Back and Forth: Good Vibrations, sex toys and education
FRIDAY, MARCH 11, 2016
by Chandler Nolan
The Daily Californian
Sexual pleasure is your birthright.”
The sign, visible from the sidewalk of San Pablo Avenue and Dwight Way, hangs with pride in the store window. It’s main feature is a cartoon look-alike of Rosie the Riveter, the symbol of J. Howard Miller’s “We Can Do it!” poster of 1943.
To the left of the store sits Caffe Trieste, where Berkeley and Oakland locals get their morning pick-me-up. A few doors down hosts Longbranch Saloon, an upscale California-style eatery, where people can go to grab their comfort food fix. And between the two lies Good Vibrations, where locals and nonlocals, of all sexual orientations (but over 18) can go to stock up on high-quality sex toys, books and movies, and attend sexual educational workshops in a safe, “nonjudgmental” and welcoming environment.
The company, which opened its first store location in the Mission District in 1977, prides itself in deviating from the traditional dimly lit, “by men, for men” adult store. Through education and celebration of sexual diversity, it boldly welcomes “all forms of consensual sexual expression, desire and fantasy.”
When I walked through the doors of the store, it was noticeably spotless. The staff, who kindly greeted me, can be officially referred to as “sex educator sales associates” and are trained to provide knowledgeable assistance and “never assume.” When one first enters, the wall on the right hosts a shelved spectrum of dildos on display. Above, in elegant cursive, reads, “The right tool for the job.” Behind stands a bookshelf of erotica, self-help books and literature for all sexual orientations, labeled and organized accordingly. Plus-sized lingerie mannequins dominate the open floor plan, while multi-colored vibrators decorate the adjacent wall.
I sat down with Good Vibrations’ long-time staff sexologist, Dr. Carol Queen, and educational and outreach affiliate manager, Andy Duran, over coffee. We discussed Good Vibrations, sexual education and diversity, sex positivity and the challenges associated with each.
The Daily Californian: Initially, what kind of things prompted the founding of Good Vibrations? How did you get involved, and what was the process like?
Carol Queen: The founding story of Good Vibrations is a very interesting one. I love this story a lot. Our founder was Joani Blank, a sex therapist, a sex educator. She had a master’s in Public Health and she was working with sex therapist Lonnie Barbach, who is still a famous name in that world and who was very big in the ‘70s.
She did a project for several years in the mid-’70s at UCSF at the medical school. She ran pre-orgasmic women’s groups. And “pre-orgasmic” was a really important part of the title of the women’s groups because in those days women who weren’t orgasmic were often called “frigid.” They were blamed for their lack of response. There was not much scrutiny on the partner, their skills or whatever.
So at a certain point, they would recommend that the women get a vibrator and try the vibrator. And for many reasons, including the fact that there are nerve endings in the human body heavily concentrated around the clitoris and the head of the penis, that help people actually feel vibration. It’s amazing! And, you know, who knew that? They didn’t know!
And so over and over again women would go, “I would never go into one of those places.” Meaning, dirty bookstores. Right? Old school dirty bookstores. By men, for men. And there was something that women in the ‘70s I think kind of internalized about, “Well, men like those places that way. That’s why they built them like that.”
Finally, Joani had heard this “I would never go in there” one too many times and went “Oh my god, I know what I’m going to do. I’m going to make a place that they want to go into.” And that’s how Good Vibrations got started.
And of course, San Francisco in the ‘70s was a very sexually diverse, what we’ve come to call a “sex positive” place and Joni knew immediately that there would be people who would go to such a store. Then in the ‘90s, we moved to Berkeley, too. And this location the whole time, right? That’s a miracle. I think this is the only place that we’ve been in the same location in any given store.
Andy Duran: The longest, yeah.
CQ: Yeah, certainly the longest time. It was only our-second ever store. And we had to have a wonderful big fight with the city of Berkeley because there were people in the neighborhood who were like, “Oh no! Not one of those places!”
DC: I wanted to ask you what kind of pushback you had — even in a place like Berkeley or the Bay Area, I feel like you’re going to have some pushback.
CQ: There was pushback here. There certainly was. And I think there was a church congregation in the not-too-distant neighborhood that was all freaked out and it was all, “Oh, condoms on the street. Oh my god.” So we carefully curated the things that we had, because most cities in the United States now have ordinances that say whether or not a business is an adult business and where it can locate, if at all, in the city limit. Berkeley has such an ordinance. It’s a gift store if 49 percent or less of its products are “adult.”
AD: Yeah, if it’s under 50 percent. I think for a long time, the Berkeley store was listed as a bookstore in the Yellow Pages. We had a lot more books. Shelves and shelves of books, and then products scarcely on the wall.
“Sex positivity is really about more of a radical philosophy about diversity and how it’s significant and how it’s important. Diversity inclusion. Diversity ‘nonjudgementalism,’ all that kind of stuff. Access to resources and knowledge. Sex ed, health, safety, consent-based. Consent boundaries. Being able to communicate about sexuality in the way that you need to do and remembering that it isn’t just sex positive to try all things and swing from the chandelier be all kinky.”
CQ: And in fact, in the ‘90s, all our stores had more books than they do now.
DC: Judging from the culture around the Bay Area in the ‘70s, the whole feminist movement and in terms of this time compared to then, how would say we have progressed culturally?
CQ: That’s a really interesting question. I think the ‘70s had a really advanced discussion about these issues particularly around sexual diversity in many, many ways.
I think people today often assume that the development of ideas, and the development of communities and activist communities around sexuality, is a pretty new thing — like rtmething that got started in the late ‘90s or something like that. That’s not quite right.
There was really a world (in the ‘70s) that activist people your age could go back to and, you know, the hair would be funny, but you’d recognize the roots of the discourses that are available to us now.
From the real rise of sex positive perspective now, I feel like the notion of sex positivity has gotten more rested in many people’s minds. Many people now think it means, “Sex is cool. I like it. Yay!”, which we want people to feel that way if they want to feel that way. Of course it’s a good thing. But sex positivity is really about more of a radical philosophy about diversity and how it’s significant and how it’s important. Diversity inclusion. Diversity “nonjudgementalism,” all that kind of stuff. Access to resources and knowledge. Sex ed, health, safety, consent-based. Consent boundaries. Being able to communicate about sexuality in the way that you need to do and remembering that it isn’t just sex positive to try all things and swing from the chandelier be all kinky. It can be just as sex positive to say, “I’m asexual this is my space and this is how I fit in with the wider realm of people who aren’t.”
DC: Obviously, education is becoming a lot more accessible, but I almost feel that the more accessible it becomes individually, the more private it becomes. As opposed to how it was before the Internet. Do you feel the Internet in itself has progressed sex positivity or transformed it in anyway?
CQ: The Internet gives us an enormous amount of information that is relatively shallow (in comparison to previous generations). I think we have a real issue with that I think we’re going to have to continue to braid in an older perspective.
In other times you would never get that perspective to begin with unless you found an old person and interviewed them, or that you would have already known, because the movement would already consist of multiple generations who talk to each other all in a room. So we’re not all in one room anymore. And that’s an interesting change. It’s why contexts in which we all can come together in person and kind of hash things out are interesting and useful situations, I think.
The other thing is there’s a ton of sex ed on the Internet. And unless you had a little sex ed to begin with you, don’t know what’s good and what’s bad. That’s why people think “Fifty Shades of Grey” might be sex ed, and “Oh I’ve been really wanting to do some BDSM with my partner!” and “Oh let’s do that.” Like no zip ties, jeez! If you publish anything in this just say I said, “No zip ties!”
AD: Which is really different from when it was a community-based situation because everybody kind of vetted each other. If you were part of this community, people would know, “Oh that person’s legit. That persons read these books, or goes to these conferences.” Nowadays, online you can claim to be an expert on anything. You no longer have this protection of, “the community knows me” or “I’ve gone through this kind of almost apprenticeship,” you know?
DC : It almost seems that there’s something foundational missing from education — things that you mentioned, like consent, and how to do these things as opposed to just diving in. Do you feel like, especially with young people, there needs to be more education in terms of their initial experience with sex and their idea of sex and what it means. What do you think is missing in terms of their education, if anything?
CQ: I think that sex education in many places has gotten a little better than it was at the real low point of “Just Say No,” if there was any sex ed at all. But there’s still plenty of that out there. When I talk to college campuses I do this joke — which is not really joke, it’s a very serious, in fact — but I ask people if there’s anyone in the room that feels that they got good sex education. Often one or two people will stick their hand up. Then I’ll say over there we’ve either got a Scandinavian or a Unitarian. Because Unitarians have the best sex education in the nation, bar none, for people for under 18. I mean, bar none.
When people freak out about the young people being sexually active and all that kind of stuff, I just remind people that in the developmental stage, you can certainly try to delay it and you can delay it for all the right reasons and you can delay it successfully sometimes, but it shouldn’t surprise anyone when somebody wants to go outside and figure this out. It just shouldn’t surprise anyone.
“The other thing is there’s a ton of sex ed on the Internet. And unless you had a little sex ed to begin with you, don’t know what’s good and what’s bad. That’s why people think ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ might be sex ed, and ‘Oh I’ve been really wanting to do some BDSM with my partner!’ and ‘Oh let’s do that.’ Like no zip ties, jeez! If you publish anything in this just say I said, ‘No zip ties!’”
So if you’re going to try and control it you’ve got to control in ways that have a shot at working. What have the Scandinavians done? They’ve just given young people more information. It turns out that more information makes young people feel more empowered to make their own decisions. What a big surprise.
DC: What a lovely idea!
CQ: Novel! If we don’t empower people from the time they are starting to explore, they start getting, not just messages, but somatized messages, physical experiences that they’ll remember on a physical level. And bad experiences and you’ve got a sexual problem for the rest of your life. And we know well what that looks like for young women and trans kids, and we don’t have as much knowledge and articulation what that would look like for young men. That’s part of their challenge too is, “Hey we’re going to give you no real information except, oh there’s a whole lot of porn on the Internet and now you’re in charge.”
DC: One of the biggest things that made me excited to do this interview was that Good Vibrations caters toward marginalized groups, like people of color, queer and trans folks. Would you say that more businesses are, besides in the Bay Area, now advocating for that or are as inclusive as Good Vibrations?
CQ: I think there’s a general way of feeling like these are super important issues to be connected in with the larger message of sex education, pleasure and sex positivity. Partly because you don’t have to do this work for very long before you start to get how information is differentially available by race, class and sexual orientation.
AD: And if they don’t speak English…
CQ: What part of town do they live in and what kind of schools are in there?
AD: What kind of libraries are around? Are they disabled? (Part of the) foster system? All kinds of things.
CQ: I think there’s a way in which the businesses, like the entrepreneurial entities, have gotten more space to either ignore or embrace this question of diversity.
At the same time, I remember the year that we hired our first man. There was a time when we had no trans participants. There was a time when there were so few of us on staff at Good Vibrations, that we didn’t know what each other’s sexual orientation was because nobody wanted to breach their privacy in that way.
There was a growth for us to learn how to think of inclusion. I think it’s always a process. Especially if that’s where you start out.
AD: I think that really you can’t go forward unless you really are familiar with your history and you really can be respectful to all of the work that Good Vibes has done.
I think those are the stores that are still around versus the ones that are like, “Oh you know, this store only does it this way, so I’m going to make a different store, you know?” Those are the ones that have a harsh reality when they start doing the work and figure out that there’s not a lot of respectful books, or porn or what have you that’s diverse out there. There’s not a lot people-of-color porn that’s not completely tokenizing or fetishizing. There’s not a lot of books out there on certain categories that we would love there to be more erotica or information on.
And (in cases where we don’t carry diverse material) it’s not a matter of, “Oh we’ve decided not to carry them” or that we haven’t done the research. It’s that, you know, in looking for quality things, we don’t want to compromise our roots by having inappropriate, fetishizing, racist, sexist, fat-phobic stuff on the walls, we end up not having the representation that we want to strive for and that sometimes people don’t know that that’s a part of the process.
DC: I never thought about the challenge of struggling to just find some of those things.
CQ: We’re a countercultural space that tries very, very hard to be respectful to the other folks out there that don’t understand themselves as countercultural or subcultural because they’re hetero cis, you know, “normative soccer mom, whatever, whatever” and we know they need a range of the same things that the people who are more diverse and can recognize themselves as that.
So part of when Andy and I train staff, we try really, really hard to tell our sex educator sales associates, And (we tell them) to never assume. Never assume. You cannot assume. You do not know. Some old business man walked in and you’re like “oh master of the universe” and he walks out with, you know, fifteen camisoles and some butt plugs. You don’t know. You don’t ever know. And we can’t assume that we know because that goes absolutely against what we hope people understand about diversity.
AD: A good example of that is our lingerie. We just recently started carrying lingerie. And there was a lot of discussion about it for a long time internally and externally. Customers would sometimes (say), “You guys really changed. This is really anti-feminist.”
CQ: Saying things like: “Oh so I have to wear something sexy to have sex?”
AD: Right, like, “This is what women should look like?” and really for us, we had a large amount of customers asking for it so we wanted to provide products that they were looking for. But, additionally, even if there are other environments around here where you can get lingerie, they’re not Good Vibrations. You know, if you are a butch woman, a fat woman, a cross-dressing man, trans person, any of these categories, you don’t necessarily feel comfortable going into a traditional lingerie shop at the mall and picking out your products.
CQ: Nor can you get a real good vibrator to go with it!
AD: Right. And so part of our thing is that because we have this nonjudgemental part of our store, our safe space and our customer service, even if it’s something that you can access somewhere else, you get it in an environment that’s going to see you for all of you. And that’s what a unique experience is at Good Vibrations.
By Chandler Nolan
Friday March 11th, 2016
The Daily Californian | The Weekender