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Porno time warp? Final thoughts on the 2013 Adult Entertainment Expo

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The shoes of the Adult Entertainment Expo at the Hard Rock Hotel in Las Vegas on Friday, January 18, 2013.
Photo: Leila Navidi
Lynn Comella

Every year, the Adult Entertainment Expo brings the adult industry, and many of my friends, to my doorstep. Part spectacle, part business and part fan-fest—with lots of side boob and cleavage thrown in for good measure—it’s an event that anyone who’s interested in the world of porn, or the organization of the broader adult industry, should attend at least once in their lives.

The Expo is a place where the adult industry is taken seriously as an industry. Here, rising starlets are crowned, new products debut and innovators leave a mark. The show is all about networking and stamina, photo ops and obscenity law. Business owners mingle with adult industry lawyers, academic researchers talk to sex toy designers, and fans pose for pictures with their favorite adult performers.

This year marked my sixth trip to the Expo and, to be perfectly frank, my least favorite. There were a few highlights, sure, but as someone who has studied and written about the adult industry for the past decade, there were aspects of the show that left me feeling like I had entered a weird porno time warp, an age when the “big boys” of business ruled and the DVD was still king.

Let me back up. When I first attended the Expo in 2008 I felt I was witnessing an exciting cross-pollination between different segments of the adult industry, one that was visible in how the show was organized. The “women’s market” for sex toys and pornography had emerged as a force to be reckoned with, and women’s power as CEOs and consumers in an industry that had long catered almost exclusively to men was being taken seriously by more than just a handful of companies. Women from different segments of the industry were on almost every business panel, and people were listening closely to what they had to say.

Shoes of AEE 2013

It seemed like a new era of commercial and cultural synergy was dawning. Feminist porn producer Tristan Taormino was directing films for Vivid Entertainment and signing autographs at its booth; sex educators were holding “how to” workshops for fans, as well as talking to retailers about how they could make their stores more educationally-focused and female-friendly; and a new wave of sex toy designers was commanding the attention of novelty buyers and distributors. By 2010, queer porn producers and gender non-conforming performers were walking the red carpet at the ANV Awards. People were taking seriously the need for new business models, distribution outlets, marketing strategies and social media presences. Change, it appeared, was afoot.

So, what happened this year? Honestly, I’m not sure. But what I can say, and what surprised me, was the extent to which there seemed to be a palpable nostalgia for a bygone era. Take for example the “State of the Industry” panel. There was not a single woman on a panel devoted to discussing where the industry is headed. Not one. Instead, the panel consisted of five men, all of whom were white and appeared to be at least in their fifties. Ironically, on a panel about the future of the industry, the “big boys”—as they were described in the program—really wanted to discuss DVDs, a market, which, by all accounts, has been dying a slow death for years.

And it wasn’t just the nostalgia for the days of DVDs. Another seminar was titled, “Are Single Guys F*cked?” and the premise was this: Now that women have become more outspoken about their sexuality and more confident about buying sex toys, “have men been left out in the cold?” What needs to happen to bring men back to adult stores?

There's so much to unpack here that I’m not sure where to begin, but suffice it to say, men have never been marginalized or squeezed out of the adult industry, and to suggest otherwise seems fairly preposterous. In fact, it can be argued that women’s comfort shopping for sex toys has actually resulted in more men accompanying them to sex shops, resulting in purchases that benefit men as much as women. (Pegging, anyone?)

There was a very real feminist void at this year’s Expo, and it wasn’t just about who was or was not included in certain seminars. I know many feminist retailers, sex toy manufacturers and pornographers that stayed away from the show this year for various reasons. One retailer explained via Twitter that the show didn’t seem relevant to her the last time she attended. “So many [trade] shows; felt like an outsider at this one.” Others felt that there just weren’t enough products featured to make it worth the time or expense.

I hope next year the Expo organizers think more about issues of inclusion and representation. I also hope they think about ways to re-animate the novelty side of the Expo, which has become smaller and smaller with each passing year. The best, most interesting Expos, in my opinion, were those that recognized the potential for synergy and bridge-building across the various sectors of the adult industry. While no trade show can be everything to everyone, I hope AEE tries to be a little more, to more people, next year.

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