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.