Alum Returns to Share Research on the Business of Pleasure

Lynn Comella, Ph.D., '04

Lynn Comella, Ph.D., associate professor of gender and sexuality studies in the Department of Interdisciplinary, Gender, and Ethnic studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, visited the Department of Communication this semester to deliver a talk titled “Sex Toys & Social Entrepreneurship: The Possibilities and Pitfalls of Sex-Positive Capitalism & Cultural Production.” Comella, who graduated from the PhD program in 2004, has done extensive research that stretches across the field of sociology. In her new book, reviewed by the NY Times, Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure, she analyzes sexual politics and consumerism.

Vibrator Nation tells the story of feminist sex stores from their inception in the 1970’s to the present. The work documents the ways in which female entrepreneurs reconstructed adult stores to offer valuable sexual health and education resources to their communities. These mission-driven stores, such as Good Vibrations and Babeland, created sex positive environments and were pivotal in reinventing the adult industry.

(Pictured above: Lynn Comella, Ph.D., '04)

In her lecture, Comella shared how she traced the history of this female sexual revolution through in-depth interviews and observation. She highlighted the gaping hole in sexual representation that existed across gender, class, and race. Many women saw this as an opportunity to create change. Across the country, inclusive sex toy stores that offered sexual education, resources, and workshops began to open. This sparked female sexual liberation and ultimately changed women’s lives.

Comella also addressed the highs and lows of practicing progressive politics through the consumer market. She cited the disconnect between activism and profitability as a source of tension for the stores. Store owners refused to adhere to the capitalist system, even objecting at being labelled businesswomen. They saw themselves as social justice activists, however Comella asked, “can money take a backseat to the mission?” Vibrator Nation analyzes this juxtaposition further.

She concluded her talk by examining the fate of feminist sex toy stores in the capitalist system, stating that “while the future of these stores are uncertain, female pleasure and the promotion of sexuality is not.”

Comella received her Ph.D. in communication from UMass Amherst; an M.A. in gender studies and feminist theory from the New School for Social Research; and a B.A. in psychology, with minors in anthropology and women’s studies, from Pennsylvania State University. Comella is also co-editor of New Views on Pornography: Sexuality, Politics, and the Law, and her work has been published in several academic journals. Comella is currently on a national book tour for Vibrator Nation, which has been featured on a number of media outlets such as New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Jezebel.

-- Summer Tuman ’18