By Audacia Ray
Sex is ubiquitous in the news because it sells newspapers and gets page views on blogs, because everyone wants to hear about the latest celebrity sex tape, because the American public thrives on the juicy details of indiscreet politicians and, well, because sex is awesome. Scandal or not, who isn’t interested in and titillated by tales of how other people do it? Voyeuristic curiosities aside, plenty of our society’s battles are waged over sexuality; and the more open conversations are, the more pangs of backlash are apparent in the media.
Though there were many more issues that raised eyebrows and inspired heated debate in 2007, here are ten that really caught my attention. Some are new, some long-developing with new thoughts, and none are perfectly resolved and wrapped up in a nice little bow. So, flex your head, and spend some time thinking about what’s happening in the world of sexuality, what might happen in the future, and how you might play a part in it, whether in your own bedroom or in a public forum.
Pole Dancing: For Fun, Exercise and Empowerment
Until 2007, many people associated pole dancing with scantily clad strippers spinning upside down and showing off their curves for dollar bills. Truth be told, plenty of people still think of pole dancing in that way, which is exactly why it’s caused such a stir this year. Dance instructors and women seeking fun, sexy exercise have been climbing onto the pole in droves, garnering the attention of big publications like the New York Times and the ire of tongue-waggers all over the place. Amber Rhea, a blogger and podcaster from Atlanta, worked up the nerve to try pole dancing in the summer of 2006. She says that while there is a sexual component, “Pole dancing has been very empowering for me because it’s the first athletic activity I’ve ever excelled at.” Angela Edwards, owner and founder of Pole La Teaz and Amber’s teacher, has more than twelve years of experience dancing ballet and has never been a professional stripper; she discovered pole dancing on an episode of Oprah about releasing your inner sexpot. In response to the idea that pole dancing is purely sexual, Edwards responds, “All dances have a sensual aspect to them.”
Porn Goes Public: The Rise of Porn Film Festivals
Sticky-floored porn theaters with anonymous loops of beaver films are a thing of the past, but over the last few years, folks in cities around the world have been getting nostalgic and starting up their own porn festivals. Some of these festivals have popped up in the cities you’d expect. New York’s CineKink is heading into its fifth season, while in San Francisco the Good Vibrations Amateur Erotic Film Competition had a second run this fall. But the festivals are springing up in less-likely locales as well. In Albuquerque, the Pornotopia festival debuted in October, while more comic-leaning films were screened at Darryl’s Hard Liquor and Porn Film Festival in Montreal. Jürgen Brüning, a German adult film producer and curator of the Berlin Porn Film Festival for the past two years, believes that the mainstreaming of the genre is making porn festivals more prevalent. “Now the bourgeois media can write about pornography without feeling guilty,” he says, “because in the porn film festivals pornography is presented in an arty and intellectual context.” The serious, lone male, masturbation-focused porn theater crowd has given way to hipsters with an enthusiastic though often tongue-in-check approach to the content; in many cities porn seems harmless enough to build a festival around.
Print vs. Online Erotica
In all media genres, traditionalists are shaking in their boots, fearing the internet and the demise of media as they know it. Erotica writers and readers, however, are embracing the freedom along with the social networking opportunities made possible by the internet. Rachel Kramer Bussel, a prolific writer and editor whose recent anthologies include He’s on Top and She’s on Top (Cleis Press), says, “I think there’s synergy between online erotica and erotic books.” As far as she’s concerned, the wealth of free content online doesn’t seem to have diminished readers’ appetites for the printed word. Nobilis, who hosts a weekly erotic podcast called Nobilis Erotica, believes that the divide isn’t so much print versus online, but professional versus self-published. “The beauty of self publishing, whether online in blogs or podcasts or in print through services like Lulu,” he says, “is that you can publish anything you like – but the problem is that you can do that!” Although traditional book publishers are still grappling with the rise of the internet, erotica writers and readers are integrating print and online content pretty seamlessly. The two do not really conflict, but just provide space for more creative people with a dirty twist in their heads.
Teen Sexuality: A Laughing Matter?
In just six short months, three twenty-somethings from the Midwest with no formal training in human sexuality have rocketed to the forefront of a very heated public debate about teenagers and sex education. Nikol Hasler and Guy Clark met in high school and then reconnected recently when Guy had an idea for a video podcast show. Through a Craigslist post, they found local comedian Britney Barber and the Midwest Teen Sex Show was born. In two episodes a month, the show illuminates subjects like anal sex, dating, masturbation, and older boyfriends. Nikol, the talking head of the show, says that, “Our primary goal is to entertain and get teens talking.” The main vehicle for this is humor; a little slapstick, a few witty lines, and lots of hilarious character acting from Britney. But these tactics have been called irresponsible and dangerous by critics of the show, who believe that the topics discussed are too explicit for a teenage audience. Although the Midwest Teen Sex Show might not be the only answer to the question of how to teach young adults about sexuality, it’s a solid and earnest attempt; one that is not shamed-based, which is more than can be said about a lot of other methods.
Social Media and Sex
People who work anywhere near the adult industry, especially in jobs that make ample use of naked pictures, know that they could be banned from or censored on mainstream social networking websites at any moment. If you’re a porn star, getting your MySpace account deleted is almost a rite of passage, but sex bloggers, who don’t appear to be violating the terms of service, often get deleted as well. Viviane, Mistress of The Sex Carnival had her account deleted without an explanation and hasn’t gone back. But the line between what is “explicit” versus casual nudity has not been determined across the board. On the photo sharing community Flickr, showing bare breasts won’t get your account deleted, but it will qualify your account as “unsafe” and inaccessible to the public. Facebook, however, is much stricter; so much so that Canadian breastfeeding activist Karen Speed, of the group BLISS, had her account eliminated after she posted images of breastfeeding her baby. This battle has only just begun. Over the next year or so it will be interesting to see whether social networks make an effort to create real and detailed policies about adult content, or if the unofficial, “I know it when I see it” policies will remain.
Sex-Positive: Revolution or Meaningless Label?
Over the past ten years, “sex-positive” has become the banner phrase of a generation of sex educators, writers, and sex toy retailers. Carol Queen popularized the phrase in her 1997 book of essays Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, defining it as “a simple yet radical affirmation that we each grow our own passions on a different medium… ‘Sex-positive’ respects each of our unique sexual profiles, even as we acknowledge that some of us have been damaged by a culture that tries to eradicate sexual difference and possibility.” As enlightened as this definition is, in recent years the phrase has often become a weapon against moral and political conservatives, whose views are dubbed “sex negative.” Heather Corinna, the founder of Scarleteen and author of S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College, deconstructed and challenged the phrase on her blog last May, spurring conversation about the usefulness of the term. Heather writes that sex-positive, as a position, must have an opposition (hypothetically, sex negative) for the phrase to have true meaning, but the problem is: “…these women do not exist.” Especially with respect to feminism, Heather says that “You put ‘sex-positive’ in front of the word feminist, and I think you cut the impact of ‘feminist’ at least in half.” Which is to say, there is a fine line between political statements and “anything goes” with regard to sex.
Transgender Politics and the Law
This fall, two big political struggles came to a head for transgendered people; who have been historically passed by and left unprotected by anti-discrimination laws. While it is illegal for employers to discriminate based on race, color, sex, religion, national origin, physical or mental disability, or age, there is no legal protection against excluding individuals based on sexual orientation and gender identity; furthermore, the minorities covered by the hate crimes laws “on the books” don’t include gays and transgendered people. It wasn’t until this year and the Hate Crimes Bill, that sexual orientation, gender, and gender identity had a hope of being added to this list. Despite the passing of the initial document in the House and the Senate as a stand-alone bill, it was dropped at the last minute because it was attached as an amendment to the 2008 Defense Authorization Act authorizing federal spending for the war in Iraq. In other almost-but-not-quite news, the proposed Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA) was also changed at the last minute to exclude gender rights before being passed by the House of Representatives. Helen Boyd, author of My Husband Betty (Seal Press), believes more people need to speak out to help these bills get more attention and hopefully become ratified. With regards to ENDA, she says, “Most people I speak to are very surprised to hear that LGBT people aren’t included in employment discrimination at the federal level.”
Sex Worker Activism: Speaking Up for Themselves
The most common news stories about sex workers usually involve murdered prostitutes, lurid details of a street worker’s life, and incessant put-downs of the women who live these lives. This year, however, former street workers Pauline VanKoll and Trisha Baptie blogged on Orato (a citizen journalism website) throughout the trial of now-convicted serial killer Robert Pickton. The two women wrote about their perceptions of the trial, in which Pickton was tried and convicted for the murders of six women, though he may be held accountable for the deaths of up to 43 others in British Columbia, most of who were prostitutes. The internet has enabled these women to broadcast their stories and be heard in a way that the mainstream media does not encourage. Amanda Brooks, author of the Internet Escort’s Handbook and news blogger for the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) East, says, “Hearing directly from a variety of sex workers is the only way a realistic picture [of our experiences] can emerge.”
Alt Porn: Transgressive or Mainstream?
The late 2004 release of Eon McKai’s directorial debut, Art School Sluts (VCA Pictures), catapulted alt porn off the internet and into the league of adult DVD production. Three years later, alt porn has changed, more players have entered the game, and Eon is the head of Vivid Alt. Eon confirms adult industry, and says that the presence of tattooed starlets in many DVDs “Shows that alt porn has been around long enough for it to be copped.” Which is a kind of back-handed compliment, I suppose. Alt porn DVDs have taken on the shape of mainstream porn too, in form and structure; 5 sex scenes starting with oral and ending with a cumshot. However, internet alt and DVD alt have their differences. Says Eon, “There is still a difference in the amount of girls who will get naked online vs. have sex on film. It’s changing but it’s still there.”
Sex Toys Go Green: Questioning the Materials Used to Make Sex Toys
Sexual health took a new turn this year as retailers and consumers alike began to take a closer look at what the hell sex toys are actually made of. The hard to pronounce and consonant-heavy word phthalates (pronounced “thay-lates”) was on everyone’s lips as debates were waged about how harmful this kind of rubber could possibly be. Speculations range from “it smells a little weird” to “it will give you cancer”. The truth is probably somewhere in between, though the skin sensitivities of intimate areas and the potential for allergic reactions are nothing to sneeze at. The Coalition Against Toxic Toys advises shoppers to look for toys that are non-toxic and non-porous, and when shopping in person, conduct a simple smell test. A non-toxic toy will have no scent at all. One of the major barriers to a phthalate-free future, however, is price. Steel, silicone, some kinds of wood and stone all make great non-toxic toys, but they are out of the reach of many consumers, especially those who are just starting to experiment. Putting a condom over your questionable-material toys, as well as your hard plastic toys (like the Pocket Rocket), is a good bet.