Mixed vibes from Good Vibrations

Sex toy retailer, famous as a worker co-op, restructures in hopes of growth.

By Tracy Clark-Flory
April 3, 2006 10:54PM (UTC)
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San Francisco-based sex toy retailer Good Vibrations has long been beloved not only as a classy alternative to seamy peep-show sex shops but also as a feminist and "pro-sex" worker-owned cooperative. But last Friday the company announced that it had scrapped its co-op status for that of a general business corporation. Company execs insist that the new model incorporates the best of both business worlds, giving Good Vibrations the resources to grow and to embed key values like diversity and sex positivity into the company's bylaws, so that a future board of directors won't be able to lead the company astray. But the best news, they say, is that Good Vibes -- now 29 years old -- will be able to share its vision with a greater audience.

In 1992, when Good Vibes founder Joani Blank turned the company over to a group of approximately 15 employees, she said it was because it was "the right thing to do." But Good Vibes' general manager, Theresa Sparks, said that in recent years, Good Vibes execs looked at the company's business structure and saw a need for change: "The cooperative structure was very effective ... [but] it is an effective tool of governance for a smaller organization," she explained. According to Sparks, in the 14 years that Good Vibes was a co-op, the number of employee owners grew from 15 to 100, making decisions by consensus pretty difficult. Not only that, but the company needed access to outside cash flow to meet the growing popularity of sex toys. "We got to a point where we wanted to grow more rapidly," Sparks said. "But there wasn't enough capital available."


Blank was ahead of her time -- selling vibrators before the term "The Rabbit" became a part of pop culture -- but her mission was to educate people about good sex, not turn a profit. So some might expect Blank -- now silver-haired and living in a Bay Area housing co-op -- to be disappointed by the changes to the company she founded; there's no denying that Good Vibes was her baby and its co-op structure an integral part of her philosophy.

But Blank says that while over the years she has felt increasingly removed from the company -- and has noticed some slight deviations from her original vision, like the sale of novelty massage oils and sex games -- in all, she believes Good Vibes has remained loyal to her vision. Of the company's new business model, Blank said that ideally, the restructuring wouldn't need to signal a fundamental change -- and she remains hopeful that it won't. "From the business point of view it's a good position," she said. "[But] it saddens me." She is most miffed by the fact that she only found out about the change from a press release.

Good Vibes' staff sexologist Carol Queen is one of only two remaining original co-op members. Queen said that the co-op first began to shift because Blank's business philosophy ignored competition and regarded all information as public. "After fostering two of our 'sister competitor' stores ... and after seeing a number of our staff move from the co-op they helped co-found to newly opened companies that hired them away, we changed our practice somewhat," Queen explained. "In [Blank's] day there was, essentially, no competition ... That situation has changed now, particularly with the advent of the Net."


It remains to be seen whether Good Vibes' restructuring will rub customers the wrong way, so to speak, but Queen does not see the move as a shift from the company's key values of "sex positivity [and] non- shame-based communication." Those "are the reasons I have remained involved with the company, not because it was worker-owned," she said.

Queen is optimistic about the ability to transplant this liberal, San Francisco-grown model across the country. "Much as it was nice to draw visitors from all over the country to San Francisco, much of the rest of the country has no regular place to get toys or lube or books or anything that is comfortable, sex positive, high quality, and non-shame-based," she said. "I think the goal of sharing those things with other people elsewhere is well worth confronting the next set of ... challenges."

Tracy Clark-Flory

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