After 25 Years, Babeland Sells To Another Sex Toy Store

Photo courtesy of Babeland.
After opening their first store almost 25 years ago, Rachel Venning and Claire Cavanah — the co-founders of Babeland — have decided to sell the company to Good Vibrations, another sex toy franchise.
Babeland's four stores and website will keep their name and their inclusive, feminist spirit, but will be under ownership of Good Vibrations starting in early August, according to a statement shared with Refinery29.
Both Good Vibrations, opened in San Francisco in 1977, and Babeland, which was first opened as Toys In Babeland in Seattle in 1993, were some of the first sex toy shops in the U.S. made explicitly for women.
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Before stores like Good Vibrations and Babeland existed, says Good Vibrations' staff sexologist Carol Queen, sex toy stores were seedy and hidden and very clearly meant for men. Shiny silver foil covered the windows of these shops in more conservative neighborhoods, as did big signs shouting XXX in urban areas. Both window coverings, conservative or not, were meant to hide what was going on inside.
Because, often, what was happening inside was that men were watching porn. This was before the internet made it possible to search for porn in the comfort of your home, so deep in the back of dimly lit sex toy shops were booths where people (almost always men) could stick a quarter into a machine and watch other people have sex.
It could be an uncomfortable place for many women, Queen says, and especially for queer women, women of color, or women with any other marginalized identity.
When Good Vibrations first opened, their windows were also covered — it wasn't to hide what was going on inside, but rather to protect the privacy of the women who frequented the store. A shop like that, meant to protect and serve women, with good lighting and no porn booths, was a novelty. Less than 20 years later, it was still a novel concept when Babeland opened their Seattle location.
Photo: Sarah Small
It was such a new idea, in fact, that Venning and Cavanah tell Refinery29 that their friends and family didn't quite understand what they were trying to do.
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"When we came up with the idea to do this, having just graduated college, our lesbian friends and our family said things like 'What do you mean you’re opening a sex toy store?'" Cavanah says.
Even by 1993, when they opened their shop, it just wasn't a business women were in, and especially not two queer women like Venning and Cavanah.
Now, queer women and straight women alike find Babeland to be a safe and inclusive place to explore their sexualities, or just to drop in and buy a new vibrator. The store carries packers for transgender men, dildos that don't look like a real penis, dildos that do look like a real penis but come in more than just "white," and plenty of other sex toys that make everyone feel that they belong there.
Many of the Babeland staff are queer women and they all have been trained to answer questions about learning to orgasm or which lube is best for dry vaginas or what type of dildo you should start with, and on and on. In sex stores of the past, Queen says, the man (and it was almost always a man) behind the counter probably couldn't tell you which toy is best to help a woman reach orgasm — they were just there to sell things.
Education has always been important to both Babeland and Good Vibrations, and that won't change.
"We've seen a dramatic change in the culture around sexuality," Venning says. "There was a lot more shame and secrecy around adult pleasure [before Babeland]. The number of people in those years that I gave a tour of female anatomy because they asked 'what is this clitoris thing?' Sex was a penis and a vagina, hands clutching the sheets."
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Although there's still plenty more work to do in educating people (and especially young people) about sex and sexuality, Venning says she feels good about the efforts Babeland and Good Vibrations have both made to be part of the conversation — and she's happy to know that Good Vibrations will continue to educate after Babeland comes under their leadership.
"It’s not over," she says. "There's not enough accurate sex information out there and it would be hard to let go of Babeland if Good Vibrations wasn't also committed to education."
Since their legacy will be carried on under Good Vibrations leadership, though, Venning and Cavanah are finally able to move on to their next adventures — though they're not quite sure yet what those will be.
"I’ve gone through waves of feeling," Cavanah says. "I'm terrified because this is all I’ve ever done, but I'm excited because this is all I’ve ever done. Lately, I'm feeling like I’m going to love it. I’m feeling the freedom from the responsibility."
She and Venning are both proud of what they've accomplished over the last 25 years, and rightfully so. They're leaving behind a sex toy brand that this writer, as a lesbian woman living in New York City, has always felt more than just safe to visit, but also excited. Babeland is an institution, and even though it will no longer be under the hands of Venning and Cavanah, we're happy to see that it'll still be a place where queer women and people of all other gender identities and sexualities feel like they belong.
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