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.