Formal sex education is in decline in the United States.
In 1995, instruction in birth control methods reached 80 percent of U.S. teenagers; today it's closer to 50 percent. Worse, what the Guttmacher Institute's Laura Duberstein Lindberg calls "a long term retreat from sex education" has been countered by an abstinence-only-until-marriage" approach, a development she and others argue "threaten fundamental human rights to health." President Donald Trump's appointment of Valerie Huber, a vocal advocate of abstinence-only education, to a key position in the Department of Health and Human Services further indicates that supporters of a sex-positive, government-sponsored mode of sex education best not hold their breath.
If there's an upside to the government's failure to promote legitimate sex education, it's that opportunities emerge for more innovative options to fill the gap. In this case, one alternative response could arise from a convergence of strange bedfellows: the local sex shop and the university seminar. Indeed, the recent rise of sexuality studies, alongside the equally recent mainstreaming of sex-toy stores—Babeland being perhaps the most notable—are already joining forces to spread a sex-positive, educational-minded message that sexual pleasure and health should not only co-exist, but actively reinforce each other.
This encouraging development is just one of the many themes to emerge from Lynn Comella's acclaimed book, Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure. Comella, who teaches gender and sexuality studies at the University of Nevada–Las Vegas, explores how sex shops have transitioned from seamy, male-owned holes-in-the-wall where customers skulked about for "smut" to feminist-owned boutiques where design-savvy dildos and vibrators, all on full display, invite informed discussions with employees whose role is to educate the citizenry as much as celebrate their inventory.
The notion that a sex shop could realistically serve as a shame-free center of responsible and accurate sex education might seem far-fetched. But Comella's case is remarkably persuasive. She introduces us to a Babeland staff member—employees there are formally called "sex educators"—who says, "We don't just sell products; we sell information; we sell education." Comella, attentive to the way a clear educational mission can become integral to a commercial transaction, reveals that the experience of shopping for a sex toy can "produce a particular understanding of what it means to be a happy, healthy, and sexually empowered individual."
Babeland's official website further supports the argument. It consistently reiterates associations among sex, health, empowerment, and pleasure. To include teenagers (who cannot, if under 18, shop at sex-toy stores) in its orbit, it references other websites such as the Coalition for Positive Sexuality, a resource that opens with the dictum, "You have a right to complete and honest sex education," and Scarleteen, a "grassroots sexuality education and support organization," while promoting books such as The Guide to Getting It On. It also includes original articles by employees who make claims such as, "I've definitely learned a lot more from my experiences here [at Babeland] than I was ever taught about sex in school. The topics we at Babeland share with customers on the sales floor and in our workshops, like anatomy, communication skills, and personal confidence, are essential to a healthy sexual life."
Sarah Brynn Holliday, a sex blogger and consultant to the sex-toy industry, affirms the educational mission of the sex shop and the resources it promotes. "Feminist sex shops are an incredible place of empowerment, resilience, and education," she tells Pacific Standard, "which I think is pretty rare to find in a business." Having grown up in rural Virginia, where she recalls her access to legitimate sex education as "horrible," Holliday says that "so often these shops are the only place people can go to get accurate, comprehensive, and pleasure-informed sex ed." While acknowledging that teens, who need this kind of information as much as anyone, cannot patronize sex-toys shops, she also points out that their online content sends teens to resources (i.e., Scarleteen) where they "get questions answered that you'd never have answered in a classroom."
It's not a surprise that Holliday—as with Comella—studied gender and sexuality in college (the title of her undergraduate thesis: "How to Craft a Revolutionary Model of Sex Education"). In addition to highlighting the educational role assumed by sex-toy shops, Comella's Vibrator Nation brings an academic emphasis to sexuality that builds a bridge between the corporate and scholarly worlds. Treating sex shops as a subject of professorial inquiry—something that would have been much harder to do a generation ago—has allowed Comella to, as she puts it, "map the emergence of a market." It's a market that sex-toy shops might have intuited on their own but, without the verification of Comella's (and others') research, perhaps would not have pursued as aggressively as they have.
In our interview, Comella described the key market-based transition that ultimately helped her appreciate that the sex-toy shops she was studying had the potential to reach a much larger audience with a much more empowering message. When she began her research into sex-toy shops 15 years ago, feminist sex shops, she says "were somewhat on the margins. They were considered kind of quirky and offbeat, but the mainstream adult industry did not pay much attention to them because the focus was very much on men and male desires." But around 2008, she continues, "it was as if the mainstream adult industry had woken up and realized, 'Oh my goodness, women buy sexual products!'" The fact that "the whole discourse changed" became especially evident at the 2008 AVN Adult Entertainment expo that Comella attended. "They were now having seminars—'What Do Women Want' and 'The Buying Power of Women'—and they were standing room only." Roomful after roomful of retailers, distributors, and wholesalers realized in a flash that they "had to recalibrate their business practices."
That recalibration—no doubt with a power assist from Sex in the City—has fundamentally changed the role of sex-toy shops in both the commercial and sex educational landscapes. Comella's Vibrator Nation both codifies and further encourages this unique blend of commerce and pedagogy. Whether or not we'll ever have a sex-toy shop on every corner remains to be seen. But when you have a professor giving book talks at the sex shop Good Vibrations, and the adult entertainment industry stepping into the breach opened by the lunacy of abstinence-only sex education, you'd be wise not to count out the possibility.