I can’t be the only Iowan who has found herself opening an incognito tab in a dispiriting search for a decent vibrator.
Driving across the state on I-80, you’re bound to see a few billboards for adult stores selling plasticky sex toys out of warehouses with truck-friendly parking lots. Chains like Romantix, Spencer’s and Lion’s Den are easy enough to find, as are sales reps for the multilevel marketing company Pure Romance. But their superstore approach, wink-wink attitude and often garish products and packaging aren’t everyone’s cup of tea.
What’s left then? Adam & Eve drop shipping, or a Sharper Image back massager? Luckily a handful of major retailers, including Target, have recently started selling products specifically for sexual pleasure (much to the chagrin of conservative reactionaries like Marjorie Taylor Greene), from $15 vibrating bullets to $200 dual clitoris/G-spot stimulators.
But shopping for a product you plan to use intimately begs a few questions — questions you might not be inclined to ask the dude stocking shampoos the next aisle over. That’s where your friendly neighborhood shopgirls come to the rescue.
Revival, a boutique and vintage clothing store in the Iowa City Ped Mall turning 20 this year, figured out a long time ago their customers like being cozy, comfortable and socially progressive. After years of selling small-brand clothing, accessories, soaps, moisturizers, fragrances and, most recently, CBD bath soaks and lotions, owner Sheila Davisson and manager Maggy Moran figured adding sexual care products was a natural next step.
Vibrators hit the shelves in 2022, and ended up Revival’s bestselling products of the year.
“This was my first vibrator,” said Revival staff member Sheridan Posschelle, picking up a $49 forest-green vibe Revival sold to 80 customers in 2022. “I don’t know what I did without it. Like literally, it changed me. It changed my sexuality and my comfortableness with myself. This is the first place I really had been exposed to it, honestly, and had an ability to talk to my coworkers and talk to my friends about it. Not only is it here so we can sell it, but it’s also here to create conversations.”
Revival carries vibrators from two companies, both of which manufacture in the U.S.: Maude, founded in 2018 by Eva Goicochea on the principles of quality, simple and inclusive sexual wellness products (a mission that brought actress Dakota Johnson onboard as an investor and co-creative director in 2020); and Dame, launched in 2014 by sexologist Alexandra Fine and engineer Janet Lieberman. The pair endeavored to close the “Pleasure Gap” between men and women by designing toys specifically to assist arousal and orgasm.
For Moran, who has a background in public health, part of normalizing sexual wellness means featuring the products prominently in the center of the store, not hiding them in the back, and avoiding buzzwords.
“I’m never going to carry a brand that I can’t talk about,” she said. “We just did a reorder and one of the new brands is called Shegasm. I can’t look a customer in the eye and be like, ‘Would you like to buy a Shegasm?’”
Moran and Posschelle were quick to admit Revival’s vibes aren’t the sexiest to behold, all minimalist in design and bearing little resemblance to genitalia.
“None of them are like what a dildo or vibrator was known to be in the early 2000s. They’re all very intentional shapes,” Posschelle said, holding up the green, oblong Maude Vibe that Revival staff lovingly refer to as the Tickle Pickle. “They say this is specifically designed for clitoral stimulation. I appreciate that they use that language … There’s a lack of sex ed in this country, and having products on the market that are open about what they’re about and using the right language is also a way to educate people.”
The shop carries Dame’s Eva Couples Vibrator ($135; billed as the most crowdfunded sex toy in history), the flexible Pom ($95), the Arc G-spot vibrator ($115) and the Aer ($95), a clitoral suction vibe that has flown off the shelf. Moran recently stocked 50 bottles of Dame’s vibrator cleanser, which sold out in less than a week.
Revival’s Maude vibrators — the $49 Drop and Vibe — are cheaper and more beginner-friendly. They’ll add Maude’s curved wand vibrator Spot ($79) in time for Valentine’s Day. Revival also carries the brand’s organic lubricant ($10/2 oz. bottle), coconut bath ($18/8 oz.) and a candle whose melted wax can be used as massage lotion ($30).
Most vibrator questions from customers — “Are these for boys or girls?” “What can you do with them?” “Are they waterproof?” “Should I use silicone or water-based lube?” — can be answered with an emphatic yes, Moran said. Their vibes are easy and safe to use anywhere on the body, on most any body, and the manufacturers provide plentiful, LGBTQ-inclusive instructions, including animated videos on the Dame website.
While some shoppers browse the sex section quizzically, mistaking the Vibe for a taper candle or the Drop for an egg timer, those who know what they’re buying will usually head straight to the register.
“It’s really cool to see there’s people that are no-shame about it and ready to roll,” Moran said.
“We’re very nonchalant about it in the store, too,” Posschelle added, “because we never want them to be uncomfortable. We’re all pretty open about our sexualities here.”
Many tech business platforms aren’t, unfortunately. Revival’s sex-related products can’t be listed on Google, Facebook and Instagram, but they still sell vibrators in-store and on their website, and offer delivery through the Iowa City Downtown District and CHOMP.
Getting in the vibrator game has been good business so far, and Revival staff are proud of how the expanding sexual health section complements their regular partnerships with the Emma Goldman Clinic and other pro-choice orgs.
If nothing else, the shopgirls have likely saved some fellow pleasure-seekers and their partners from the experience of ordering an overpriced and dubiously designed toy off Amazon.
“I like to believe our customer trusts us with their sexual wellness,” Moran said. “You don’t have to be ashamed of a vibrator.”
Emma McClatchey bought her first vibrator from Romantix in Iowa City. It was OK, but no Tickle Pickle. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 316.