Feeling the Midwest Vibes

Early to Bed founder Searah Deysach.

Early to Bed founder Searah Deysach.

I’m about to hit the road for the final three Vibrator Nation book tour dates of 2017, with stops in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Chicago.

I’m not originally from the Midwest—I grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania—but I have a soft-spot for the region. I’m fond of Milwaukee’s rust belt qualities. I like the Great Lakes. And I love a good Portillo’s Chicago-style hot dog.

The Midwest is also home to some of my favorite feminist sex-toy shops: The Tool Shed in Milwaukee, Smitten Kitten in Minneapolis, and Early to Bed in Chicago, proving that the sex-positive retail movement isn’t simply a coastal phenomenon.

The Tool Shed was founded in 2004, and in 2008, health and sexuality educator Laura Haave took over the business. When Haave moved to Milwaukee in 2006, she had a checklist of community spaces that were important to her: Where’s the feminist bookstore? The knitting store? The feminist vibrator shop? When the opportunity arose to purchase the Tool Shed and keep it alive as a sex-positive community space, it was, she told me, too good of an opportunity to pass up.

When I interviewed Haave for Vibrator Nation we talked about the value of sex-positive spaces, the challenges of working within a capitalist system, and the role that feminist sex-toy businesses have played in increasing the variety of sex toys on the market and the overall acceptability of talking about sex. We also discussed how she and her staff cater to the Tool Shed’s homegrown clientele. In one of my favorite quotes from the book, Haave said this:

We are an old school brick-and-mortar store. I am here for Milwaukee 100 percent. There might be something that everyone in New York City and San Francisco loves. Fuck you, East Coasters. You know what I mean? It’s too fucking expensive for Milwaukee. We are a blue-collar town. We are in the Midwest. I am not going to carry a $200 vibrator that is a weird shape that no one is asking for. But I will do leg work to carry things that people come in and say, ‘I want this. I have to go to another state to get it, but I’d rather get it from you.’ If people ask for it, then they value it. But I am not going to bring the latest trendy things because everyone has it.

While the opportunity to run a progressive sex-toy store basically fell onto Haave’s lap, the story of Smitten Kitten is quite different. The seeds of what would eventually grow into Minneapolis’s first feminist sex-toy shop were planted when owner Jennifer Pritchett was enrolled in a master’s degree program in gender and women’s studies at the University of Minnesota, Mankato. Pritchett was taking a course that involved putting feminist theory into praxis. She and her classmates decided to reclaim the word “cunt.” They planned a week of “cunt-loving” programming, including screening some of Betty Dodson’s vulva-positive videos. The events caused a campus uproar, prompting important conversations among students, faculty, and administrators about the politics of language, women’s bodies, and empowered sexuality, and ingraining in Pritchett the power of sex-positive activism.

The leap from taking that class to starting Smitten Kitten happened rather organically. Following graduation, Pritchett began working fulltime at Ball State in multicultural affairs, a job, it turned out, she didn’t like. She quit after one semester and returned to Mankato. By that point, the idea of opening up a feminist sex-toy store had taken hold.

A conversation with a former classmate about sex toys—ordering them online and waiting for them to arrive—and the fact that another friend had recently driven eight hours from Minneapolis to Chicago to shop at Early to Bed, got Pritchett thinking about the need for a feminist sex-toy store in Minneapolis. Pritchett put her feminist research skills to work and began looking at other feminist businesses—Good Vibrations, Babeland, A Woman’s Touch, and Early to Bed—to figure out how they did what they did, including what products they sold and where they got them. “We wanted to be the Minneapolis version of those stores, like, ‘Hey, we can do that here.’”

Four hundred miles away in Chicago, Searah Deysach was already running her own feminist sex-toy business. Deysach, an art school grad and professionally trained pastry chef, was looking for something meaningful to do when she realized that Chicago didn’t have an educationally focused and women-friendly sex shop that was comparable to Good Vibrations or Babeland. “The more I thought about the store,” she told me, “the more I thought: ‘This is possible. I can do this.’”

Deysach’s fantasy scenario was that she could hang out at Good Vibrations for a couple of months and its staff would teach her everything she’d need to know about how to run a business like theirs. But by the early 2000s the sex-toy industry had become much more competitive and, according to Deysach, Good Vibrations “shot me down.”

Not to be deterred, Deysach hatched an alternate plan: She went to sex-toy stores, bought products, and looked at the back of the boxes for company contacts, who then put her in touch with distributors. “I spent a lot of money buying things,” she laughed.

She cobbled together $13,000 in start-up money and found a commercial space to rent. With the help of friends, she painted the walls and floor and opened for business. “It was the most do-it-yourself operation.”

Good Vibrations founder Joani Blank always used to say, “There should be a store like Good Vibrations in every shopping mall, in every city, because the more businesses that are doing what Good Vibrations is doing, the better.”

The Midwestern hub of women and queer-friendly sex-toy stores—the Tool Shed, Smitten Kitten, and Early to Bed—have taken elements of the Good Vibrations retail model and retooled them to meet the needs of the diverse, local communities they serve.

As Searah Deysach noted when we first spoke years ago: “We have a college class that comes in [to Early to Bed] every year as part of its, ‘What’s feminist in Chicago’ tour. These were things we once didn’t think would be do-able for Chicago.”

Things Are Happening: Vibrator Nation Edition

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It’s been exactly two months since the publication of Vibrator Nation, and the past eight weeks have been a busy, exhilarating whirlwind of travel and book events. I’ve clocked more than 6,700 miles, made nine book tour stops in four different states, and taken part in more than 20 interviews with writers and journalists whose thoughtful engagement with my book, and its colorful cast of characters, has warmed my feminist heart.

The book’s rollout and reception exceeded my wildest expectations. The Atlantic profiled Vibrator Nation in its business section and Rolling Stone ran a story about feminist sex-toy stores as sites of resistance. It was reviewed enthusiastically by BUST and the Gay & Lesbian Review, the latter of which fittingly emphasized the role that lesbians and queer-identified entrepreneurs have played in igniting the feminist sex-toy revolution. Excerpts ran in Cosmo and Huffington Post, and Times Higher Education featured Vibrator Nation as its “Book of the Week,” with a lively review by Laura Frost who described it as a “crash course in contemporary gender and sexuality studies,” claiming that it “could be a television series every bit as juicy as Sex and the City or Transparent.”

It's been especially gratifying to have people describe the book as “page turner” that “reads like a novel populated by memorable true-life characters,” and to see it embraced so positively by unlikely media outlets. The Las Vegas Review-Journal, for example, which is owned by Republican mega-donor Sheldon Aldelson and is well known for its conservative slant, ran a feature about the book on the front page of its Sunday Lifestyle section, with a sidebar about women-friendly adult businesses in Las Vegas. (Kudos to the editor who gave this story the green light.)

Some of the best exchanges I’ve had about the book have been with male journalists in their sixties who have witnessed first-hand the cultural changes that I detail in Vibrator Nation and who have been able to connect the feminist dots and then some.

One of my favorite conversations was with radio host Mark Lynch. Not only was it evident that he had read the book closely, but it was clear that he really got the role that feminist sex-toy stores have played as agents of cultural change that pushed the sexual discourse forward.

“You really have to be of a certain age, and I am,” he told me, “to realize just how little information there was for women [in the 1970s] about their sexuality.”  

As Feelmore founder Nenna Joiner recently noted, “You kilt the game with this press. I like it.”

Me too, Nenna. Me too.

Nightline Takes on the World of Adult Webcamming

A peek behind the scenes.

A peek behind the scenes.

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a producer from ABC News/Nightline about a story they were working on about adult webcamming. Might I be available for a chat and possible on-camera interview to help contextualize camming in the world of adult entertainment?

The producer and I spoke by phone later that day. He was friendly and described the segment as focusing primarily on couples that cammed. We talked about the growth of webcamming, some of the reasons for its popularity, and how camming, with its emphasis on personalized interactions, differs from prerecorded porn. We also talked about the gig economy, flexible forms of labor, and the challenges of pinpointing exactly how much revenue adult businesses generate.

He was open with me about some of the difficulties they were encountering in producing the segment. They had talked with a number of couples that had later balked at appearing on camera; and they were having little luck getting representatives of any major cam companies to reply to their inquiries.

I wasn’t surprised to hear any of this. The stigma around sex work, I told him, is very real and it’s understandable that performers might be wary of “outing” themselves to friends, family, and employers who might judge, shun, or even fire them. Adult companies also have a good reason to be skittish. Media outlets, with their penchant for sensationalism, have not always done a good job depicting sex workers, or the adult industry, in complex and ethical ways.

I thought the producer was asking the right kinds of questions, so I agreed to an on-camera interview the next day. My job, he explained, would be to provide a kind of “Webcamming 101” for the uninformed viewer.

The experience of filming the segment was interesting. I usually shy away from on-camera interviews. Part of it is comfort level—I prefer the back-and-forth of talking to print journalists and generally trust that they’ll treat my words and ideas fairly; and I really enjoy radio, because you can have substantive conversations that move beyond five-word sound bites.

With television, though, you never know exactly what you are getting into. There are lights and cameras and staging, and it’s not just what you say that matters but your appearance, too. The time involved in taping can also be significant and once it’s over, the final edits can be…creative, to say the least.

But there I was on a Saturday evening, barefoot and wearing a blue dress, waiting for an ABC producer and cameraperson to show up at my house with their gear.

We set up in my office, with my bookshelves in the background. I was sitting on a high stool, the producer was on a chair across from me, and the cameraman was positioned in the hallway just outside the room.  

The interview questions were exactly what I expected. That is, until I was asked if I thought webcamming was “empowering or exploitative.” The producer explained that this was, of course, something viewers would want to know.

I can’t tell you how many times journalists have asked me this question. I learned years ago that there were strategies I could use to steer reporters toward other, more productive ways of discussing sex work as work. In this instance, however, the camera was rolling and whatever skills I thought I had developed seemed to dissolve. I stammered and spit out a clunky answer that felt anything but polished.

Before I went to bed, I emailed the producer in New York. I told him that the shoot went well and that while I was pleased that Nightline was doing the segment, I also hoped it wouldn’t get trapped in the exploitation versus empowerment narrative, which, I explained, did little if anything to deepen the public’s understanding of the business of adult webcamming.

He wrote back to say that he understood my concerns and assured me he would “keep this guidance in mind.”

The 10-minute segment that aired featured Pepper and Dusty, a 40-something couple that was described as “the average couple next door.” It also featured Ariana Marie, a porn performer and cam model who has turned her Las Vegas home into a “cam house” and makes money just by puttering around her kitchen in her bra and flashing for tips.

Dusty and Pepper in their cam studio/bedroom.

Dusty and Pepper in their cam studio/bedroom.

Ariana Marie cooking and camming in her Las Vegas kitchen.

Ariana Marie cooking and camming in her Las Vegas kitchen.

Although I expected the piece to be longer, I was happy (and relieved) that the show’s producers dedicated the bulk of the story to the performers, allowing them to explain in their own words why they cammed and what they liked about it. They weren’t pathologized or stigmatized; they were, the narrator emphasized, just ordinary, every day people who happened to enjoy the exhibitionism, and the money, that camming provided.

As for me, I appeared for less than 10-seconds—if you blinked you would’ve missed me—and made exactly one point: people are willing pay for the high level of interactivity that camming provides. That was it. 90 minutes of taping whittled down to one sentence.

Media work is work, and my Nightline experience was a good reminder that it can also involve a great deal of emotional labor. Sure, I could’ve opted to not talk to the producer and decline the invitation for the on-camera interview, but I’m also aware that saying no to interview requests means that there’s always the possibility I might be ceding the floor to an anti-sex worker activist or an anti-porn “expert” who has no problem pushing an agenda that demonizes anyone and everything connected to the world of adult entertainment and sexualized labor.

So while there’s never a guarantee that the point I want to make will end up in the final edit of a story, it’s always, I think, worth trying. Because if sex-positive academics, educators, and activists aren’t talking to the media and attempting to intervene in the various conversations about sex that are happening in the public sphere—albeit often in the most reductive or tabloid of ways—we can be sure that other, less friendly campaigners are using those spaces to advance their messages.

Studying the Adult Industry

A scene from the 2008 Adult Entertainment Expo, Las Vegas. Photo by Lynn Comella.

A scene from the 2008 Adult Entertainment Expo, Las Vegas. Photo by Lynn Comella.

It’s always interesting to see how people react when they ask what my field of study is, or when I tell them that I’ve just finished writing a book about the history of feminist sex-toy stores and the rise of the women’s market for sex toys and pornography. They’re often surprised, sometimes bemused, and almost always intrigued. 

I didn’t set out to become an academic researcher who studies the adult industry. In fact, the idea that I’d spend the better part of my thirties in graduate school, or that I’d eventually become a professor who writes about sex and culture, had never occurred to me as a kid growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania. 

Once in college, however, I discovered a passion for anthropology and women’s studies. I took courses in feminist theory and the anthropology of gender—all of which blew my mind. I encountered books like Our Bodies, Ourselves, the bible of women’s health, and Sex for One by Betty Dodson, in which she argued that masturbation was an essential stepping stone to female sexual liberation. I read bell hooks, learned about the feminist sex wars, volunteered at the local women’s resource center, and marched on Washington to safeguard women’s reproductive rights.

I eventually decided to pursue a master’s degree in gender studies and feminist theory at the New School for Social Research. By the start of my second year I knew that I wanted to get a Ph.D., but I wasn’t so sure I wanted stay in New York, an expensive city where living on very little was a constant struggle. I began researching graduate programs elsewhere and eventually decided that the communication department at UMass-Amherst, with its emphasis on media and critical cultural studies, was the place for me.

There are people who start their Ph.D. programs knowing exactly what topic they want to write their dissertations on. I wasn’t one of those people. I had a broad set of interests related to gender and cultural politics, but I was also starting a Ph.D. in a discipline that, quite frankly, I didn’t know a lot about, so I wanted to be open to exploring where my coursework might take me and how my research interests might evolve.

Around the same time, in the late nineties, heated debates about public sexual culture were taking place in New York City and elsewhere. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was aggressively pursuing his “Quality of Life” campaign, which resulted in a crackdown on gay bars and bathhouses, as well as the passage of a controversial zoning ordinance aimed at “cleaning up” Times Square in an effort to create a family-friendly zone for Disney’s corporate invasion. 

I became interested in the various ways in which sexuality goes public, especially for women. What were those places, I wondered, where representations of women’s sexuality assumed an unapologetically public presence, as opposed to being relegated to the privacy of the home? And what, moreover, were the cultural and political implications this?

These questions came together when I took a seminar on fieldwork methods in cultural studies. As part of the course, students were required to conduct a small-scale ethnographic project. As luck and good timing would have it, a women-run sex-toy shop called Intimacies had just opened in the small college town where I lived. 

My curiosity was piqued. What made this sex shop different than those ostensibly aimed at men? What were the philosophies, ways of doing things, challenges, and paradoxes that shaped this business and others like it? How did feminist sexual politics intersect with marketplace culture and with what effects? That seminar paper eventually grew into my dissertation, and after years of additional research, it became the basis for Vibrator Nation

When I was completing my Ph.D. in the early 2000s, academic research on the adult industry was hardly typical. Much has changed since then; and while it’s still not the norm, there’s a growing, international network of sexuality scholars—historians, sociologists, media studies practitioners, and others—who study pornography and other facets of the adult entertainment industry in an effort to better understand a highly popular and often controversial segment of popular culture that we know surprisingly little about.

This scholarship is finding institutional support not only in the form of tenure-track academic appointments, but in academic journals and professional organizations, too. In 2014 Routledge launched the first academic journal devoted to pornography, Porn Studies; that same year, the Adult Film History Scholarly Interest Group was founded as part of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. More and more academic presses are realizing that there’s a market for well-researched books about pornography and the sex industry, and are building their lists according. These endeavors, moreover, have been greatly enriched by the first-person accounts of porn performers and sex workers who continue to show academic researchers, policy makers, and others why their voices, experiences, and perspectives matter. (I’ll be writing about some of my favorite books in a future blog post.)

Interviewing Dr. Joycelyn Elders at CatalystCon West, September 2013. Photo by Roman Roze.

Interviewing Dr. Joycelyn Elders at CatalystCon West, September 2013. Photo by Roman Roze.

I feel lucky to be able to do what I do at a university that supports my research, and to be part of an extraordinary community of sex-positive scholars, educators, activists, and cultural producers. I’ve had the opportunity to present my research in Italy, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, sit on stage and talk with former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders, and interview adult film legend Nina Hartley

Public sexual culture—feminist vibrator shops, adult video arcades, strip clubs, and more—is part of the world in which we live; and just as there’s value in taking seriously other aspects of everyday life that shape people’s understanding of themselves and society, there’s also value in knowing more about those parts of cultural life that are routinely vilified and disparaged and yet, at the same time, occupy center stage in ongoing policy discussions and political debates. To that end, I argue that we need more and better research on the adult industry, so that these discussions can be driven by data and facts rather than moral outrage and specious claims.