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Sex Sells…Why?

I certainly don’t need to tell people in the sex industry that sex sells. Everything from burgers to bronzer to actual sex is sold through erotic imagery and the promise of intimacy. There are some people who derogatively refer to the commercial sexualization of everyday life as the “pornification” of our culture—that is, they critique the mainstreaming of porn-like imagery in our culture.

Others, however, see the mainstreaming of sex and sexuality as an opportunity to reject punitive moral codes. People like that—indeed, people like me—think that moral codes are often used to oppress large numbers of people who engage in taboo or otherwise stigmatized sexual behavior. Either way, the commercial sexualization of everyday life has become ubiquitous and seemingly irrepressible. In fact, in 2006, global pornography revenues reached 96 billion dollars. Sex sells, but why?

Survey data from the last fifty years show an increased acceptance of women’s sexual agency, sex outside of marriage, homosexuality, and sexual pleasure in general. The U.S. national General Social Survey shows increasing acceptance of premarital sex and homosexual sex. Similarly, Gallup polls show a majority of Americans morally accept same-sex relations. Furthermore, the sex industry has become increasingly durable, profitable, and respectable. Strip clubs, sex toyshops, and porn stores, as examples, are moving from seedy alleys and dusty highway hangouts into more public view. Complete with logos and propelled by well-researched marketing campaigns, brand name adult stores and chain strip clubs have become a fixture in many U.S. cities and communities.

Haute ShotsGrowing in tandem with more relaxed views of sex and sexuality is the proliferation of a global service industry. Technological growth has enabled consumption, not production, to become the economic engine. We now sell more services and, increasingly, leisure, escape and adventure. Tourism is now the world’s largest employer. Work has moved out of factories and into homes, where people hold part-time, independently contracted jobs. Many jobs in new service sectors involve selling core aspects of human relations and emotions like sexual and erotic services, among others.

In this context, we see two important trends affecting the commercial sexualization of everyday life: the rapid growth in the size and scope of the commercial sex industry across the globe and a general mainstreaming of the industry.

As a testament to the mainstreaming of the sex industry, Nevada has a number of business associations across the state that deal with adult businesses. Two of the most notable include the Nevada Brothel Association, housed in Reno, and the Sin City Chamber of Commerce in Southern Nevada. They now have around 500 members, including LGBTQ friendly entertainment businesses. Moreover, brothels have attempted to corner the market on hetero women by employing male sex workers. Many female providers also see female clientele, which allows hetero, bisexual, and questioning women to explore their sexuality with greater fervor.

For many people, the mainstreaming of the commercial sexualization of everyday life goes beyond tasteless Burger King advertisements. It allows for the kinds of fluid sexual identities and experimentations so often stigmatized by traditional sexual mores. While some see “pornification” as inherently sexist, many find liberation in the ability to explore sexuality. To paraphrase Pat Califia, even a just society could not eliminate paying for pleasure. Sex, even then, would still sell.

Jenny Heineman is co-author of Sex Industry and Sex Workers in Nevada  with Rachel MacFarlane and Barbara G. Brents. 2012.The Social Health of Nevada: Leading Indicators and Quality of Life in the Silver State, edited by Dmitri N. Shalin. Las Vegas, NV: UNLV Center for Democratic Culture.

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