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Good Vibrations

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There was never any need for a formal research study. Instead, Kevin Larson hung around the store -- near the dressing room, where he could tell a woman to try the camisole in white, rather than off-white, in order to bring out her natural attributes. Or in his office beneath the Cabaret poster with its tattooed, smudge-eyed, tangle-haired, fishnet-wearing, not Liza Minelli version of Sally Bowles. Or behind the cash register at Pandora's Toy Box, filling a discreet order for one of the many motorized devices he calls toys.

"I also say 'play,'" he explains. "Over the years, I've discovered there's a lot of discerning people who have not played with toys because they don't want to go to those horrible porn stores. Or I meet women who've never played with vibrators because, 'Why? I've got the real thing.' Yes, but get them to actually try one. Get them to use it with a partner. Why not? It doesn't have to be a replacement. It's a spice, a zing."

Listening to women chatting in the toy showroom -- halfway between the lingerie/formal gowns/luxurious sheets area up front and the triple-X films and books in the back -- Larson realized that he was missing one important toy. He called around, only to discover that it hadn't yet been invented. So more than a year ago, he took on the task himself, going into partnership with a company he'll describe only as "one of the players in the sex industry." The new product will debut in six months, and it promises to be nothing less than...don't ask! The walls have ears, every one of them attached to a competitor in the cutthroat world of vibrator R&D. If he told you, he'd have to kill you.

And that would be totally out of character. As the proprietor of Pandora's, Larson sees himself as more of a PC Hef than a James Bond, a purveyor of romance with a sideline in sexual evangelism. Now in his early thirties, he's constantly surprised at the hordes of people who still think sex is dirty, sleazy or somehow demeaning to women.

"Please. Sex is elemental," Larson protests. "No sex, no life, in that the human race would cease. But also, without sex, what kind of life would you have? If more people were having quality sex, the world would improve, no question. This is not the age of sleaze, and this is not the age of free love, either. Because of public awareness of heinous diseases, you can't jump into bed with everyone you meet. Because taking advantage of people is horrible, you can't jump into bed with everyone you meet. And since you can't jump into bed with everyone you meet," he concludes, "you'd better have good sex."

And yet, the women in the toy room recognize that the sex industry has always been about men -- and still is. "For instance, the packaging on a vibrator has a naked woman on it," Larson says. "What should be on it is nothing. My new vibrator will appear in an elegant box, decorated with an Egyptian-looking symbol. No words! Out of the box, you'll be able to put it on your dresser or your desk. It does not look in any way anatomical. You tell people it's a back-scratcher or whatever. It'll look like a beautiful piece of modern sculpture."

So this vibrator looks good, non-sleazy. But that's only half of what the toy room women want, and Larson fully intends to give them the rest.

"The bigger, better orgasm," he claims. "The straight, non-candy-coated version that injects your body with endorphins and opiates. That's what I'm going after."

His background is ideally suited to the job, he says. Once a pre-med student who tutored other students in gross anatomy and enjoyed dissecting cadavers, he drew heavily on his knowledge of human anatomy while working on the vibrator's design. Not all of that knowledge came from class; Larson also relied on "personal experience with my ex."

After suffering academic burnout, Larson left school and went to work as a physical therapist and pharmaceutical sales rep. Three years ago he opened Pandora's, with its velvety interior and foreign-accented saleswomen, which quickly became a favorite among the sort of society people whose vanity plates are rarely spotted in front of the nearby Kitty's. He also hosts free monthly lectures at the store, where the curious can learn about "Light Bondage for Couples" while sipping wine. In fact, it will be an ideal setting for displaying his invention.

"Non-adult stores is where I want my vibrators," he says. "I don't want a woman to have to make a special journey to a porn store to find my toy. I want her to discover it at a place she likes to shop. I want to see two or three boxes just sitting on a shelf in an elegant boutique."

"People have completely screwed up the marketing of sex to women," he adds. "I think I know how to do it. Pandora's should be a national market. Victoria's Secret was so taboo when it first came to malls, but look at it now. On the other hand, I'm a big frowner on Victoria's Secret. Their goods are crap for what they cost, and there's no one knowledgeable to help you."

It's easy to coerce Larson into trashing his competitors -- except for one, the San Francisco-based Good Vibrations, a 25-year-old store that spawned a publishing company (Down There Publications) as well as a brisk Internet business.

"The woman who started that business is my hero," he says. "What she did for the community! I'd love to talk to her. I'd love to get her opinion on my toy."

"A better orgasm?" asks Joani Blank, Good Vibrations' founder. "How? Bigger? Better? Stronger? What? It's always guys who say that 'better orgasm' is out there. On the other hand, it's always women who think guys can have multiple orgasms and make them nervous. Well," she says charitably, "since he's a guy, he has that testosterone thing going for him. Maybe there's something to it."

Blank, now 64 and "months from going on Medicare," has spent most of her adult life evaluating toys and teaching women how to use them. "It was kind of like consciousness-raising," she recalls, "if you're not too young to remember what that was. We took pre-orgasmic women and basically taught them to masturbate. Ten sessions, five weeks. Intense, with very specific homework. We claimed 100 percent success, unless you didn't do your homework. One woman, for instance, had had an orgasm in 1947 and had another during her homework, and then she quit. Two was enough for her lifetime.

"We'd start out with the use of hands, so you could deal with the yickiness of touching yourself down there, and then, if you had no luck, we'd prescribe a vibrator. It worked. So when I got laid off, my friend told me to start a vibrator store. That way, women didn't have to go someplace awful to buy one."

Good Vibrations became a magnet in the heavily lesbian neighborhood where it opened, but its clientele soon expanded. "I thought it was crucial to be able to hold the product in your hand and to talk to someone who could really help," Blank recalls. "I also liked the idea of exploiting a person's interest, rather than their anxiety, in sex." Embarrassment, she found, was a constant adversary. "Men are just as embarrassed as women, but they're driven. They must get off. Women had to be convinced that coming into a store like mine was good for a relationship, as opposed to their own pleasure. They ended up coming, ha ha, for the wrong reasons, but so what? They came back, and in this day and age, we do have some testosterone of our own. Our own pleasure is kind of appealing."

Blank has edited several anthologies on that subject, including the classic First Person Sexual and the upcoming (and very comprehensive) Big Book of Masturbation. Although she sold the Good Vibrations business years ago, her impact on the business remains legendary. "Have you seen the Joani's Butterfly vibrator?" she asks. "The very first strap-on clitoral stimulator? I'm the Joani! It was made for me!"

No wonder Larson wants her opinion.

"Have him send me that toy," Blank decides. "I'll sign a non-compete clause. Tell him I'll check it out."

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