12  Introduction
The Cultural Production of Sexuality
Vibrator Nation can be situated within the larger research tradition of studies
of cultural production, an approach that has historically “sought to make con-
crete the universe in which designated ‘cultural producers’ (tv writers, broad-
cast journalists, filmmakers, etc.) do what they do.”34 Scholars have analyzed
the making of television shows, consumer markets, magazines, and organi-
zations, revealing the broader institutional contexts, practices, and processes
that give rise to specific cultural texts and meanings.35 In the field of sexuality
studies, there is a growing body of scholarship that draws on these traditions
to examine how sexual commerce and culture—the pornography industry,
legal brothels, strip clubs, and bdsm clubs—are produced and organized.36
The focus of this book is brick-­and-­mortar feminist sex-­toy stores, those
physical spaces where customers can interact directly with sexual products
and the people who sell them.37 Like other forms of popular culture, retail
stores are made; they are produced by social actors—store owners, managers,
sales staff, and marketers—who cultivate specific kinds of shopping environ-
ments with particular audiences in mind.38 Through the careful design of their
retail spaces, the types of inventory they carry, the strategic display of mer-
chandise, and their direct appeals to consumers on the basis of gender, race,
social class, and cultural taste, feminist sex-­ t oy retailers actively cultivate ideas
about sexual identity and the role that consumption plays in people’s lives.
They also produce what French philosopher Michel Foucault has described as
a “proliferation of discourses concerned with sex”—specific messages about
sexual empowerment, education, and well-­ b eing—and a corresponding set of
retail practices aimed at transforming the sexual self.39 As one staff sex educa-
tor at Babeland explained, “We don’t just sell products. We sell information;
we sell education; we sell our mission [which is] making the world a safer place
for happy, healthy, sexual beings.”40 In other words, feminist sex-­toy stores
produce a particular understanding of what it means to be a happy, healthy,
and sexually empowered individual, and offer a consumer-­oriented agenda
for how this might be achieved.
At the center of this retail universe is the discourse—and, one might ar-
gue, sexual ethic—of sex positivity. Sex positivity is a way of conceptualizing
and talking about sexuality that seeks to intervene in a culture overwhelm-
ingly shaped by the belief that sex is a dangerous, destructive, and negative
force.41 Longtime Good Vibrations staff sexologist Carol Queen explains that
sex positivity is both a social critique and a “cultural philosophy that under-
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