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The U.S. is witness to three overlapping yet distinct fronts in the ongoing sex wars. The main front involves battles over abortion, same-sex marriage, birth control, consensual teen sex and sexting, the practice by which teens exchange often sexually explicit photos via smartphones.
The second front involves campaigns to stop coercive sex-related criminal activities like rape, pedophilia and sex-trafficking, especially of under-age girls and boys. This front also includes commercial sex between a john and a prostitute, however exploitive, whether on the street, in a bordello, or massage parlor or escort service, it sometimes can be non-coercive.
However, a third front involves adult, consensual and non-coercive sexual practices that are considered to be unacceptable. They include pornography, sex toys and adult “entertainment” (e.g., gentlemen’s clubs and play parties). These activities often involve commercial exchanges like downloading online porn, buying a lubricant or paying an admissions fee at a club or party. Yet, the sex occurring between and among the participants is not commercial. This front receives far less attention then the other two, but suggests the outlines of a new, very 21st century American adult sexuality, an era scarred by the banality of sex.
Traditionally, this third front was defined by the concepts of obscenity and vice, different yet intimately linked categories of what has long been conceived as immoral pleasures. While obscenity signified an expression in word, image or sound of an unacceptable representation (e.g., book, photo, song, film or live show), vice signified unacceptable forms of sexual practice (e.g., masturbation, prostitution, homosexuality, fetishism). Over the last half-century, the line between these two categories has eroded.
Repeatedly over the last four decades, the Republican and Democratic administrations of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush played the obscenity card to garner conservative Christian votes. They used the power of the state, be it the Justice Dept., the FBI or the FCC, to police sexual expression. Their efforts repeatedly failed.
In the spring of 2011, the Obama administration quietly closed down the Justice Department’s Obscenity Prosecution Task Force. It was a special unit established in 2005 during the Bush-II administration to stop the alleged flood of “hardcore” pornography spreading throughout society. It was set up as a sop to the Christian conservatives for supporting Bush’s election. It gave rightwing moralists a platform to battle against “indecent” speech on the public airways, on the Internet, offered pay-per-view in hotels and motels, and (sometimes) involving underage teens and children.
Unacceptable or “immoral” sexuality, whether obscenity or vice, has not been a major issue in the 2012 presidential election. It came up briefly during the spring as the Republican primary was playing out. Three of the then-leading candidates, Mitt Romney, Rick Santorum and Knut Gingrich, supported the call by Patrick Trueman, head of Morality in Media, a conservative public-policy group, to bring back the Obscenity Task Force.
Romney’s moralistic position is so 1950s; he wants to bring back “Ozzie & Harriet”:
[I]t is imperative that we cultivate the promotion of fundamental family values. This can be accomplished with increased parental involvement and enhanced supervision of our children. It includes strict enforcement of our nation’s obscenity laws, as well as the promotion of parental software controls that guard our children from Internet pornography.
If he wins in November, Romney will likely reinstate the Obscenity Task Force. Like Bush-II, it will be a sop to his conservative base and have terrible consequences for most Americans.
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Porn is alive and well in America. Goldman Sachs has suffered much bad press and public scorn over its roles in the U.S. banking crisis, the Greek debt debacle and a host of insider-trader cases. However, its greatest shame must have been on April 1st when New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof revealed that this esteemed financial institution had a 16 percent stake in Village Voice Media, the parent company of Backpage.com, the leading website for “escort” ads.
Digital media and the Internet revolutionized the production and distribution of porn. In a January 2012 CNBC estimate, porn generates about $14 billion in revenue per year. As the Internet replaces the older media of print, TV, movies and DVDs, a new set of players, including Vivid Entertainment, Digital Playground and Manwin, are replacing the once-formidable Playboy and Penthouse empires.
However embarrassed Goldman executives might have been when the public spotlight was shown on its questionable investment, it picked a winner. Over the last year, according to the AIM Group, “prostitution advertising” in the 23 U.S. cities it tracks generated an estimated $36.6 million; Backpage generated two-thirds of the total, $26 million. When word got out, faster than you can shout “fire sale!,” Goldman sold its interest in the Voice and Backpage.
The Supreme Court is expected to shortly issue decisions on two long simmering cases that may well determine the future of “speech” on conventional broadcast television channels. One case involves the spoken word and is against Fox over what are known as “fleeting expletives,” words like “fuck” and “shit” uttered by Cher, Bono and Nicole Richie at the Billboard Music Awards in 2002 and 2003. The second involves the displaying of unacceptable, lewd images and is against ABC for briefly showing a female actress’ nude buttocks during an episode of NYPD Blue.
Now, a decade later, if the Court affirms the broadcasters’ right to air such expressions, even if only for “fleeting” representations, it may signal the federal government’s last-gasp effort to police the public airways, the handful of remaining “broadcast” television channels and radio stations. However, if the Court holds broadcasters to a higher standard then cable and Internet video “channels,” it indicates that the Judges are still living in the 20th century. If they use the Internet, let alone an iPhone, Android or Blackberry smartphone, something else might be possible.
Over the last decade, federal courts have repeatedly struck down Republican- and Democratic-administration efforts to block sexually explicit, post-modern “speech.” In 2010, a federal appeals court threw out the FCC’s $550,000 fine against CBS for showing Janet Jackson’s now infamous “wardrobe malfunction,” during which she momentarily displayed her nipple to hundred of millions of viewers of the 2004 Super Bowl halftime show; the FCC requested the Supreme Court reconsider the lower court’s January 2012 ruling.
In the now celebrated 1997 decision Reno v. ACLU, the Court invalidated provisions of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 that criminalized “indecent” and “patently offensive” forms of Internet communication. The suit, originally brought by the American Library Association, objected to federal efforts to restrict adult access to online content on the basis that the materials might be harmful to children. The ruling affirmed the right of adults to access their content of choice, but acknowledged “the governmental interest in protecting children from harmful materials” and permitted the use of anti-porn filters in libraries and schools where children were most likely to publicly access the net. Thus, child pornography and pedophilia set one boundary of permissible “speech” in the digital, online 21st century.
Another boundary of post-modern speech is playing out in a Los Angeles obscenity case involving Ira Isaacs, a 60-year-old porn actor, producer and distributor. He advertised his site as “the Web’s largest fetish VHS, DVD superstore.” In April he was found guilty of five counts of selling and distributing obscene material, including videos depicting scatology and bestiality. The question before the jury was whether his videos violate a 1973 Supreme Court ruling that held that a work is not legally obscene if it has “literary, artistic, political or scientific value.” The jury found that Isaacs’ videos breached this standard. He is scheduled for sentencing on August 6th and faces up to 20 years in prison.
(Some might remember that Isaacs’ 2008 trial abruptly ended when the presiding judge, Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, was outed for the sexually explicit material on a personal website, including a video of a man cavorting with a farm animal and a picture of nude women painted to look like cows.)
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In 2007, the Supreme Court sidestepped the issue of adult “vice,” refusing to hear a case brought by Sherri Williams, owner of Pleasures, a Hoover, AL, adult sex-toy shop. Her 9-year case was against a 1998 Alabama anti-obscenity law that bans the sale of sex toys in the state. The Court’s decision signals its intent to allow individual states to set their own “moral” standards. In addition to Alabama, sex toys sales are banned in Georgia, Mississippi and Texas; a ban is being considering in South Carolina.
The sex paraphernalia marketplace is huge and getting, sexually speaking, bigger every year. It includes the fetish objects, sex toys, lubricants and costumes that enhance, fulfill sexual fantasy. Hamilton Beach patented the first electric vibrator in 1902, about a decade before it introduced the electric iron and vacuum cleaner.
Stefan Dallakian, owner of Paris Intimates, an online sex toy distributor, estimates the sex-toy business grossing $15 billion in annual sales. With regard to the U.S., even amidst a severe economic downturn, Dallakian claims that his sales have skyrocketed. Perhaps, with less money to go out, couples (especially women) are “investing” in their sexual pleasures.
A generation ago, people (mostly men), part of the much-scorned raincoat crowd, would slink into a shabby shop in a down-market section of town to buy porn and other sex accouchements. First with catalog shopping and now, even more widespread, with the Internet, those days are over. On the net, (ostensible) anonymity rules!
“People no longer have to drive to the porn store and make a face-to-face purchase,” Dallakian said. “Online ordering with discreet shipping saves you the embarrassment of exposing your kinks to strangers, and there’s absolutely zero risk of running into somebody you know while shopping.”
Among those who’ve decided to jump on the condom-bubble is Kandi Burruss, one of the “Real Housewives” of Atlanta. She recently opened an adult sex-toy emporium, Bedroom Kandi. She reflected, “I like to call it an intimate luxury line.”
“Passion parties” are women-only get-togethers where sex paraphernalia is sold. A local “host,” “consultant” or “sales rep” organizes the event and receives a commission (often 10%) from the night’s sales. The host acquires products and other materials from a growing number of sex-toy providers. The industry even has a trade association, Certified Adult Home Party Association, representing companies including Athena’s Home Novelties, Fantasia Home Parties, For Ladies Only, Party Gals and Temptations Parties. Profiles of a few sex-toy companies follow.
Pure Romance, based in Loveland, OH, was founded and is run by Patty Brisben, and had revenues of $81 million in 2007. It brands itself as an “in-home direct sales company specializing in relationship enhancement products and intimacy education.” It offers vibrators, dildos and lingerie as well as creams/lubricant, candles and games. Brisben uses a 21st century version of the Avon lady of old, claiming to have “over 75,000 consultants nationwide” selling per products.
Slumber Parties, based in Baton Rouge, LA, is run by Gerri Kassel and claims to be “a multi-million dollar empire with over 20,000 consultants world-wide.” According to one estimate, its 2007 revenues were $57.7 million. It provides such products as vibrators, dildos, lingerie, creams/lubricant, candles and “sparkling body powder.”
Screaming O’s, based in Torrance, CA, grossed an estimated $15 million in revenues in 2011. A sex-toy distributor, most of its products are imported from China. Its toys are sold through on the website for Amazon, Drugstore and RiteAid and, as of 2009, carried in 7,000 Walgreen stores.
Sex-toy companies are even getting into the “green” revolution, offering product-recycling programs. Dreamscapes, of Wesley Chapel, FL, collects used and broken devices while Adam & Eve, based in Hillsborough, NC, with dozens of retail outlets throughout the country, started GAIA, Green Apples Increasing Awareness.
So hot is the sex-toy business that there’s even a company, MasterPlans, that offers sex-toy party business plans.
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There is another and quite different notion of a sex party flourishing throughout the U.S., this one involving real sex and real parties. These parties are broadly conceived as non-coercive, non-commercial adult “entertainment” and include swinger play parties; gentlemen’s clubs; explicit “safe sex” clubs for gays and straights; and gay bathhouses.
Swinging, far from the shameful, underground scene it once was, is now a multi-million dollar industry with conventions, travel agencies, resorts, hotels, events and club franchise opportunities; it’s growing every year. According to the North American Swinger’s Club Association (NASCA), the nation’s largest swingers group, 15 percent of American couples have engaged in swinging.
“‘Swinging’ is not really a favored term anymore,” declares Tony Lanzaratta, a retired Los Angeles police officer and head of NASCA. “Swinging kind of connotes 1950s wife-swapping crap,” Lanzaratta adds, “it has little to do with that, and that’s why lifestyle organizations prefer to use the term ‘play couple.’” Referring to San Diego, for example, Lanzaratta says that it is a virtual hotbed for what he calls “play couples.” “A lot of people just have little neighborhood get-togethers in their homes, five or six couples who go for it.”
Mate swapping represents just one of a growing cornucopia of illicit sexual practices flourishing among Americans pushing the boundaries of acceptable sex. Having disappeared following the eclipse of America’s 3rd sexual revolution of the ‘60s and ‘70s, swinging is again fashionable. NASCA identifies 168 swingers clubs across the U.S., with California (26) and Texas (20) having the greatest number.
In addition to intimate liaisons at members’ homes, swingers meet in party venues throughout the country, from New York’s Paddles to Miami’s Miami Velvet to the BackDrop in Mountain View, CA, the nation’s oldest swing club. One popular San Francisco club is Kinky Salon, a monthly sex party and cabaret. It has a strict dress code: No jeans, khakis or sportswear. Its instructions to first-timers: “If you wear something creative you will make more friends.”
Swingers also gather at various local and national conventions like Hedo-fest (Washington, TX), Couples Choice (Eagle Nest, NM), the Orlando International (Orlando, FL) and Life Style West (Las Vegas).
A good number of these gatherings, whether a formal club or hosted at a private home, are busted by local law enforcement. Most revealing, these busts suggest just how extensive such gatherings are throughout the country.
One hotspot recently forced to close was Club Chameleon in Phoenix, AZ. According to a notice posted on the NASCA site, “Usually clubs get hassled due to zoning, noise or alcohol violations. None of those are applicable here. This harassment apparently is fueled by the National Family Legal Foundation.” The owners were threatened with an $18,000 fine and six months in prison, unless they closed, than “only” 90 days in jail.
The Sanford, ME, the police ordered the Great Beginnings Catering company to halt hosting swingers parties. Two undercover officers posed as a couple and went to a sex party and found a DJ and buffet table. However, the local police chief reports the undercover cops were “shocked by the open performance of sex acts everywhere.” The AP story didn’t mention whether the undercover officers were undressed.
In Seffner, FL, two middle-aged couples, Steven and Cynthia Bowers, and Ricky and Pamela Zabala, were busted running a swingers club out of the Bowers’ home and illegally serving alcohol. According to the police, the house was completely converted to a swingers club. The three bedrooms were lined wall-to-wall with beds while the living room was equipped with a dancing pole, a spanking table and large TV screen showing porn videos. Couples got in for free, detectives said, while single men and women paid an admissions fee. Visitors could bring alcohol and share it with others.
In New York, NY, police busted a long-running afterhours party, “AM,” held on two-floors at 38 West 38th Street, a commercial building in the Garment District. The club’s promoter, Alexander Van Bousen, 43, advertised it as “Go out, Come here, Get off, Go home.” Attendees were required to email a recent photo of themselves to get invited and charged only $20 admission; “Condoms, lube, water, Gatorade and more is provided.” According to someone familiar with party, upwards of 700 people attended during the course of the night. The party was busted for the illegal sale of alcohol.
Gentlemen’s clubs represented another form of a sex party are no longer limited to Las Vegas. According to TUSCL, a website of strip clubs, lists 2,471 clubs operating throughout the country. Texas (211) and Florida (205) have the greatest number. A recent University of Las Vegas study estimates the number of strip clubs might be as high as 5,000.
Explicit adult “safe sex” clubs for gays and straights operate throughout the country. Specialized fetish clubs catering to b&d, s&m and other once-perverse tastes operate in many major cities are often hosted by a professional dominatrix. New York’s Paddles attracts a heterosexual crowd, while Los Angele’s Slammers and San Francisco’s Blow Buddies welcome gay men.
San Francisco’s Folsom Street Fair, about to celebrate its 28th anniversary this September, is the largest gathering in the world of gay and straight leather and other fetishists. It lasts a week and draws between 350,000 and 400,000 fetishists, their admirers and voyeurs. Gay bathhouses remain notorious venues for sexual liaisons.
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Americans have long enjoyed — and feared — sex. Puritans are remembered for, among other things, hanging women for having sex with the Devil. Few recall that the Puritans were not “puritanical” when it came to conjugal sex. Yes, they were true believers in the twin dictates of conventional heterosexual sexuality. First, they adhered to the classic missionary position with a man on top of a woman, she lying on her back, having vaginal intercourse. Second, they believed in only having intercourse for procreation and not pleasure. Often forgotten, married Puritan couples are reported to have enjoyed sex; it was celebratory, an expression of divine fulfillment.
Over the last four centuries, American sexuality has been transformed; it is no longer inhibited by the missionary position or a fear of pleasure. For many today, sex remains celebratory, an expression of divine, sensuous fulfillment, but without religious significance. Sex has been considerably liberated, secularized.
Diverse conflicting interests define American secular sexual values. One strand consists of religious and moralistic groups that seek to maintain traditional patriarchal authority, thus inhibiting the sexual impulses shared by many. A second strand includes sex-entrepreneurs and corporations who want to make a buck by commercializing sexual impulses. A third force involves individuals who push the boundaries of these impulses for their own gratification and, in tern, society at large. A fourth interest includes the professional establishment of psychiatrists, psychologists and counselors who, in our secular society, have replaced priests determining what is “normal.” And, fifth, the secular state of laws, police and the justice system attempts to enforce the parameters of socially-acceptable sexual conduct while reconciling these conflicting interests.
Religious groups of every denomination — whether Jew or Muslim, Catholic or Mormon, Evangelical or Methodist and others – seek to contain the parameters of acceptable sex. These parameters apply to whom one can have sex with (e.g., woman or man, devout or not) and how the sexual activity is to be practiced (i.e., acceptable sex positions, when during the month). A unique history of the nation is written in these shifting parameters.
The boundaries of non-consensual sex, including rape, pedophilia, sex-trafficked and lust murder, are pathologies, aggressive criminal violations with an erotic cast. These sex acts deny the autonomy, self-hood of the other, thus being both immoral and illegal.
The parameters of sex between consenting adults, including what psychologists identify as “deviance without pathology” (e.g., homosexuality, fetishism, s&m), have expanded significantly over the last century. The boundaries of acceptable sex have shifted. Consenting adults enjoy a greater range of acceptable sexual practices than anytime in American history.
The defenders of patriarchal moral authority are waging a war to enforce the boundaries, experiences, of sexual pleasure. The frontline of this battle is a woman’s control of her fertility, her body, thus her right to an abortion and to birth control. While Roe v. Wade remains the law of the land, significant efforts at both the federal and (especially) state levels have limited a woman’s right to choose. Similarly, same-sex marriage has become legal in a half-dozen state and accepted by a plurality of the American public in numerous opinion polls, 30 states have passed laws to restrict marriage to of-age heterosexual couples.
A second front involves porn, toys and sex parties enjoyed by increasing number of consenting adults. Many champions of moral rectitude embrace unfettered, free-market values. Yet, they find unacceptable the growth of the sex industry that caterers to consenting adults and the activities these adults engage in. For many conservatives, morality trumps capitalism.
While denouncing the power of the state, these conservatives are the first to use it to impose their morality on others; for them, the state trumps the freedom of the individual to decide for her/him-self. The fight for sexual freedom is a battle for the future of America.
David Rosen writes the blog, Media Current, for Filmmaker and regularly contributes to the Brooklyn Rail; he can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.