LOS ANGELES—For its third time, the “sex-positive” gathering CatalystCon West was held in the Los Angeles area—the city that still serves as the capital of the adult industry (despite the recent chilling effects of Measure B). To cater to its diverse blend of attendees ranging from academics to sex workers, CatalystCon West serves up an equally broad-ranging program. And given its setting in the Southland, there were also a number of adult industry moguls in attendance, as well as programs designed to appeal to their interests during the event’s three-day run, Sept. 12-14, at the Westin Hotel near LAX.
One of the first such events took place on Friday: a talk by Porn Guardian’s Peter Phinney that served as a primer on how pirates profit from stealing content and what copyright holders can do to fight back. More recently the company has been branching off into the fight against pirates who sell counterfeit goods and violate trademarks. Phinney explained that counterfeiting was rampant, and he discussed the particulars about how strong brands like Sportsheets and The Screaming O are targeted by e-tailers selling inferior goods using package design that is also stolen.
After this presentation, which was also open to non-attendees for no charge, there were meet-and-greet sessions, including one for first-timers. Or one could mingle in the exhibit area, where various sponsors shared their wares. The manufacturers of Wet lubricant offered samples of its flavored lube—including the newest, which tastes like bacon—as well as its original water-based formula, silicone lube and nuru massage gel for full body massages.
Standard Innovation, makers of We-Vibe, showed the newest version of the popular couples toy, which now can be operated remotely with a smartphone app. Standard Innovation also provided a sneak look at its Tango Pleasure Mate Collection, which offers silicone sheaths that turn the powerful Tango bullet vibe into a G-spot and P-spot stiulator. Next door was a table devoted to Pleasure Works, the manufacturer closely associated with Good Vibrations. In addition to various dildos, lubes and massage bars, the company also offered information on its SHOW program (Sexual Health Outreach Workshops).
Revel Body displayed its newest model: the Sol, which offers improved functuality over its Revel Body Sonic, which won an “O” Award last year. Flanking that display were exhibits by two educational entities: the Institute for the Advanced Study of Human Sexuality and SexPositiveWorld.org.
Rounding out the array of exhibitors were Injoyus—a hands-free, strapless, wearable dildo—and a selection of books from Stories, a local retailer.
To wrap up Day 1, organizer Dee Dennis welcomed the assembled crowd while they enjoyed a hosted inner of pasta and salads. Then came time for the first keynote, titled “Sparking Communication in Sexuality, Activism and Acceptance.”
There to light the spark was moderator Mo Beasley and speakers Conner Habib, Cunning Minx, Lynn Comella and Winston Wilde, and each one painted a different part of the picture that represents the CatalystCon community in respond to questions from Beasley.
From Cunning Minx came a discussion of the difference between non-monogamy and polyamory, regarding which she explained the importance of self identification. “Any label is the beginning of the discussion and not the end,” Minx said. The producer and host of the Polyamory Weekly podcast also offered sage advice in discussing sexuality issues with uninitiated loved ones: “When first coming out to family, less is more.”
Dr. Lynn Comella, an associate professor of gender and sexuality studies at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, first fielded a question on “trigger warnings”—i.e., warning labels in her syllabus that some material might trigger PTSD, emotional distress or discomfort. Comella argued that these labels can echo anti-porn crusaders, and she said that she compared them to the “condoms in porn debate” as a chilling effect on free speech.
A psychotherapist who works with “erotic minority people,” Winston Wilde greeted the assemblage with a mini-history of “El Pueblo de Nuestra Senora la Reyna de los Angeles,” aka L.A.—first stolen from the Gabrieleño and Chumash tribes, and later from the Mexicans. Asked what constitutes an erotic minority, Wilde replied: “Any person in a group that is persecuted for their erotic identity.”
Wilde also took his history lesson further into the present time, recalling that in his lifetime he has seen the culture go from a time when women who died from abortions were shamed in newspapers and men who dared to love other men were arrested and hauled away in paddy wagons. Since those darker days, California became the first state to decriminalize common sexual behaviors such as gay sex, adultery and oral sex. “I think we are going in the right direction,” Wilde said. “All we have to do is have faith in this country and in the world.”
Author, lecturer and gay porn performer Conner Habib talked about porn stars and privacy, making the point that they “give up an old idea of privacy” that actually equals secrecy. “If we give privacy away, what do we gain?” he asked.
Beasley asked all of the participants one key question: “Are we transforming the culture?”
Minx said that “conversation is changing everything,” and cited gay marriage as a standout example.
And though Wilde had expressed optimism about change, he also recognized the role that immigrant culture has on the United States, creating a gravitational pull toward conservatism because of modesty in other cultures. “And conservatives have more children,” he added.
Comella responded yes and no, noting the power of transformative conversation on individuals but questioning how that change can be extended to institutions. And then she added (somewhat provocatively given the crowd), “We need to stop defining sex positivity as sexual freedom”—by which, Comella explained, she was questioning how the term was being invoked. “Are we staying true to the history?” she asked, and added, “Freedom means everything and nothing. We need to get back on track with what that term has historically meant.”
That led to a general call for a definition of “sex positivity,” and Comella deferred to a woman who truly had the historical gravitas to field the question: Carol Queen of the Center for Sex and Culture. In a nutshell, here’s her take: Everybody needs to be the sexual person they were meant to be, and they need the tools to become that person. Just as important, however, they need to accept other people as the sexual beings that they are. With that came a big round of applause and the collective realization that another “CatalystCon moment” had just occurred.
The conference continued Saturday with more seminars and live podcasts from Sex With Emily, Life on the Swingset, Carnalcopia and Poly Weekly. Seminars and workshops on Saturday tackled everything from “Sex & Parenting: Positive Parenting in a Sex Negative World” to “Senior Sex: Lusting, Dating, and Mating” to “Sex Toys: Past Present and Future.” In that seminar, Memo DeLaVega from Fun Factory USA, Coyote Amrich from Good Vibrations and Comella gave audience members a history of sex toys as well as a lesson that, in a sense, they have come full circle.
The original vibrator was an invention to help doctors treat their patients—traditionally white, middle- to upper-class women—who were suffering from the diagnosis of “hysteria.” Comella explained how physicians initially treated women suffering from a variety of symptoms—everything from fatigue to “wandering uterus”—by manually stimulating their genitalia. In an effort to speed up the process, the vibrator was invented and marketed as a medical device, with no sexual connotations attached to it. It wasn’t until the late 1960s and early 1970s, Comella noted, they were claimed by women as a means to take charge of their sexuality and their own orgasms.
Today, vibrators have gone full circle from medical device, to “marital aid” or “for novelty use only” back to medical device. In many cases, manufacturers are working toward certification from government agencies for that status as they look to help with sexual discomfort, sexual dysfunction and other sexually-related problems for both men and women.
Though there were few seminars related directly to adult content production, one Saturday afternoon offering was "Getting In and Getting Out: An Exploration of the Beginning, Middle and End of Life in Porn," hosted by Dylan Ryan and Danny Wylde (under his real name of Christopher Daniel Zeischegg). Actually, both are still in the porn business, with Ryan continuing to act sporadically in Kink.com content and Wylde now working behind the scenes shooting web content, but Ryan noted that prior to adult, she had a background in social work before doing movies and escorting for about 10 years beginning in 2003. Wylde began doing adult at age 19, while still attending UC-Santa Cruz. He was an artist's model and also played a submissive in Kink.com-produced content—and even did a few gay movies early on. He transferred to UCLA, and found that several of his fellow students were familiar with his adult work—and even his mother, a conservative Christian, became accepting of his work.
Ryan noted that what keeps her in front of the camera, in part, is an exhibitionistic streak, but she also credited the sense of freedom adult acting gives her to have sex with people of multiple genders and orientations—not to mention the fact that on-screen partners are tested, and the sex acts are negotiated beforehand. She also claimed that guys get into the business mainly to fuck women, but that women often have a variety of reasons, including having been abused as children, having "daddy issues" and occasionally to support a drug habit.
Asked about dating for adult performers, Ryan responded, "I would say that the number one, central thing to try to hold onto and focus on and keep in mind is to, at all points in time, never take on the shame, and feel that if they [porn stars] are doing what they want to be doing, and if they feel either fundamentally happy and accepting of the choices they're making about sex work ... that they stay there in that and don't take on the shame that will come from everyone else's opinions and thoughts and feelings about it."
Wylde also found that it was difficult to have relationships with women outside the industry because he found it was too easy for them to objectify him, and that his current partner is a former actress—and though he is now monogamous, he noted that he'd never experienced anything like an orgy or gangbang prior to acting in adult. However, he said he left performing after having had a bad reaction to the Cialis that he was taking with increasing frequency in order to complete his sex scenes. He noted that quitting wasn't fun, and that it led to identity issues in separating his former "porn life" from his life in "retirement."
The other adult content-related seminar took place later Saturday afternoon, and was titled, "Mandatory Condoms in Porn and Why We Are Against It." The panelists included performers Jessica Drake, Dylan Ryan and Shay Tiziano, with performer Dane Ballard serving as moderator. (Ballard also had a solo seminar on Sunday about "Comedy and the Sex Positive Movement," where he suggested ways of defusing tense situations and discussions of adult entertainment by using humor.)
Tiziano, who mainly performs in BDSM content under a stage name, began by handing out an information sheet titled "Mandatory Condoms in Porn," which listed the current industry testing standards, discussed various arguments for and against mandatory condom use, and noted the industry's particular problems with the recently-defeated AB 1576. Drake expanded on some of those subjects, noting that there had been a short production moratorium put in place redently in response to what turned out to be a false positive on a performer's HIV test, and discussed the differences between at what point in the process producers wanted the moratorium lifted versus at what (later) point the Adult Performers Advocacy Committee (APAC) felt would have been a better choice.
Ryan began the discussion of AB 1576, noting importantly that the bill wasn't just about condoms, but included other "barrier protections" that performers would have to use under the law such as goggles, dental dams, rubber gloves and face shields. Tiziano added that, as an emergency room nurse in her "day job," she understood that there were far more infections transmitted in hospital surroundings than on adult movie sets. She also noted that performers want to be tested, but that the condoms mandated by the AIDS Healthcare-sponsored bill were less about performer safety than about AHF's attempt to exercise some control over the industry, possibly to the extent of driving it out of the state.
Ballard echoed those concerns about AHF wanting to control the industry, and compared Measure B, the AHF-promoted L.A. County measure which requires condoms and other barriers during sex scenes shot in the county, to attempts to control women's access to abortion.
Drake noted that although the company to which she is contracted, Wicked Pictures, has a mandatory condom policy for its own productions, its sales have suffered somewhat because of that, and that even though she herself is a condom performer, she had lobbied against Measure B.
Drake also revealed something few in the industry knew: That to gain participants in a non-peer-reviewed study presented by AHF at a CDC STD conference in June, Dr. Robert W. Rigg Jr., one of the study's authors, gave out gift cards (rumored to have been provided by AHF) to his adult industry patients in order to allow him to use their medical information in the study. (More about that study can be found here.)
Ryan also shot down the argument that condom use plus testing would be doubly protective of performers, noting that if condoms were required, performers would be less motivated to get tested, plus she echoed Drake's assessment that mandatory condom use would drive down adult content sales. However, she noted that she believes condoms should be optional, and that she has requested that some of her partners use them, depending on her assessment of the situation. "I'm a harm reductionist by nature," she said, even while noting that agents and producers often pressure actresses to forego their use.
There were also several other seminars that didn't relate directly to adult entertainment, several of which revolved around the need for increased sex education in the public sphere, the first of which was titled, "How to Be a Sex Positive Warrior in Public Health," where the panelists, a full-time sex educator and two graduate students in the field, spoke of how the history of "public health" was replete with sex-negative imagery and commentary, some examples of which—magazine ads and other propaganda—were shown on a projection screen. The panelists discussed various approaches to bringing sex-positivity into public health discussions, and the necessity of correcting the vast amount of misinformation that's currently part of many public health curricula. Panelist Rick A. exhorted attendees to become "beacons of permission" when it comes to experimentation with different sexual lifestyles, while panelist Maria Q noted that "Research in public health is ten years behind the issues."
One of the more enjoyable seminars was Dr. Hernando Chaves's "21st Century Sex Ed: Beyond Just Saying No." A practicing therapist, Dr. Chaves outlined the differences between various brands of "abstinence-only" sex ed versus the comprehensive sex programs that many now employ—and how those comprehensive programs could be made better by including discussions of such topics as consent, sexual communication between partners, nonmonogamy and polyamory, sexual pleasure (a topic even left out of the SIECUS definition of sex education), the sexual needs of the disabled, as well as discussions of sexual diversity that included information on different gender, orientation, identity, lifestyle and behavioral issues.
Dr. Chaves noted that many sex education courses follow what he called the "3Ds": Disease, disgusting and dirty, and gave several examples of misinformation gleaned from some sex ed curricula currently in use, mainly among abstinence proponents. He lauded the Canadian "Birdees" sex ed app, and noted that a majority of Americans (76 percent) were in favor of comprehensive sex ed in schools—and also that in a longitudinal study of teens' virginity pledges, fully 88 percent had sex before marriage anyway, waiting only an additional 18 months longer than non-pledges, and that one-third failed to use contraception during those encounters. He also agreed to provide his PowerPoint presentation to those who emailed him to request it.
Dr. Chaves was also one of the panelists for the seminar "Slut Shaming: The Clash Between Sexualith and a Sex-Negative Culture," which panel also included Dr. Carol Queen and Emily Lindin, who recently completed funding for her film "The UnSlut Project" on Kickstarter. The panelists began by asking the audience to come up with their own personal definitions of "slut," then delved into a comprehensive discussion of what "slut-shaming" is and how it manifests itself in society. They also had suggestions on how to challenge and react to slut-shamers with whom attendees might find themselves in conversation, some of which included simply speaking up against the practice, though in a way so as not to alienate the shamers to the point where they won't listen; lending active support to those who've been shamed, with Chaves noting that, "each time we speak out can reach one person," and Dr. Queen's suggestion that if you use the word "slut," "always use it nicely," by which she meant in a sex-positive way.
Lindin noted that she's even come across "virgin shaming," terming it another stereotype to be debunked in a sex-positive manner, while Dr. Chaves called attention to "stud-baiting," a sort of converse of slut-shaming, where boys are shamed for not being sexually aggressive enough. Dr. Queen noted that men in groups are more likely to engage in the shaming than men by themselves, and that shaming mainly reinforces gender identities—to the distress of the shamer's target. She also suggested that analyzing the content of mass media with children is a good method to prevent the child from growing up to be a shamer. The panelists even discussed whether slut-shaming should be a criminal offense, but most agreed that while there should be consequences for shaming, criminal charges wouldn't really help the situation—but that education would.
The convention's closing keynote event, "Afternoon Tea with Club 90: Their Story, Their Legacy, Their Love," was entirely porn-related. As moderator Jackie Strano and the other panelists—Veronica Vera, Veronica Hart (better known these days as Jane Hamilton), Annie Sprinkle and Candida Royalle—explained, Club 90 was the first support group for women performers in porn, named after the apartment where they first got together in the early '80s: Annie Sprinkle's, at 90 Lexington Avenue in New York City.
The women were asked by Strano to give the audience some background of what life (and porn) was like in "The City" during that time period, and they all noted that in those days, New York was the center of adult movie production, that San Francisco was another hub—but that no one shot in Los Angeles in those days, due to the frequent raids of sets by the vice squad. Sprinkle recalled meeting director Gerard Damiano for the first time, and later becoming his lover, plus the opening of various sex clubs in the city like Plato's Retreat—and "lots of drugs." Royalle echoed those thoughts, recalling lots of parties she'd attended, and being aware that in those early days, there were several women's groups marching against "pornography."
Vera brought up the rise of phone sex companies, originally the brainchild of the fifth Club 90 member, the late Gloria Leonard, who, as publisher of High Society magazine, was also the first to devote a magazine to celebrity nudes—and later became the first woman president of Free Speech Coalition. The other panelists added their own memories of Leonard: That she was prominent in speaking about the industry on college campuses, and that her involvement in the adult industry had led to her having many celebrity friends.
The group also talked about the origins of Club 90, which first got together at a baby shower Leonard threw for Hamilton's first child; that it started out with 30 members, though most dropped out almost immediately; that Sharon Mitchell attended one meeting and Kelly Nichols and Susan Nero attended a few more, but that ultimately, it came down to just the four panelists plus Leonard. Hamilton noted that it was a private club that met roughly every three weeks, in part to give each other the support and recognition the actresses didn't get from adult film producers, who she said didn't even notice them after they left the movie set.
"My friends are the most kick-ass women in the world!" Hamilton exclaimed at one point.
The women also described what they considered to be pivotal moments in their careers, such as when Vera got a job writing for Penthouse Variations; when Hamilton got into adult acting through fetish photographer Roy Stuart, from whom she'd rented a room; how "shy" Sprinkle had "sex with thousands" as a prostitute before becoming an adult actress, and later learning about "energy-focused sexuality"; and how Royalle made it her "life's work... creating movies for couples"—and how she never got any respect for her creations in the '80s and '90s, but that nowadays, most of the big studios have "couples lines" inspired by her work.
Strano asked the women what each would tell her younger self if given the chance, which elicited comments ranging from Sprinkle's "If you learn [from your experiences], you win," to Hamilton's regrets that some of her choices had adversely affected her family, since she was an "absentee mother" for long periods at a time.
The discussion continued for nearly two hours, including a question-and-answer period, with Dr. Queen asking the panelists whether they could have predicted the current sex-positive community, and Hamilton responding that she'd always hoped for it. Another audience member asked about sex work in general, leading Sprinkle to comment that she continues to be "shocked that prostitution is still illegal," with Vera adding that the "bottom line" of the sex-positive movement is prostitution, and Sprinkle exclaiming "Decriminalize desire!" In response to a question from Jessica Drake about how performers could get more unified now, Sprinkle also noted that Sharon Mitchell and Nina Hartley had begun a Club 90-like organization called the "Pink Ladies" in the late '80s, and that it was up to today's performers to find their own ways to be unified.
CatalystCon returns to the East Coast in March 2015. For more information, visit CatalystCon.com.