Economic Shifts, Moral Values, and Political Boundaries: The Symbolic Relationship Between Sex Toys and Pornography

Saturday, June 25, 2016: 2:30 PM-4:00 PM
259 Dwinelle (Dwinelle Hall)
Shelly Ronen, New York University, New York City, NY
Lynn Comella, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Las Vegas, NV
[Sex toys] used to be an industry you avoided as an entrepreneur, but now it’s no longer porn-associated, there’s a new generation in the business. —Michael Guilfoyle, Sportsheets (Gibb 2016).

The adult industry encompasses a variety of different sectors and forms of economic production, but “adult” material goods—setting aside services such as prostitution or stripping—fall largely into two groups: adult film, also referred to as “porn” or adult novelties, or “sex toys.” Companies across these two groups share the “adult” umbrella and its suggestion of the immoral and sometimes illegal (Harvey 2001). But despite their shared focus and intertwining histories, pornographers and sex toy manufacturers have independent symbolic and moral statuses. From the perspective of sex toy designers, the border with pornography is contested and changing. And what’s more, manufacturers and retailers, two distinct groups of stakeholders in the novelty industry have different relationships to pornography. How these boundaries are drawn and negotiated among different adult industry stakeholders is the focus of this paper.

Forty years ago, two decades before the wide dissemination of the Internet, the pornography industry was vital, lucrative and male-dominated. At that time, novelty manufacturers were just beginning to emerge within institutional structures of porn production. The infamous Reuben Sturman, “godfather of the porn industry” (Schlosser 2004), founded Doc Johnson in 1976, which is still one of the largest manufacturers of novelties in the US. Simultaneously, feminists began opening women-friendly vibrator businesses, such as Eve’s Garden by Dell Williams in 1974 and Good Vibrations by Joani Blank in 1976 (Williams and Vannucci 2005). These retailers aimed to create a shopping experience that welcomed and empowered women (Comella 2010; 2012; Loe 1999). Blank explicitly set out to open a “clean well-lighted place,” a cozy shop with potted plants and macramé hangings that contrasted the presumed dirty and dank “adult bookstores” or side-of-the-road XXX stores thought to be frequented by trench-coat-donning men. Blank initially refused to carry lingerie, gag gifts, or pornography, preferring instead to sell a small selection of vibrators and books about sex. Over time, and as Blank hired new sales staff, the business’s product mix expanded, and in 1989 Good Vibrations began carrying a small collection of pornography curated by author Susie “Sexpert” Bright. Pornography, Bright argued, had the potential to enhance people’s sex lives just like any other sexually-oriented product (Comella 2013; Queen 2015).

Since then, manufacturer and retailer relationships to pornography have switched. Today, sex toy manufacturers have a more tense relation with pornographers. The traditional “old guard” companies – Doc Johnson among them – continue to make rubbery dildos, “pocket pussies” and body parts from molds taken directly of porn stars’ genitals (products that sex-positive retailers have historically refused to carry). And yet many sex toy manufacturers now consider the practice of using porn stars to brand and market their products outdated and perhaps even risky. A dramatic shift in a porn star’s reputation—take for example the case of porn actor James Deen who was recently accused of rape—can take the stock of a company’s product line down. Newer manufacturers prefer to invest in high-tech objects that can be easily hidden in plain sight because they do not resemble bodies. Sex toy manufacturers police the boundary between themselves and pornographers by casting the latter as “wild,” and more sexually active than novelty industry professionals (Ronen forthcoming). The industries have separate trade shows, and porn starlets are not explicitly invited to the key biannual toy expo, Adult Novelty Manufacturer’s Expo (ANME). Those companies that are offshoots or sister companies of porn studios generally do not widely advertise their affiliations. Meanwhile, where pornography seems to have gone back into the closet among sex toy manufacturers, there’s a greater acceptance of pornography among sex-positive retailers, with Good Vibrations establishing a video production arm of the company so it could create the kind of pornography its staff and customers were yearning to see.

What accounts for these shifts? Where many sex toy manufacturers came to claim a moral high ground over porn production, sex positive retailers eventually came to accept—albeit sometimes reluctantly—porn and toys as two sides of the sexual commodity market—the visual and tactile sexual goods necessary for advancing their sex-positive missions.

Using participant observation in sex toy retail and sex toy manufacturing sites and interviews with more than 80 sex-positive retailers, sales staff, marketers, and pornographers, and 70 professionals employed in manufacturing, we explore these complementary shifts, tracing how economic events, moral meanings and political boundaries shaped these changes among retailers and manufacturers. We tease apart this transformation in order to argue that moral evaluations were primarily driven by a shift in the industry towards women consumers, along with a consequent spreading of the idea that traditionally marginalized sexual subjects were entitled to specialized commodities without moral judgment.

 In particular, cultural and political efforts on the part of feminist sex-positive retailers led to a demand-side pressure for toy manufacturers to politicize their products and cater to women consumers. This normative pressure accorded with an economic opportunity for manufacturers to capture a broader market segment, so it was successful, culminating in a “turn” towards the women consumer market that most date back to the mid-2000s (Comella forthcoming). The new, actively fabricated relevance of the women’s market also provided manufacturers with specifically feminized justifications. Emphasizing women’s lower incidences of masturbation, orgasm, and sexual pleasure, toy manufacturers could embed their work in medical therapeutic and gender-egalitarian ideals, thereby shifting responsibility for the existence of sex toys to the natural and political needs of consumers.