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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