As We See It

From ‘Fifty Shades’ to conversion therapy, a look at the year in sex

Sexual surrogacy took a turn in the spotlight in The Sessions.
Lynn Comella

2012 brought us the runaway success of Fifty Shades of Grey, the steamy trilogy that kept women all over the world up at night reading by the glow of their Kindles. The term “Rapepublican” became common parlance to describe an outspoken contingent of politicians who put foot in mouth on an almost weekly basis by claiming, among other things, that some girls, “they rape so easy.” Same sex marriage bills saw success at the ballot boxes in Maine, Maryland, Minnesota and Washington, and Wisconsin’s Tammy Baldwin became the first openly gay person elected to the U.S. Senate. And on the big screen there was The Sessions, a tender story about poet Mark O’Brien, who, paralyzed from the neck down by polio, discovered his capacity for sexual intimacy with the help of a sex surrogate. Here’s a roundup of other sex-related stories that made headlines in 2012.

The porn condom law: One of the biggest news items of the year was the passage of Measure B in LA County, requiring porn performers to wear condoms on set and to apply for a permit from the Department of Public Health to shoot scenes. The measure was roundly opposed by adult industry professionals, who weren’t asked for input and who argued that the measure represented government overreach into an industry with a proven track record of monitoring and maintaining the sexual health of its performers. Plans to challenge the law are already in motion, but in the meantime, many wonder how it will be enforced and whether it will result in adult film companies relocating their businesses elsewhere. If so, is Vegas ready to roll out the red carpet and become the new Porn Valley?

The American Psychiatric Association rejects “sex addiction”—again: One entry you won’t find in the recently updated, fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders—the “bible” of mental health categories—is “sex addiction.” The APA once again rejected classifying sex addiction as a mental disorder on the grounds that the diagnosis lacks credible scientific basis. According to psychologist David J. Ley, the decision was a wise one. As he explained in Psychology Today, including the diagnosis among the pantheon of mental disorders would confer upon it a legitimacy that would allow the sex addiction industry to “bill insurance companies, would allow the pharmaceutical companies to market libido-suppressing drugs as treatment for sex addiction and would give some appearance of credibility to those folks who get in trouble for sexual behaviors, and either cry ‘I’m a sex addict,’ or get labeled as one by the media.” Sex addiction is not a real disorder, Ley contends; rather, it’s “a morally-based concept that reflects our society’s conflicted feelings about sex.”

Gay “conversion therapy”: In October, California Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a ban on a controversial form of therapy intended to turn gay kids straight, claiming it belongs in “the dustbin of quackery.” The American Psychological Association has long expressed doubts about the efficacy of “reparative therapy” at any age, claiming that it perpetuates the idea that homosexuality is a disease. Earlier this year, a noted psychiatrist recanted a study he conducted a decade ago that lent support to the idea that homosexuality can be cured, and the World Health Organization released a report describing the therapy as “a serious threat to the health and well-being—even the lives—of affected people.” Despite these concerns, conversion therapy still has its fair share of proponents and practitioners. Although a federal judge has cleared the way for the law to take effect in January, lawsuits challenging the ban—some by groups claiming it restricts free speech—have already been filed.

Porn actresses and the “damaged goods” hypothesis: Myths abound about women who work in the porn industry, namely that they are “damaged goods” with histories of drug addiction, psychological problems and childhood sexual abuse. In reality, though, we know little about the personality characteristics of porn actresses. A recent study published in the Journal of Sex Research set out to remedy this. A team of researchers surveyed 177 porn actresses and compared them to a group of non-porn participants matched on the basis of age, marital status and ethnicity. What they found might surprise some. Porn actresses had higher levels of self-esteem, positive feelings, social support, sexual satisfaction and spirituality compared to the matched group. They identified as bisexual at a higher rate, first had sex at an earlier age, had more sexual partners, were more concerned about contracting STDs and enjoyed sex more than the matched sample. Researchers also found no difference in the incidence of childhood sexual abuse between the two groups, although porn actresses were more likely to have experimented with drugs. They concluded there was not sufficient evidence to support the stereotypes attributed to porn actresses, including the “damaged goods” hypothesis.

Spearmint Rhino dancers win class action lawsuit: In an important victory for sex worker rights, a federal court in October approved a whopping $12.9 million settlement in a nationwide class action lawsuit initiated by dancers at Spearmint Rhino Gentlemen’s Clubs. The dancers claimed that they were wrongly treated as independent contractors rather than employees entitled to benefits. They also alleged unfair tip-sharing practices that required them to share their tips with DJs, doormen and other club employees. According to Jennifer Reed, a Ph.D. student at UNLV and a sex worker rights activist, the win “is significant because it reinforces that erotic labor is real service work that deserves to be compensated fairly.” Reed also says she hopes the victory will generate “greater awareness in the sex worker community of the importance to further organize for the human, labor and civil rights for all who perform erotic labor.”

Lynn Comella is a Women’s Studies professor at UNLV.
Tags: News, Opinion

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