AEE Panel Provides Insights Into the History of Sex

To say it was a daunting attempt would be putting it mildly, as entertaining as it turned out to be. Moderated by Las Vegas' Erotic Heritage Museum's Executive Director Dr. Victoria Hartmann, four "sexperts"—Dr. Kate Lister, Dr. Wednesday Martin, Dr. S. Denise Rivers and Dr. Lynn Comella—each provided her own take on some aspect of how sex has been treated throughout history during a featured panel on Jan. 22 during the all-digital AVN Adult Entertainment Expo.

Dr. Hartmann has been in charge of the Museum for most of the past seven years, and she sees one of the museum's functions being "to tell stories, the stories of us," and she selected her panelists specifically because each had her own story to tell, some very personal and some with a much wider scope. So Dr. Hartmann introduced each speaker briefly, then let her speak without interruption.

The first speaker was to be Dr. Lister, a published lecturer at the School of Arts and Communication at Leeds Trinity University in England, winner of the Sexual Freedom Publicist of the Year award in 2017,  and curator of the online research project Whores of Yore, an archive of the study of historical sexuality. Dr. Lister wrote the top-rated The Curious History of Sex.

"What for me has always attracted me to the study of sex is, although attitudes around sexuality fluctuate wildly from culture to culture and time to time, what I love is, it's got this fairly constant center in it," Dr. Lister began. "The actual act of sex has not changed very much; we're still putting the same things in the same places to the same end, but how we process that and practice that and think about that has changed radically. But I love the fact that sex is also a real leveler of human experience across history; it's something you've got in common with Henry VIII or with the Roman emperors or men on the battlefield in the second world war: We know what it's like to feel horny and to feel desired or to have a crush on the person that you're crushing on [who] doesn't crush on you back. All of those things have been constant throughout history and I love that."

But, she noted, the history of sex has been a secret history, largely because of the shame felt by those who have sex, which has made it difficult to find, she said, "actual first-hand testimony of what people thought about sex and how they experienced it," which makes some parts of that history "just out of grasp."

But, she said, "The past is very much with us, and using the past to frame debates now is so important. We have a really short memory when it comes to sex. When I post things on Twitter, people are surprised, in nice ways, but 'Ohmigod, the Victorians were having sex!' 'Well, of course, yes, they were having sex.' It wasn't just this bit in the middle where everyone went, 'Oh, we won't do that anymore.' We just don't think about it in the same ways, and that's what I think is really important and what I'm really passionate about."

The next speaker was Dr. Martin, with whom Dr. Hartmann first came in contact on Twitter when Dr. Martin disputed—correctly!—some of her thoughts on non-monogamy. Dr. Hartmann noted that Dr. Martin is a best-selling author, podcast host and cultural critic "who blends social science and storytelling to help people, especially those who identify as women, better understand why they want what they want, feel what they feel and do what they do."

"Because we tend to be so pregnant with our own personal stories/intersectional experiences, we tend to forget that it's paved with history, and a lot happens before we ever get in bed with someone or touch ourselves; there's a whole history of people being in bed together and touching themselves," Dr. Martin noted at the beginning of her segment. "I like to focus in my work on the evolutionary backstory of human female sexuality."

To do this, Dr. Martin delves into sexual data from different cultures as well as primatology, which deals with human's closest relatives, monkeys and apes.

Dr. Martin then explained how she got into the study of sexuality.

"I was raised by a second-wave feminist and a Republican father, both of whom were assertive atheists," she began. "It was a really socially conservative town, Grand Rapids, Michigan, where people proudly boast that there are more churches per square mile than anywhere else in the world. So my earliest worldview was that I was going to hell, and after that, when I was about 10 or 11, I discovered my second-wave feminist mother's copy of My Secret Garden by Nancy Friday... It was a book of women's sexual fantasies, published in the early '70s by Nancy Friday, a previously relatively unknown writer, and people freaked out about the book of very explicit fantasies, and they ran the gamut from the mundane... to the really wild... but the baseline of that book was asserting that women have sexual fantasies, in 1972 or 1973, which is basically asserting that women have a sexuality separate from men.

"I read the book pretty close to its publication date," she continued, "and it completely blew my mind... First of all, the erotic details were amazing and beautiful and almost frightening in their power, but I also had a sense of how revolutionary it was."

She then segued to talking about the evolution of female sexuality, and revealed that when she was an undergrad at the University of Michigan, she became engrossed in a new wave of evolutionary thinking: Female sexual selection theory—which at least one of her professors ignored in favor of his heteronormative worldview: Men have multiple partners because they're supposed to, but women don't because they can get pregnant.

"I remember, at that moment, as good and compliant as I was, I just had this urge to stand up and turn around and say, 'Can I have a witness because I mate multiply and I know my girlfriends mate multiply too.' So that's what started me off on a quest to understand why, if females are not supposed to mate multiply, why do some many of them mate multiply?

"I think some of the best scholarship comes from people's own personal curiosity about sexuality," she concluded, "and I'm just so grateful just to be here with these panelists today, that we are having more discussions about sexuality... Today shows how we're bring so many discourses to bear now on our understanding of sexuality, and I've been really lucky to bring the discourses of primatology and evolutionary biology to my interest in sexuality, and to see it enriched by other perspectives like we're getting here today."

Dr. Hartmann then introduced Dr. Rivers, the Program Manager for the Dallas County Health and Human Services STD, HIV and Epidemiology Program, whom she met in grad school, where the two grew close during role-playing of scary experiences in their lives.

Dr. Rivers then explained that in her role with Dallas County, she trains doctors and medical students how to do proper and patient-empowered pelvic exams on women, notably black women, while giving them a perspective on how the medical establishment has often treated black women as second-class citizens.

"I would like to share with you the serial type that happened to black women when it comes to sexuality," she said, referring to the assumptions made about women's sexuality. "The serial types began before slavery. Those serial types were part of the justification for slavery. Most people think these incidents happened during slavery but they actually happened to justify slavery when Europeans traveled to Africa and, to their excitement and disgust, they found African women to be hypersexual, insatiable, and felt like Black women weren't satisfied by Black men, and they used that to justify enslaving Africans... They looked at women scantily dressed—If you're on a continent that's 110 degrees, no, you don't want any clothes on; you want as little as necessary. They looked at the tribes where polygamy was permissible in Africa; it felt like Black women weren't satisfied by Black men and they used that to justify enslaving Africans.

"With that, there is a huge gap between what happened on the auction block and what happened in the sex shops when it comes to stereotypical images of Black women," she stated, adding that the TV series Bridgerton showcased some of the stereotypical views of "white purity" versus "Black purity," most notably that the show's one Black woman character was pregnant.

"We live in a society where respectability is the key to mobility," she assessed, "so if you're not respected, there's no mobility for you, especially for Black women. We have a Black vice-president. Do you think Kamala Harris would be vice-president if she had a number one hit song called Wet Ass Pussy? Absolutely not!"

Dr. Rivers continued to draw distinctions between how society views high-profile Black women like Harris and Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama, stating, "Nobody's picturing Oprah or Kamala sucking dick or eating pussy when the lights go out, so there's nothing about them that interrupts this imagery that people expect from women. And it's not just Black women; it's women, period. It's harder for Black women, but even white women need to have a level of respectability and purity to exist in this world, and if that doesn't happen, then we're not respected. We come from a space where Black and Brown women are viewed as hypersexual, promiscuous, oversexed, even to this day, and we enter into sexuality not owning our own sexuality. Sexuality is a phenomenon where women and girls should get to discover and develop who they are as a person, but we don't get to go into those spaces because we have this internal trauma or conditioning that we are supposed to be pure and organic, and if that doesn't happen, we're either marriage material or mattress material, and if you're not marriage material, then your success is limited. You either become rich and famous because you're pure or you become the slutty image concubine where whatever your movements are dictated based on your sexuality.

Dr. Rivers then gave some of her own background, growing up as a Black woman and being the "first out lesbian in my family," because of which she had to "deal with the stigma for generations. I grew up in a world where my grandmother never got to make friends with a white person. The first time my grandmother came to visit me when I moved up north, I was having study group with my friends that were in my Master's program, and she walked in and she saw white people and she said, 'What did you do?' Because if there was a white person in your home, then you were in trouble.

"When it comes to sexuality in adults, we struggle through the shame," she added. "The shame is incredible when it comes to women of color, we don't get to walk through this world with any privilege when it comes to our sexuality, even if we're straight women. To be a lesbian woman, to be a trans woman, it is incredibly difficult to navigate this space, and I want women of color to denounce what respectability means. I would love for Black and Brown women to repurpose the meaning of respectability, to restrict the notion that sexual expression is prized by repressing your sexuality. No woman should ever repress her sexuality. Whatever that means to you, own it, wear it, be brazen enough to say, 'I'm gonna fuck him and him and her and whoever doesn't like it, that's your business, it's not my business.'"

The final speaker was Dr. Lynn Comella, an Associate Professor of Gender and Sexuality Studies in the Department of Interdisciplinary Gender and Ethnic Studies at the University of Nevada, a much-published academic with whom Dr. Hartmann has had much contact and about whom she stated, "I don't even have a word that spans the importance of how she expresses herself that goes beyond passion, but she also fires me up and is so transparent in her beliefs, when I sometimes am feeling timid, I turn to Lynn to get that strength."

Dr. Comella began by noting that she wouldn't be conveying personal stories as her colleagues on the panel had done, but rather would be talking about porn, and in particular, pandemic porn.

"To turn back the clock a little bit, the week of March 9, 2020, was a turning point in the United States," she began. "It was the week that Disneyland closed for business, the NBA suspended its season and universities across the country began sending students home to finish their semesters remotely. By the week's end, Donald Trump would declare COVID-19 to be a national emergency, though infuriatingly, no national plan to combat the virus would ever materialize during his tenure. A new lexicon quickly emerged: PPE, essential workers, social distancing, flattening the curve, Zoom-bombing, quarantinis (which got me through the past ten months) and even pandemic porn. So fast-forward, a week after the pandemic was declared a national emergency, the Free Speech Coalition, which is the adult industry's trade association, called for an immediate voluntary production hold on all pornography that was filmed on set. It was the first time in the United States that porn production had halted for a reason other than sexually transmitted infection. Unlike other industries, however, there was no federal bailout money that was suddenly available or earmarked for pornography. The Free Speech Coalition activated, instead, an emergency fund to financially assist performers and crew. Pornhub donated a hefty sum to these efforts, and individual performer/producers also organized fundraising efforts on their individual webcam sites."

Dr. Comella went on to describe how various individuals and companies had done their part for pandemic relieve, donating goods and cash and noted that "Pornhub also offered free memberships to users worldwide in an effort to encourage people to stay home and socially distance." She also noted that the lockdown seemed to have "inspired performers to speak out against injustices in the industry, and began working to create systems of mutual aid, resource and skill-sharing more," including the formation of the Black, Indigenous, People of Color Adult Industry Collective (BIPOC-AIC) to combat systemic racism and wage disparity in the adult industry, and that group has been doing some really phenomenal work."

She also noted that it was in part because of the pandemic that mainstream media began paying more attention to the adult industry, noting some headlines such as "Everyone Is Making Porn At Home Now; Will The Industry Survive?" and The Washington Post even asked Dr. Comella herself to write commentary on the situation.

"So porn was indeed having a moment, it seemed, but what was really interesting to me as someone who has talked to many, many journalists, I found myself fielding questions from journalists who had no knowledge about the current organization of the adult industry," she revealed, "so I was fielding questions from journalists who, as I put it, were kind of drawing on a 'Boogie Nights-inspired' idea of the porn industry that hasn't been around for decades. It was as if they were just discovering for the very first time the existence of independent performer/producers who were creating and monetizing their own sexual content, often from their bedrooms. In the context of the pandemic, what was old was suddenly new again. These weren't new forms of labor or new forms of production, but they were presented as being new by a lot of the mainstream journalists who just didn't know much about the adult industry."

Dr. Comella then discussed the concept of the "porntrepreneur," which fellow academic Dr. Sophie Pezzutto defined as "internet entrepreneurs who are generating income from a range of activity beyond porn and using social media to market themselves."

"So what we have today is, even established adult performers who pre-pandemic were shooting on-set also now need side hustles to pay their bills," she continued, "and they're increasingly turning to the adult gig economy to earn income from multiple revenue streams, and those multiple revenue streams include things like camming, self-produced videos, subscriptions to online platforms such as OnlyFans and even sexting with fans or selling their used panties. Those are side hustles and many do this all at once. So in effect, we aren't living in an era where performers are simply performers; they're much more than that. Now performers are actually running small businesses that require a range of new skills, so they have to be responsive to changes in algorithms and payout models; they have to be technically savvy about operating various online platforms and apps, and they also have to be very, very self-disciplined about scheduling their own productions and mindful of their own personal brands and online personas...

"If all of that sounds exhausting, it really is," she continued. "I would say that in today's gig economy, there is no clocking in and clocking out; there's no clear delineation about when your workday starts and ends. For many adult performers, the demand to always be 'on' and provide fans with an intimate look into their everyday lives can be extremely labor-intensive and quite emotionally taxing—something that a number of sex workers who have migrated to cybersex during the pandemic acknowledge that they were not entirely prepared for."

She concluded by noting that the past year has taken its toll on adult performers and other sex workers, who have had to become quite creative in order to survive, but that "one of the positive outcomes of the mainstream media attention to the impact of COVID on sex workers is that more people are talking about sex work as work, and they're talking about sex workers as workers who actually count as essential workers. They're also discussing the need to compensate people fairly for the work that they do, and insuring that people have financial safety nets and, importantly, safe work places... I think it's created a greater space in our culture to talk about sex work as work and to talk about the current organization of the adult industry, which I think a lot of people weren't aware of because they were stuck in this kind of Boogie Nights era idea of how the porn industry was organized."

Dr. Comella also noted that she's been spending part of her pandemic lockdown "reading and listening to and consuming a lot of sex worker-made media and I think that is the place right now to get the best information about what this current moment has meant for sex workers," and advised listening to sex workers' podcasts—she mentioned a colloquium of sex workers of color at UC-Santa Barbara—and interviews with sex workers about how the pandemic has affected them.

With that, Dr. Hartmann brought the seminar to a conclusion, admitting that "I've learned some things that I was never aware of before, and I appreciate your participation... Whether or not we're talking about ancient history or whether we're talking about today... I come back to when I asked that question, 'Why do we do this? Why does it matter?' and all of you today answered that question: 'Because it tells the story of us,' and that's important enough."

To view the full panel, click here.