cathy Hannabach.

You can check out the show notes for this episode on our website at ideasonfire.net where you can also read about our fabulous guest as well as find links to the people and projects we discuss on the show. [music fadeout]