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New Approaches to Understanding the Adult Industry

The final speaker in this session at ICA 2010 is Lynn Comella, whose focus is on adult entertainment - a global industry which is increasingly delineated by different interests and tastes, and one which is subject to high levels of criticism and antagonism. It has been underresearched so far, and policy decisions tend to be driven by moral outcries rather than evidence-based research. Communication research provides a robust framework here, but lags behind in its work on research into sexuality in general and adult entertainment in particular.

New markets in adult entertainment (not least the women's market) have recently emerged, and need to be studied; the circulation of texts and patterns of consumption here are complex and highly interesting. Of interest here is for example the 'good vibrations' model of adult retail and its proliferation across the industry. Such stores focus on women rather than men; they encourage sex positivity, openness, and education and take a clean and acceptable approach.

Such discourses are brought to the consumer through books, videos, DVDs, and interpersonal interaction with sales staff; this sells the mission of the stores as making the world a better place for sexually healthy people. Research into this phenomenon must move beyond ethnographic work in single, isolated locations and embrace a mobile, multi-sited model instead.

The emergence of these sex-positive stores has a history dating back to the 1970s, and there has been a concerted effort to change the discourse around sex stores and make the businesses intelligible to their consumers by positioning them as sexual resource centres. This has not been a value-free endeavour, of course, as it has relied on marking the boundary between crass and class, between healthy sexuality and sleaze; it has been instrumental in the development of the women's market for sex products.

Creating a comfortable and safe environment is crucial here; staff in such stores tend to see themselves as addressing 'the Marin County housewife' in California (upper middle class, white, respectable, interested in sex but dissatisfied with her experiences), and design the in-store experience accordingly - this establishes a different set of retail norms and markers for adult stores, and creates a shared understanding of 'tasteful' sexual activity.

This gives these stores a degree of moral authority in the marketplace, and also opens up new connections to the mainstream media (they come to speak for the industry at large, and against less palatable aspects of and operators in the industry). They are positioned by media and politicians as the acceptable form of adult businesses, and can profit from such positioning by gaining a better and more stable environment from which to operate.

Such stores are players in an effort to socially sanitise this market; they legitimate the industry and provide a transformation of sexual consciousness that is made intelligible and socially legitimate. This takes place in opposition to standard stereotypes of sexual business, and from this opposition it draws authority and social standing. We need more and better research on the adult industry, employing rigorous methods and taking into account the complex processes of textual production and consumption and their wider contexts.

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