10  Introduction
trip to San Francisco in the early 1990s, I visited Good Vibrations, a store I
had learned about from reading Susie Bright’s column, “Toys for Us,” in On
Our Backs magazine. It was my first visit to a sex-­toy store, and while I didn’t
buy anything, it felt like a rite of passage, entrée into an altogether new world
of sexual imaginings and possibilities. In retrospect, it is difficult to envision
what my own sexual journey might have been like if I had not had access to
various “sex publics”—women-­owned sex-­toy stores, how-­to guides, literary
erotica, and feminist pornography—which allowed me to imagine myself in
new ways.
These discoveries felt all the more significant because I did not have easy ac-
cess to sexual information growing up, nor did I come from a family in which
sex was openly discussed. My parents taught me that sex was something re-
served for marriage, that good girls supposedly didn’t, and that one’s sexual
reputation was worth protecting at all costs. I learned at an early age that sex
was risky: it could lead to pregnancy, disease, and a bad reputation. Perhaps
not surprisingly, these lessons did not inspire a sense of teenage sexual explo-
ration or experimentation. Instead, they produced a fair amount of confusion
and angst. As I got older, publicly accessible forms of sexual culture piqued my
curiosity and gave me permission to explore my sexuality in ways that were
personally transformative and deeply meaningful.
I found myself on the front lines of the movement to reshape sexual culture
in the early 2000s, while conducting dissertation research at feminist retailer
Babeland in New York City.33 I was trained to work on the sales floor as a staff
sex educator, a role that allowed me to participate in, and gain insider knowl-
edge about, the range of activities that constituted the daily life of the store.
I talked to hundreds of customers about their sex lives, sold my fair share of
dildos and vibrators, attended staff and marketing meetings, stood on my feet
for hours at a time, and crossed my fingers that my cash register balanced
at the end of the day. It was an ethnographer’s dream, my own golden ticket
into the inner sanctum of a feminist sex-­ t oy store with a national profile (see
appendix).
My position as observer and participant, ethnographic researcher and vi-
brator clerk, meant that I was located squarely within the talking sex phe-
nomenon that is so central to the experience that Babeland and other feminist
retailers pride themselves on offering customers. I talked with shoppers about
the G-­spot, strap-­ons, and vibrator use; I recommended books, such as The
Good Vibrations Guide to Sex, The Multi-­Orgasmic Man, The Ultimate Guide
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