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Thursday, Jan. 13, 2011

Porn Education

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I just returned from the Adult Entertainment Expo and Awards, which takes place every January in Las Vegas. While there are lots of "adult" trade shows throughout the year, this one is open not only to business people in the industry, but also to the public, which makes it a somewhat bizarre study in contrasts.

Two exhibit halls are nestled side by side in the convention center. One, the trade show, is quiet and low-key. It features mostly sex toys, lubricants and body products. People of all shapes, sizes and styles of dress roam around, chatting with one another and greeting old friends. A guy in head-to-toe shiny brown latex drifts by me at the same time as two women in matching sparkly, slutty blue fairy costumes. No one really bats an eye at either. Female business owners, manufacturers, film producers and distributors make deals.

The other exhibit hall, the fan show, has a separate entrance where people line up hours ahead of time to see their favorite porn stars in person. Twenty-foot-high banners with cosmetically enhanced naked breasts are inescapable. Large crowds of men with their cameras always at the ready snap photos of nearly nude actresses every time they bend over and stick their asses out. If you are a woman in this room who's not a porn star, men look at you long enough to determine that you are not interesting to them (which takes less than a second), then look through you to see if there's anyone more worthwhile at the next exhibit booth.

This situation produced a fascinating dialogue at a seminar called "In the Company of Women," which has taken place at this show for the past five years. This seminar examines the role of women as both consumers and business people in shaping the adult industry. One seminar participant, who had a booth on the trade show side, questioned whether we even needed a panel discussion on women anymore, since there were so many female store owners, toy designers and porn directors here. Another panelist countered that if you went to the fan show side of the expo, you would see almost no evidence that women were anything besides products to be marketed and consumed, rather than consumers to be marketed to.

There's no denying that feminist sex toy store owners, feminist pornographers and woman-owned sex toy manufacturers have made huge shifts in the industry. Adult stores that used to carry only DVDs now stock toys. Toy manufacturers have improved the quality and materials of their products. "Silicone" and "phthalate-free" are stamped across boxes, which have been redesigned with packaging that looks like it could be shelved at IKEA. Women aren't afraid to demand porn that they enjoy, which most emphatically does not feature Ron Jeremy.

But these changes still seem to be overwhelmed by the "mainstream" porn industry, which still assumes that men are turned on by the subjugation and commodification of women and exists primarily to make money, not to empower. The most poignant moments of the expo for me came from the "In the Company of Women" seminar and another on sexuality education. In both seminars, panelists noted that as our culture becomes ever more repressive toward teen sexuality and continues down the path of "abstinence-only education" and purity rings, porn has stepped in to fill the void in American sex ed. Young people, who are naturally curious about sex, will seek information about it if adults in their lives do not provide it, and Internet porn is there, ubiquitous.

As one panelist noted, this isn't porn's fault. Adults who choose to consume pornography know the difference between fantasy and reality. A discussion moderator described porn actors as "sexual athletes," willing and able to push themselves to extremes that most of us can't reach, like Olympic athletes. Without any context for what they're watching, teens lack this perspective, and thus can develop unhealthy expectations for sex, relationships and intimacy. And it's our fault, the fault of the adults of this nation, that no context is provided.

Want Laura to answer your questions in SEXpress? Send them to
laura@shepex.com. Not all questions received will be answered in the column, and Laura cannot provide personal answers to questions that do not appear here. Questions sent to this address may be reproduced in this column, both in print and online, and may be edited for clarity and content.

Laura Anne Stuart has a master’s degree in public health and has worked as a sexuality educator for more than a decade. She owns the
Tool Shed, an erotic boutique on Milwaukee’s East Side.
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