Vibrators, dildos, and strap-ons — Oh my!

PHOTO BY TALEAH JOHNSON/SF FOGHORN

Good Vibrations has been making San Francisco a sexier place since 1977. Its sex-positive influence has spread throughout the Bay Area with six locations. But only one of the shops, located on Polk Street here in SF, is home to the Antique Vibrator Museum. To learn more, I spent $50 and an afternoon with Good Vibrations’ resident sexologist and company historian, Dr. Carol Queen. 

After flashing my ID to a friendly Sex Educator Sales Associate (SESA), I was greeted by a display of buy-one-get-one-free vibrators in tastefully minimalistic boxes with punchy names like “Echo,” “Surge,” and “Cadet.” To the left of the BOGO section I saw a modest batch of multi-colored condoms all varying in length and girth. To the right was a robust lubrication section, followed by a selection of toys suited specifically for anal sex. A rainbow of vibrators and lingerie dominated the rest of the store.

Stocked with padding and prosthetics, the gender expression section stood out from the rest of the store. These items can be used for aesthetic and/or sexual purposes. “One customer might want a strap-on for partner sex without it affecting their sense of gender at all — another might wear a strap-on (even outside a partner sex context) for gender confirmation,” Queen said. The section included packers — smaller, flaccid dildos used to imitate the appearance of a bulge — and latex breasts for everyday use.    

The gem of the Polk Street location is the Antique Vibrator Museum. At the very top of a deep red statement wall, a timeline chronicles the history of vibrators, its advancement as a business and pop culture item, and the social stigmas it overcame. The timeline began with the 4th century Greek medical diagnosis for female hysteria, “Wandering Womb Syndrome,” and concluded with the 2012 opening of the museum. Throughout my interview with Dr. Queen in the center of the room, patrons shuffled clockwise between the black framed display cases holding historic vibrators from starting with Dr. Johansen’s 1907 Auto Vibrator to Doc Johnson’s 1978 The Explorer.

Sitting amid their curated collection, Queen discussed explicit adult sexual education, San Francisco’s sexual climate, and lamented about algorithms. Queen, who uses she/they pronouns, has been a part of Good Vibrations since 1990. They personally worked with the late founder Joani Blank. 

Blank, who passed in 2016, opened the store with a mission to provide a selection of researched, high quality toys, and to focus on women’s pleasure. This quickly expanded to include everyone else’s pleasure, too. In Good Vibrations’ mission statement, pleasure is considered a birthright. Queen described Blank as wanting to “get the best stuff that people would have the best experiences with.”

PHOTO BY TALEAH JOHNSON/SF FOGHORN

For 46 years, Good Vibrations has been a pioneer in sexual education. The company made national news in 2007 when they banned phthalate-based toys, a harmful material found in some consumer plastics. They also have been a financial force behind a number of nonprofits like the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, Sex Workers Outreach Project USA, and many more via their donations-based GiVe program.   

The store also served as a safe space for the community at the time of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. “HIV/AIDS was still very much ablaze and people were also bringing in dilemmas and questions and things that they were curious about,” Queen said. “If they had gotten good sex education at any point along the line, they probably would know the answer already, but they hadn’t.”

Modern-day Good Vibrations is preserving their safe sex focus, but has expanded into pleasure-centric resources and programming. “Medical doctors are in the medical space and they don’t often get lots of this cultural stuff,” said Queen. 

Instead of placing your sexual curiosity into the hands of internet searches, consider checking out curated products from the Good Vibrations staff. If in-person discussions feel daunting, Good Vibrations has an informative blog that should replace any 3 a.m. Reddit or TikTok research. “You can Google [sex information] but what results do you get?” asked Queen. “Like, who? Who oversees correct sex information on the internet? Well, nobody does. It’s algorithmically driven.” 

While documenting the store for this story, the sex educators continually advocated for their patrons’ privacy. The SESAs gave thoughtful and respectful responses to questions about trending items, size inclusivity, or product suggestions for people with disabilities. My shopping experience was collaborative and highly informative. Good Vibrations has the best vibes.

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