Only In America

One of my jobs at Good Vibrations is showing our stores to members of the press, some of whom visit from very far away. We’ve been featured on television many times in the U.S. and Canada, but also in England, Germany, Sweden, Australia, France, and other countries. The print journalists who have visited Good Vibes sometimes come from even further afield. Often they include us on stories about San Francisco; other times they come specifically to see us.

Last month I hosted a writer and a photographer from a new European magazine called Blond. One German, one French, they and their magazine represent the new, young, unifying Europe, and not surprisingly they were both well-traveled guys.

“It’s funny,” said one, after the tour and photo session were over. “Europeans are so much more comfortable about sex than most Americans. But we don’t have anything like Good Vibrations in Europe. Why do you think a place like this is found in the United States, and not there?” He turned his tape recorder back on.

What a good question. In my few travels to European countries I’ve noticed the same thing. Even in Amsterdam, where the liberal Dutch host a very visible red light district in the middle of the old town, only the Condomerie is comparable to Good Vibes — and it carries only condoms and related accessories, so it’s not the kind of sex shop we are. Amsterdam’s visible sex shops very much resemble the ones you find in U.S. red light districts — or used to find, now that so many are being zoned out of existence. The carry lots of glossy porn, but hardly any books (and those mostly porno novels, not sex ed or literature); lots of battery vibes, but seldom good-quality electric massagers like the Hitachi Magic Wand; novelties and junk products like Anal-Eze, but seldom many artisan-crafted products and almost never any staff who can offer good answers to questions about sexual functioning. European citizens with more relaxed attitudes about sex still shop at places like that — or pay international shipping charges to do mail order business with us!

Good Vibrations is an American business, though we are happy to have a substantial international customer base, and in the new millennium we’ll doubtless increase this part of our business even more and truly join the global marketplace. Even now we pay attention to our staff’s foreign language skills; and we realize that the Web, especially, allows us to do business almost as though national borders were ephemeral.

But Good Vibes probably could only have been born in San Francisco, the American city that is famous (even notorious) for sex. Here at the edge of the continent have gathered miners and whores, Beats and hippies, and the biggest gay and lesbian community in the world. A Madam once became mayor in nearby Sausalito, a drag queen ran for the Board of Supervisors here in the early 1960s, and prostitutes’ rights activist Margo St. James almost won her supervisorial race two years ago. We hosted the Summer of Love and the bathhouse revolution, then taught the world how to have safe sex and care for people with AIDS. Around this town, a business like Good Vibes is a good neighbor, not a scourge to be chased out of the community. No one in San Francisco says “Not in my back yard!” about us.

San Francisco is where Americans come when they have had enough of traditional American values about sex: that it should be hidden away, especially if it’s not “normal,” that some of us will always be second-class citizens because of what we desire, that women should wait for the right man to show us what it’s all about. And San Francisco ships new ideas about sex back out to the rest of America, slowly but surely altering the most hypocritical of the larger culture’s attitudes. I suppose you could say we’re trying to make U.S. sexual attitudes more European. On the other hand, while many Europeans are as stereotypically relaxed about sex as we think they are, many are not — and Europeans as a whole do not always understand sex-positive Americans’ emphasis on civil rights, the whole notion of a “sexual minority.”

So perhaps it’s not so surprising that a little business that began in San Francisco 22 years ago, right on the heels of what we then called “the sexual revolution,” would grow up to exercise real leadership. We’re in America because America needed (and still needs) us to show, by our example, that women are sexual, that sex can be comfortably integrated into the rest of our lives and that it need not be shame-based or dangerous, that all of us deserve information and good-quality toys, books, and videos. We’re in America because when the Puritans sailed away from Europe they established a legacy of American erotophobia from which, centuries later, we are continuing to free ourselves. Perhaps (just perhaps) many Europeans don’t need a place like Good Vibrations as much as many Americans do.

And then again, maybe they do, and the pilgrimage made by journalists is evidence that the world is ready for Euro-Good Vibrations. Certainly we’d bring more pleasure to the Continent than a bunch of Mouseketeers with French accents.

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Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at carolqueen.com.

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