Rethinking Gender and Agency in Pornography: Producers, Consumers, Workers, and Contexts — Call for Articles

Photo by Rae Threat

Photo by Rae Threat

A Special Issue of AG About Gender: International Journal of Gender Studies

Edited by Lynn Comella (Ph.D., University of Nevada, Las Vegas) and Mariella Popolla (Ph.D., University of Genoa, Italy). 

Deadline extended to 10 May 2019

Pornography is one of the most popular and profitable forms of popular culture in the world. A multi-billion-dollar industry, it puts on stage not just sexuality, but broader social processes and forms of knowledge about gender, race, class, desire, aesthetics, technology, politics and the law. 

Considering just how widespread pornography’s popularity is, it is surprising that scholars do not know more about its history, industrial organization and modes of production and consumption, including what it means to labor within a rapidly changing and increasingly decentralized global industry. Those working and publishing in the field of porn studies must also contend with the fact that pornography continues to be seen by many as a self-evident “problem” in need of a solution, rather than a complex set of cultural practices that deserve to be studied with the same rigor reserved for other, less unruly subjects (Attwood 2005). 

Pornography is ultimately “not a thing but a concept,” a thought structure that “names an imaginary scenario of danger and rescue” in which the players may change, but the melodrama remains remarkably consistent over time (Kendrick 1987, xiii). 

How might our ideas about pornography change by rethinking, and indeed queering, the relationship between gender and agency and unmooring these concepts from their essentialist and heteronormative frameworks? 

Since the early days of the feminist sex wars the issue of gender has loomed large in discussions about pornography and its effects (Vance 1984; Duggan and Hunter 1995; Jensen 2007; Dines 2010). Pornography has historically been perceived as a “guy thing,” an industry by and for men that relies on the sexual subjugation of women to make a profit. This formulation of pornography’s “problem” as primarily one of gender and power—men’s porn consumption negatively impacts women—has subsequently influenced a great deal of writing about, research on, and clashes over pornography. 

In the 1970s, for example, antipornography feminists argued that the pornography industry fostered a cultural climate that was hostile toward women (Bronstein 2011). Andrea Dworkin theorized that pornography “conditions, trains, educates and inspires men to despise women, to use women, to hurt women” (1980, 289). Susan Brownmiller argued it was the “undiluted essence of anti-female propaganda” (1980, 32). Robin Morgan famously asserted that “pornography is the theory and rape is the practice” (1980, 139). According to Catharine MacKinnon pornography shows us that “what men want is: women bound, women battered, women tortured, women humiliated, women degraded and defiled, women killed” (1989, 326-327). 

Pornography was dangerous, they averred; it inspired misogyny and violence toward women and active measures were needed to curb its availability. 

Anti-censorship writers, activists, and academics responded, arguing that the realm of sexual representation and entertainment could not be reduced solely to sexual danger while ignoring the realm of female pleasure (Vance 1984). They pushed back against essentialist understandings of gender and sexuality that presented women and men as homogenous and undifferentiated groups. They countered efforts to present men as sexual agents and women passive victims and objected to the idea that men were visual creatures, but women were not. They also pointed to the sexual double standard that claimed men were entitled to publicly accessible forms of sexual entertainment, but women’s pleasures were expected to remain tethered to the privacy of the home, domesticated and divorced from the realm of commercial sexuality (Rubin 1993; Juffer 1998; Thompson 2015). 

The rigidity of these arguments, including the heteronormative gender hierarchy they naturalized, persist today, limiting how we think about and examine the sexual subjectivities and experiences of female, queer, and transgender porn producers and consumers (Rydberg 2015; Neville 2018). They also limit our understanding of the mainstream heterosexual porn industry. Scholars have noted, for example, that the overwhelming focus on male porn consumption and its effects have made it difficult to acknowledge that women themselves might be porn consumers and that “social stigma, restricted modes of access and a lack of ‘women-oriented’ material (rather than a lack of interest) have been reasons why women have not been such ‘visible’ porn consumers” (Mowlabocus and Wood 2015). Queer and transgender pornography, similarly, have the potential to subvert hegemonic discourses of gender and sexuality (Koller 2015; Trouble 2015; Lee 2014). 

In recent years researchers, writers, and adult industry practitioners have begun to pay greater attention to these questions. The Feminist Porn Awards (2006-2015), for example, was created to celebrate and honor diversity and inclusiveness in pornography. The publication of the groundbreaking The Feminist Porn Book, moreover, brought together work by porn scholars and porn producers to discuss the myriad cultural practices and processes involved in “producing pleasure” (Taormino, Shimizu, Penley, and Miller-Young 2013). 

This special issue of AG-About Gender looks to continue these conversations. We are looking for articles that engage with pornography’s complex relationship to gender, agency and power, including empirical analyses and theoretical discussions from across the disciplines that draw upon intersectional frameworks. We actively seek research contributions from both scholars and those who work within the industry. Papers may include, but are not limited to, a focus on the following:

- Global Contexts of Production, Distribution, and Consumption, especially in Non- Anglo Contexts;
- Digital Pornographies;
- Sexual Labor and Industrial Practices; 
- Gender and Spectatorship;
- Sex Panics and their Effects;
- Theories of Objectification, Intimacy and Affect;
- Feminist, Queer, Post Porn, and Transgender Pornographies; 
- Pornographies and the Law;
- Masculinities and Pornographies 

Papers should be between 5000 and 8000 words (excluding bibliography). Languages: English, Spanish, Italian. 

Please follow the instructions gathered in the Author’s guidelines. 

Contributions should be accompanied by: a brief abstract (maximum length: 150 words); some keywords (from a minimum of 3 to a maximum of 5). Abstract and keywords should both be in English. All texts must be transmitted in a format compatible with Windows (.doc or .rtf), following the instructions provided by the Peer Review Process. Please see the journal’s author guidelines.

Contributions must be sent by 10thMay 2019. Approximate timetable for the publishing process: 

1.    period October 2018/May 2019 – articles proposal 

2.    period May 2019/June 2019 – double blind peer review 

3.    period July 2019/August 2019 – revising of the articles according to the reviewers’ comments 

4.    period August 2019 / September 2019 – final editing 

5.    October 2019 – publishing 


How To Be Your Own Book Agent: DIY Strategies for the Enterprising Academic

Photo by Kimmie David.

Photo by Kimmie David.

When I was on book tour with Vibrator Nation last year, giving talks at universities, bookstores, and adult boutiques about the history of feminist sex-toy stores, colleagues and friends frequently asked if I had an agent. They were surprised when I smiled and said, “Me.” 

The prospect of having an agent tickled me. Vibrator Nation had received a fair amount of mainstream media attention, so I understood why they thought this might be the case. They assumed I had hired an agent or publicist whose job it was to get the book on the radar of media outlets and booksellers. But nope, it was just me and the ace marketing team at Duke University Press. It was old fashioned hustle combined with the good fortune of writing a book about something people were interested in reading. 

Academic authors rarely talk about strategies for self-promotion. It’s as if doing so is considered untoward or gauche. We are not encouraged to think entrepreneurially about our research and certainly not about building a personal brand. It muddies the water, I suppose. There’s a purity principle that operates in a lot of academic circles and good books are assumed to simply sell themselves. (Pro tip: they don’t.) There are no faculty workshops on how to write a blockbuster academic book and definitely none for how to market and promote it on a professor’s salary. 

In my case, it helped that I had spent almost 20 years studying feminist entrepreneurs and the scrappy, DIY world of small, woman-run businesses, including their methods of guerilla marketing. I was immersed in a world of entrepreneurial sex educators and sex workers whose business acumen could compete with the best corporate CEOs. I also knew a lot of feminist writers and freelancers, for whom self-promotion was a means of economic survival. I watched. I listened. I learned. 

Over the past few months a handful of academic authors have reached out to me for ideas and inspiration as they plan for the publication of their own books. Here are some of the things I learned along the way.                                                                                         

Write A Book You Want to Promote. This might sound painfully obvious, but you’d be surprised by the number of academic authors I’ve encountered who told me they had no desire to promote their books once they finished writing them. Some were simply ready to move on to new projects, while others admitted they didn’t like the book they wrote enough to put much, if any, energy into promoting it. For many academic authors writing a book is a utilitarian enterprise that brings them one step closer to their dream job or to tenure and promotion. This means that the intended audience is, on the one hand, a small circle of colleagues who can attest to the book’s academic merits and, on the other, the university libraries they hope will purchase it. This is where the imagined audience for countless academic authors often starts and ends. Which leads to my next point.

Be Clear About the Audience You Want to Reach. If you want your book to make an impact beyond a select academic audience, you need to write that book. Again, this might sound obvious, but academic authors are not typically encouraged to think broadly about the question of audience. A book that’s theoretically dense and filled with jargon is not one that will likely appeal to more mainstream audiences. Whatever the discipline, a good book should tell a story. It should be engaging and draw a reader in. Prose and tone matter. I wanted Vibrator Nation to have broad cross-over appeal so I worked very hard to write that book. I went through multiple drafts until I wrote one I was happy with. I wanted fans of feminist sex-toy shops to buy it, professors to assign it to their undergraduate students, and academic researchers to cite it. Some audiences might appreciate certain parts of the book more than others—that’s to be expected—but the fact that Vibrator Nation was written in an intentionally accessible style is one reason why, I think, journalists wanted to write about it, sex bloggers reviewed it, podcasters featured it, and mainstream media, including the New York Times Book Review, covered it.

Have A Solid Marketing Plan. This starts with your marketing questionnaire. Don’t cut corners here. Find out which journalists cover the beats that speak to your book. Include them on your questionnaire so they can get advance review copies. Are you planning a book tour? Make sure local publications in those cities are included on your marketing plan. Work with your press’s marketing team. Think big. Don’t limit yourself. Are there media outlets that might run an excerpt? If so, figure out in advance what excerpt might work best for their readership and have those ready to go. I also made sure the book was on the radar of relevant listservs before it came out and asked people to pre-order it and request their local and university libraries also order a copy. Posting to those listservs, which were part of my wider professional circles, also meant the book was on the radar of feminist journalists and podcasters. This meant that my media outreach, in terms of doing interviews and recording podcasts, got underway a good month before the book’s publication date. As a result, a lot of articles were ready to drop by the time of the book's publication and in the month that followed. Things organically snowballed from there. 

Make Sure You Are Easy to Find. If you don’t have a professional website, get one. If you are not listed on your university’s “experts” page, change that. Does your college have a communications specialist? If so, reach out to them. If you want journalists, radio hosts and podcasters to interview you about your book—why you wrote it, what your research process was like, if there were any surprises along the way—they need to know how to find you. Make it easy for them.

It Takes a Village. Tap into your research communities and professional networks to help put the book on people’s radar. I provided graphics that friends and colleagues could use on social media to help generate buzz about the book before it dropped. By the time my publication day rolled around, many people had already received their pre-ordered copies from Amazon and were posting photos online and talking up the book. I started a Vibrator Nation Instagram account (@vibrator_nation) where I built a following for the book in the months before it came out. I posted photos from my research archive and talked about the history of feminist sex-toy stores and the women who founded them. I had a hashtag, #VibratorNation. All of these things helped build anticipation for the book’s release. 

Consider Organizing a Book Tour. Take it on the road. Bring your book to life. Talk to people about your research and why it matters. Academic presses do not have budgets for book tours, alas, so I self-funded my tour with honorariums I received from university speaking gigs. I organized the tour myself. I stayed with friends when I could and cheap hotels when I couldn’t. For me, it was worth it. A book tour is a lot of work, for sure, and I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t nerve wracking at times. Every event felt like a cocktail party I was throwing where I didn’t know in advance if any guests would show up. I did events in sex-toy shops. I did events at bookstores. I gave talks at universities. I reached out to various celebrity “sexperts” who could join me in conversation at certain stops. For my Las Vegas book launch, my sister-in-law, who is a pastry chef, made vibrator-shaped cookies and shipped them from Chicago. At an event in Baltimore, a man showed up with his entire vintage vibrator collection, which he wheeled into the store after my talk. Lotus Blooms in Alexandria, Virginia hosted a “Books and Brunch” event with mimosas and mini muffins. Some events were bigger than others and that’s okay. Work with venues to ensure your event is well promoted. Give them promotional copy in advance that they can use to plug the event. Make sure it’s listed on their website and on yours. Have hi-res headshots available and hi-res photos of your book cover for publicity purposes. It’s a blast to talk to people who’ve read your book. It’s an even bigger blast to bring your research back to the communities that made it possible in the first place. 

There Will Be Bumps In The Road, Roll With Them. I once turned up to a packed book event out of state only to discover the store’s shipment of books hadn’t arrived. An event in Northern California had a smaller turnout than expected because wildfires had ravaged the surrounding area two weeks before. Another time, a snowstorm shut down the entire city of Philadelphia the day of an in-store event, leaving me with four people in the audience and no public transportation options to get to the next stop on my itinerary. Don’t take it personally. Weather happens. Natural disasters happen. Business snafus happen. Don’t be deterred. Roll with it and keep plugging away.

Social Media is Your Friend. Don’t be shy about signal boosting your media mentions and events. You wrote a book. That’s a big deal! If your book is getting press, share that. Your friends and colleagues want to know and they also want to celebrate your success. Your successes also serve as inspiration for up-and-coming scholars. When they reach out to you for mentorship and advice, make time for them. Pay it forward. That way, everybody wins. 

From Pee-Gate to Sex Toys, A Look Back at the Year in Sex

In season three of  Grace and Frankie , the show's septuagenarian namesakes start a vibrator business.

In season three of Grace and Frankie, the show's septuagenarian namesakes start a vibrator business.

Politically, 2017 left me feeling enraged and dismayed, screaming “WTF is happening?” on what seemed like a daily basis. Personally, however, there was a lot to celebrate, not least of which was the publication of Vibrator Nation.

It was a year that started with the news of Trump’s alleged pee tape and ended with me boldly declaring 2017 the Year of the Sex Toy. (Yes, really!) In between, there were a number of notable sex-related stories and pop culture moments, from the death of Playboy founder Hugh Hefner and debates about his legacy to the #SilenceBreakers, those women and men who braved backlash to speak truth to power about the ugly realities of workplace harassment and sexual assault.

Here’s my roundup of some of the year’s most memorable stories about sex.

Donald Trump’s Pee Tapes: I remember exactly where I was when Buzzfeed broke the story suggesting that the now infamous Steele Dossier included sexually salacious allegations against Donald Trump that involved Russian sex workers, a Moscow hotel room, and golden showers. I was attending the XBIZ Show in Los Angeles and was standing next to Penthouse Media CEO Kelly Holland when an assistant approached her and, holding out her phone, told Holland that Donald Trump and #goldenshowers were trending on Twitter. The claim seemed completely absurd and yet totally believable. “I would pay a million dollars to see that tape,” Holland quipped. By the end of the evening, Penthouse had made it official: it was offering up to one million dollars for the exclusive rights to the Trump pee tapes. The company claimed in a statement that unlike other media outlets, which seemed content to run a story “based on conjecture and rumor,” Penthouse wanted to get it right. Seeing, after all, is believing.

Images from the Las Vegas Women's March. January, 2017.

Images from the Las Vegas Women's March. January, 2017.

Sex-Positive Advocacy and the Resistance: Like countless others across the country who were shocked and distraught by the outcome of the 2016 election, the Women’s March allowed me to channel my rage and take to the streets in protest. I bought poster board, glitter, and markers, and spent the better part of an evening making signs. The march in Las Vegas overlapped with the annual Adult Entertainment Expo, which meant that I was able to join forces with a fierce, energized contingent of adult industry representatives, sex workers, scholars, and writers willing to raise our voices in collective opposition to Trump and his policies. I found inspiration and hope in many places in 2017, but especially from my adult industry friends and colleagues who rarely get the credit they deserve for advancing an inclusive, intersectional platform of advocacy and resistance that foregrounds, among other things, free speech and sex worker rights. In a year filled with important acts of political opposition, a special hat tip goes to Eric Leue, the executive director of the Free Speech Coalition, the adult industry’s trade association. At the XBIZ show in January Leue forcefully pushed back against a pro-Trump First Amendment attorney who argued that Trump’s victory would be great for the adult industry. (Um, what?) An incredulous Leue, who knows how to command a room, stood up and swiftly neutered the claim. “If one person in our community is under attack,” he said, “we are all under attack.”  

Sex Toys and Sex Work on TV: I’m always skeptical when I hear about a new documentary or television show that depicts the sex industry. More often than not, the writing, direction, and editing misses the mark, devolving into familiar narratives of sexual danger, harm, and victimization in which women lack sexual agency and savvy. I was pleasantly surprised, however, by season three of the Netflix series Grace and Frankie, in which the show’s septuagenarian namesakes venture into the world of sex-toy design and manufacturing, hoping to create an easy-to-grip vibrator for the older, arthritic woman. Unlike other television shows where sex toys make a fleeting cameo and then disappear entirely from discussion, Grace and Frankie’s vibrator business, Vybrant, is a central plotline that runs throughout the season. We watch as they order prototypes, organize a focus group, and visit a tech incubator in search of money to fund their startup. I appreciated the show’s willingness to tackle the taboo of older women's sexuality. This shouldn’t be as novel as it is, but the reality is that we don’t age out of the sexual double standard as we get older. And it's still very much the case, as I recently told a reporter, that it’s much easier for people to see men as sexual beings—at any age, really—than it is to see women as sexual subjects and agents. Grace and Frankie helps chip away at sexual stereotypes and double standards in a manner that is affirming, sex positive, and, not insignificantly, entertaining.

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Candy in  The Deuce .

Maggie Gyllenhaal as Candy in The Deuce.

I wasn’t sure what to expect from HBO’s The Deuce, a gritty portrayal of the sex trade in New York City in the early 1970s created by The Wire’s David Simon and novelist George Pelecanos. Starring Maggie Gyllenhaal and James Franco, the series began slowly for me and I worried that it might not be able to move beyond the racialized and gendered stereotypes of the pimps and prostitutes that populate the world of the “Deuce”—that stretch of 42nd Street known historically for its grindhouse theaters, peep shows, drug dealers, and sex workers. The show depicts an era that predates Disney’s family friendly invasion of Times Square, where everyone it seems, from police officers to city officials, are on the take, hustling to make a buck off the sexual labor of women. The Deuce brings to life a transactional economy where everyone has something to gain and even more to lose. Gyllenhaal shines brightly as the independent Candy, who has her sights set on breaking into the emerging porn industry. As obscenity law shifts from national to community standards in the wake of the 1973 Supreme Court decision in Miller v. California, we watch as porn production moves from the shadowy underground into the open. We also watch as Candy moves behind the camera, bringing not only a female gaze to the production process, but a sexual sensibility and erotic aesthetic that’s deeply attuned to the pleasure of her female performers. The strength of The Deuce rests in its depiction of the intersecting, micro-economies of sex and the cast of players—including the mobsters, cops, and pimps—who are, more often than not, calling the shots. While the women are not one-dimensional characters devoid of sexual agency, their lives are shaped by structural conditions that are not always or entirely within their control. The show’s ability to render this complexity, as opposed to skirting it, is one of the many things that makes the series worth watching.  

The Year of the Sex Toy: This is a bold claim, I know, but I stand by it. In fact, I want to put a sparkly tiara on the Magic Wand, dress up the Flesh Light in a snazzy tuxedo, and drape the Rabbit vibrator in a string of pearls. I want there to be a Parade of Pleasure Products, complete with floats and confetti, down every Main Street USA. Sex toys, and the companies that make and sell them, were everywhere this year: the front page of the New York Times Sunday Styles section, the homepage of The Atlantic, and the landing page of Netflix. You couldn’t turn around, it seemed, without seeing a vibrator, dildo, or butt plug on the pages of your favorite publication. Cosmo ran a story on the history of the Rabbit vibrator and less than a month later published another on the history of the Magic Wand. Academic research on the sex-toy industry also had a breakout year. In addition to the publication of Vibrator Nation, there was Rachel Wood’s book, Consuming Sexualities: Women and Sex Shopping and Hallie Lieberman’s aptly titled Buzz: The Stimulating History of the Sex Toy. There was a genuine synergy between the worlds of academia, industry, and popular culture, which created a bigger platform than ever for sex toys to be recognized as culturally significant technologies of pleasure and tools of liberation. It was indeed a buzz-worthy year for sex toys, the people who make and sell them, and those of us who write about them. May 2018 be even more bountiful.

Feeling the Midwest Vibes

Early to Bed founder Searah Deysach.

Early to Bed founder Searah Deysach.

I’m about to hit the road for the final three Vibrator Nation book tour dates of 2017, with stops in Milwaukee, Minneapolis, and Chicago.

I’m not originally from the Midwest—I grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania—but I have a soft-spot for the region. I’m fond of Milwaukee’s rust belt qualities. I like the Great Lakes. And I love a good Portillo’s Chicago-style hot dog.

The Midwest is also home to some of my favorite feminist sex-toy shops: The Tool Shed in Milwaukee, Smitten Kitten in Minneapolis, and Early to Bed in Chicago, proving that the sex-positive retail movement isn’t simply a coastal phenomenon.

The Tool Shed was founded in 2004, and in 2008, health and sexuality educator Laura Haave took over the business. When Haave moved to Milwaukee in 2006, she had a checklist of community spaces that were important to her: Where’s the feminist bookstore? The knitting store? The feminist vibrator shop? When the opportunity arose to purchase the Tool Shed and keep it alive as a sex-positive community space, it was, she told me, too good of an opportunity to pass up.

When I interviewed Haave for Vibrator Nation we talked about the value of sex-positive spaces, the challenges of working within a capitalist system, and the role that feminist sex-toy businesses have played in increasing the variety of sex toys on the market and the overall acceptability of talking about sex. We also discussed how she and her staff cater to the Tool Shed’s homegrown clientele. In one of my favorite quotes from the book, Haave said this:

We are an old school brick-and-mortar store. I am here for Milwaukee 100 percent. There might be something that everyone in New York City and San Francisco loves. Fuck you, East Coasters. You know what I mean? It’s too fucking expensive for Milwaukee. We are a blue-collar town. We are in the Midwest. I am not going to carry a $200 vibrator that is a weird shape that no one is asking for. But I will do leg work to carry things that people come in and say, ‘I want this. I have to go to another state to get it, but I’d rather get it from you.’ If people ask for it, then they value it. But I am not going to bring the latest trendy things because everyone has it.

While the opportunity to run a progressive sex-toy store basically fell onto Haave’s lap, the story of Smitten Kitten is quite different. The seeds of what would eventually grow into Minneapolis’s first feminist sex-toy shop were planted when owner Jennifer Pritchett was enrolled in a master’s degree program in gender and women’s studies at the University of Minnesota, Mankato. Pritchett was taking a course that involved putting feminist theory into praxis. She and her classmates decided to reclaim the word “cunt.” They planned a week of “cunt-loving” programming, including screening some of Betty Dodson’s vulva-positive videos. The events caused a campus uproar, prompting important conversations among students, faculty, and administrators about the politics of language, women’s bodies, and empowered sexuality, and ingraining in Pritchett the power of sex-positive activism.

The leap from taking that class to starting Smitten Kitten happened rather organically. Following graduation, Pritchett began working fulltime at Ball State in multicultural affairs, a job, it turned out, she didn’t like. She quit after one semester and returned to Mankato. By that point, the idea of opening up a feminist sex-toy store had taken hold.

A conversation with a former classmate about sex toys—ordering them online and waiting for them to arrive—and the fact that another friend had recently driven eight hours from Minneapolis to Chicago to shop at Early to Bed, got Pritchett thinking about the need for a feminist sex-toy store in Minneapolis. Pritchett put her feminist research skills to work and began looking at other feminist businesses—Good Vibrations, Babeland, A Woman’s Touch, and Early to Bed—to figure out how they did what they did, including what products they sold and where they got them. “We wanted to be the Minneapolis version of those stores, like, ‘Hey, we can do that here.’”

Four hundred miles away in Chicago, Searah Deysach was already running her own feminist sex-toy business. Deysach, an art school grad and professionally trained pastry chef, was looking for something meaningful to do when she realized that Chicago didn’t have an educationally focused and women-friendly sex shop that was comparable to Good Vibrations or Babeland. “The more I thought about the store,” she told me, “the more I thought: ‘This is possible. I can do this.’”

Deysach’s fantasy scenario was that she could hang out at Good Vibrations for a couple of months and its staff would teach her everything she’d need to know about how to run a business like theirs. But by the early 2000s the sex-toy industry had become much more competitive and, according to Deysach, Good Vibrations “shot me down.”

Not to be deterred, Deysach hatched an alternate plan: She went to sex-toy stores, bought products, and looked at the back of the boxes for company contacts, who then put her in touch with distributors. “I spent a lot of money buying things,” she laughed.

She cobbled together $13,000 in start-up money and found a commercial space to rent. With the help of friends, she painted the walls and floor and opened for business. “It was the most do-it-yourself operation.”

Good Vibrations founder Joani Blank always used to say, “There should be a store like Good Vibrations in every shopping mall, in every city, because the more businesses that are doing what Good Vibrations is doing, the better.”

The Midwestern hub of women and queer-friendly sex-toy stores—the Tool Shed, Smitten Kitten, and Early to Bed—have taken elements of the Good Vibrations retail model and retooled them to meet the needs of the diverse, local communities they serve.

As Searah Deysach noted when we first spoke years ago: “We have a college class that comes in [to Early to Bed] every year as part of its, ‘What’s feminist in Chicago’ tour. These were things we once didn’t think would be do-able for Chicago.”

Things Are Happening: Vibrator Nation Edition


It’s been exactly two months since the publication of Vibrator Nation, and the past eight weeks have been a busy, exhilarating whirlwind of travel and book events. I’ve clocked more than 6,700 miles, made nine book tour stops in four different states, and taken part in more than 20 interviews with writers and journalists whose thoughtful engagement with my book, and its colorful cast of characters, has warmed my feminist heart.

The book’s rollout and reception exceeded my wildest expectations. The Atlantic profiled Vibrator Nation in its business section and Rolling Stone ran a story about feminist sex-toy stores as sites of resistance. It was reviewed enthusiastically by BUST and the Gay & Lesbian Review, the latter of which fittingly emphasized the role that lesbians and queer-identified entrepreneurs have played in igniting the feminist sex-toy revolution. Excerpts ran in Cosmo and Huffington Post, and Times Higher Education featured Vibrator Nation as its “Book of the Week,” with a lively review by Laura Frost who described it as a “crash course in contemporary gender and sexuality studies,” claiming that it “could be a television series every bit as juicy as Sex and the City or Transparent.”

It's been especially gratifying to have people describe the book as “page turner” that “reads like a novel populated by memorable true-life characters,” and to see it embraced so positively by unlikely media outlets. The Las Vegas Review-Journal, for example, which is owned by Republican mega-donor Sheldon Aldelson and is well known for its conservative slant, ran a feature about the book on the front page of its Sunday Lifestyle section, with a sidebar about women-friendly adult businesses in Las Vegas. (Kudos to the editor who gave this story the green light.)

Some of the best exchanges I’ve had about the book have been with male journalists in their sixties who have witnessed first-hand the cultural changes that I detail in Vibrator Nation and who have been able to connect the feminist dots and then some.

One of my favorite conversations was with radio host Mark Lynch. Not only was it evident that he had read the book closely, but it was clear that he really got the role that feminist sex-toy stores have played as agents of cultural change that pushed the sexual discourse forward.

“You really have to be of a certain age, and I am,” he told me, “to realize just how little information there was for women [in the 1970s] about their sexuality.”  

As Feelmore founder Nenna Joiner recently noted, “You kilt the game with this press. I like it.”

Me too, Nenna. Me too.

Nightline Takes on the World of Adult Webcamming

A peek behind the scenes.

A peek behind the scenes.

A few weeks ago I was contacted by a producer from ABC News/Nightline about a story they were working on about adult webcamming. Might I be available for a chat and possible on-camera interview to help contextualize camming in the world of adult entertainment?

The producer and I spoke by phone later that day. He was friendly and described the segment as focusing primarily on couples that cammed. We talked about the growth of webcamming, some of the reasons for its popularity, and how camming, with its emphasis on personalized interactions, differs from prerecorded porn. We also talked about the gig economy, flexible forms of labor, and the challenges of pinpointing exactly how much revenue adult businesses generate.

He was open with me about some of the difficulties they were encountering in producing the segment. They had talked with a number of couples that had later balked at appearing on camera; and they were having little luck getting representatives of any major cam companies to reply to their inquiries.

I wasn’t surprised to hear any of this. The stigma around sex work, I told him, is very real and it’s understandable that performers might be wary of “outing” themselves to friends, family, and employers who might judge, shun, or even fire them. Adult companies also have a good reason to be skittish. Media outlets, with their penchant for sensationalism, have not always done a good job depicting sex workers, or the adult industry, in complex and ethical ways.

I thought the producer was asking the right kinds of questions, so I agreed to an on-camera interview the next day. My job, he explained, would be to provide a kind of “Webcamming 101” for the uninformed viewer.

The experience of filming the segment was interesting. I usually shy away from on-camera interviews. Part of it is comfort level—I prefer the back-and-forth of talking to print journalists and generally trust that they’ll treat my words and ideas fairly; and I really enjoy radio, because you can have substantive conversations that move beyond five-word sound bites.

With television, though, you never know exactly what you are getting into. There are lights and cameras and staging, and it’s not just what you say that matters but your appearance, too. The time involved in taping can also be significant and once it’s over, the final edits can be…creative, to say the least.

But there I was on a Saturday evening, barefoot and wearing a blue dress, waiting for an ABC producer and cameraperson to show up at my house with their gear.

We set up in my office, with my bookshelves in the background. I was sitting on a high stool, the producer was on a chair across from me, and the cameraman was positioned in the hallway just outside the room.  

The interview questions were exactly what I expected. That is, until I was asked if I thought webcamming was “empowering or exploitative.” The producer explained that this was, of course, something viewers would want to know.

I can’t tell you how many times journalists have asked me this question. I learned years ago that there were strategies I could use to steer reporters toward other, more productive ways of discussing sex work as work. In this instance, however, the camera was rolling and whatever skills I thought I had developed seemed to dissolve. I stammered and spit out a clunky answer that felt anything but polished.

Before I went to bed, I emailed the producer in New York. I told him that the shoot went well and that while I was pleased that Nightline was doing the segment, I also hoped it wouldn’t get trapped in the exploitation versus empowerment narrative, which, I explained, did little if anything to deepen the public’s understanding of the business of adult webcamming.

He wrote back to say that he understood my concerns and assured me he would “keep this guidance in mind.”

The 10-minute segment that aired featured Pepper and Dusty, a 40-something couple that was described as “the average couple next door.” It also featured Ariana Marie, a porn performer and cam model who has turned her Las Vegas home into a “cam house” and makes money just by puttering around her kitchen in her bra and flashing for tips.

Dusty and Pepper in their cam studio/bedroom.

Dusty and Pepper in their cam studio/bedroom.

Ariana Marie cooking and camming in her Las Vegas kitchen.

Ariana Marie cooking and camming in her Las Vegas kitchen.

Although I expected the piece to be longer, I was happy (and relieved) that the show’s producers dedicated the bulk of the story to the performers, allowing them to explain in their own words why they cammed and what they liked about it. They weren’t pathologized or stigmatized; they were, the narrator emphasized, just ordinary, every day people who happened to enjoy the exhibitionism, and the money, that camming provided.

As for me, I appeared for less than 10-seconds—if you blinked you would’ve missed me—and made exactly one point: people are willing pay for the high level of interactivity that camming provides. That was it. 90 minutes of taping whittled down to one sentence.

Media work is work, and my Nightline experience was a good reminder that it can also involve a great deal of emotional labor. Sure, I could’ve opted to not talk to the producer and decline the invitation for the on-camera interview, but I’m also aware that saying no to interview requests means that there’s always the possibility I might be ceding the floor to an anti-sex worker activist or an anti-porn “expert” who has no problem pushing an agenda that demonizes anyone and everything connected to the world of adult entertainment and sexualized labor.

So while there’s never a guarantee that the point I want to make will end up in the final edit of a story, it’s always, I think, worth trying. Because if sex-positive academics, educators, and activists aren’t talking to the media and attempting to intervene in the various conversations about sex that are happening in the public sphere—albeit often in the most reductive or tabloid of ways—we can be sure that other, less friendly campaigners are using those spaces to advance their messages.

Studying the Adult Industry

A scene from the 2008 Adult Entertainment Expo, Las Vegas. Photo by Lynn Comella.

A scene from the 2008 Adult Entertainment Expo, Las Vegas. Photo by Lynn Comella.

It’s always interesting to see how people react when they ask what my field of study is, or when I tell them that I’ve just finished writing a book about the history of feminist sex-toy stores and the rise of the women’s market for sex toys and pornography. They’re often surprised, sometimes bemused, and almost always intrigued. 

I didn’t set out to become an academic researcher who studies the adult industry. In fact, the idea that I’d spend the better part of my thirties in graduate school, or that I’d eventually become a professor who writes about sex and culture, had never occurred to me as a kid growing up in Erie, Pennsylvania. 

Once in college, however, I discovered a passion for anthropology and women’s studies. I took courses in feminist theory and the anthropology of gender—all of which blew my mind. I encountered books like Our Bodies, Ourselves, the bible of women’s health, and Sex for One by Betty Dodson, in which she argued that masturbation was an essential stepping stone to female sexual liberation. I read bell hooks, learned about the feminist sex wars, volunteered at the local women’s resource center, and marched on Washington to safeguard women’s reproductive rights.

I eventually decided to pursue a master’s degree in gender studies and feminist theory at the New School for Social Research. By the start of my second year I knew that I wanted to get a Ph.D., but I wasn’t so sure I wanted stay in New York, an expensive city where living on very little was a constant struggle. I began researching graduate programs elsewhere and eventually decided that the communication department at UMass-Amherst, with its emphasis on media and critical cultural studies, was the place for me.

There are people who start their Ph.D. programs knowing exactly what topic they want to write their dissertations on. I wasn’t one of those people. I had a broad set of interests related to gender and cultural politics, but I was also starting a Ph.D. in a discipline that, quite frankly, I didn’t know a lot about, so I wanted to be open to exploring where my coursework might take me and how my research interests might evolve.

Around the same time, in the late nineties, heated debates about public sexual culture were taking place in New York City and elsewhere. Former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani was aggressively pursuing his “Quality of Life” campaign, which resulted in a crackdown on gay bars and bathhouses, as well as the passage of a controversial zoning ordinance aimed at “cleaning up” Times Square in an effort to create a family-friendly zone for Disney’s corporate invasion. 

I became interested in the various ways in which sexuality goes public, especially for women. What were those places, I wondered, where representations of women’s sexuality assumed an unapologetically public presence, as opposed to being relegated to the privacy of the home? And what, moreover, were the cultural and political implications this?

These questions came together when I took a seminar on fieldwork methods in cultural studies. As part of the course, students were required to conduct a small-scale ethnographic project. As luck and good timing would have it, a women-run sex-toy shop called Intimacies had just opened in the small college town where I lived. 

My curiosity was piqued. What made this sex shop different than those ostensibly aimed at men? What were the philosophies, ways of doing things, challenges, and paradoxes that shaped this business and others like it? How did feminist sexual politics intersect with marketplace culture and with what effects? That seminar paper eventually grew into my dissertation, and after years of additional research, it became the basis for Vibrator Nation

When I was completing my Ph.D. in the early 2000s, academic research on the adult industry was hardly typical. Much has changed since then; and while it’s still not the norm, there’s a growing, international network of sexuality scholars—historians, sociologists, media studies practitioners, and others—who study pornography and other facets of the adult entertainment industry in an effort to better understand a highly popular and often controversial segment of popular culture that we know surprisingly little about.

This scholarship is finding institutional support not only in the form of tenure-track academic appointments, but in academic journals and professional organizations, too. In 2014 Routledge launched the first academic journal devoted to pornography, Porn Studies; that same year, the Adult Film History Scholarly Interest Group was founded as part of the Society for Cinema and Media Studies. More and more academic presses are realizing that there’s a market for well-researched books about pornography and the sex industry, and are building their lists according. These endeavors, moreover, have been greatly enriched by the first-person accounts of porn performers and sex workers who continue to show academic researchers, policy makers, and others why their voices, experiences, and perspectives matter. (I’ll be writing about some of my favorite books in a future blog post.)

Interviewing Dr. Joycelyn Elders at CatalystCon West, September 2013. Photo by Roman Roze.

Interviewing Dr. Joycelyn Elders at CatalystCon West, September 2013. Photo by Roman Roze.

I feel lucky to be able to do what I do at a university that supports my research, and to be part of an extraordinary community of sex-positive scholars, educators, activists, and cultural producers. I’ve had the opportunity to present my research in Italy, Sweden, and the United Kingdom, sit on stage and talk with former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Joycelyn Elders, and interview adult film legend Nina Hartley

Public sexual culture—feminist vibrator shops, adult video arcades, strip clubs, and more—is part of the world in which we live; and just as there’s value in taking seriously other aspects of everyday life that shape people’s understanding of themselves and society, there’s also value in knowing more about those parts of cultural life that are routinely vilified and disparaged and yet, at the same time, occupy center stage in ongoing policy discussions and political debates. To that end, I argue that we need more and better research on the adult industry, so that these discussions can be driven by data and facts rather than moral outrage and specious claims.