Sex & Relationships

Why I Didn't Get Turned on Going to a Major Sexpo

It’s a bit like finally discovering that fairy tales are not real.

Remote-control operated vibrators, impotency counselling, gigantic jacuzzis, vibrating genital rings, spinning sex swings, and a dizzying amount of cheap, made-in-China lace lingerie: from the erotic to the absurd, there was plenty for sale at Sydney’s Sexpo.

I’ve never visited a huge exhibition dedicated to sex, and I didn’t know what to expect. Would the visitors be shoddy individuals with wandering hands – the kind you meet in the subway, publicly masturbating as you take the second bite of your morning croissant?

As it turns out, I had little to worry about. According to the organisers, more than half of Sexpo’s visitors are women. There were, of course, a few individuals with whom I wouldn’t have a beer (more on that later), but the atmosphere was jovial and strangely politically correct: you find yourself smiling to strangers as you browse market stalls offering giant robotic dildos covered with glitter, and nod politely as exhibitors wearily explain for the hundredth time that yes, the content of their sexy showbags includes ribbed condoms and lubricant.

Sensuality and intimacy, however, were in short supply. I found this to be the most disheartening aspect of the exhibition, the final nail in the coffin of an entirely commodified sexuality. You go there to buy a life-size sex doll, giggle a little as you watch an all-male striptease cast, and buy overpriced food in between. After a while, everything looks strangely similar and devoid of excitement, or even shock value – a nipple ring is a nipple ring is a nipple ring.

I’m pretty liberal when it comes to sexual mores, and like many women raise an amused eyebrow at the silliness of novelty toys and the unimaginative scripts of most porn flicks. And my interest in second and third wave feminism means these days I fall on the side of sex workers, who want their work to be legal, taxed, and unionised, and their agency to be respected (although my views on the subject have changed over time).

But I still found it hard to be aroused by toys or performers that are so readily available: there’s no chase, no mystery, no crescendo. Everything can be yours, if you have money to spare, but why spend $27 on an entry ticket when you can buy the same from online shops – or join an online community to satisfy your exact desires and fantasies?

There were a few laughs, to be sure: the artist Pricasso, who paints your portrait “without using his hands”, worked in front of us as we picked up our jaws from the floor. “The man has a gift,” I whispered to my colleague, as we looked over his frighteningly accurate portraits.

Watching Pricasso practice his art was absurd, but meeting a glamour model, who had rented a booth ($2,000-$3,000 for the weekend) to “meet her fans” was uncomfortable work. Two sleazy men couldn’t hide their glee as they asked her to strip and touch her breasts. She obliged, willingly, but the sight was lugubrious – did she accept them fondling her in public because she enjoyed it, because she took it to be a grim but necessary part of her job, or because it would be rude to refuse? I couldn’t tell.

Not much at Sexpo turned me on. That is, of course, a largely personal issue. It is entirely possible that what I held to be “acceptable” or not was moulded not only by my gender and sexual orientation, but also my upbringing, or even my class. For example, I found those two men to be vulgar, but Dita Von Teese, or Bettie Page? To me, they’re brilliant. It’s the old dichotomy, of course: modern burlesque is perfectly fine for the middle classes to like (perhaps because of its politically subversive aspect), but getting a lap dance in a greasy strip joint is, as they say, “problematic”.

Burlesque claims the moral high ground because spectators tend to watch it as an art performance, and usually get the impression that performers are not being exploited (which is, of course, not always true). You’ll also find more women readily admitting to liking it than confessing to watching mainstream XXX movies.

This neatly brings me to porn stars Stoya and James Deen, who were at the Sexpo to meet fans and promote sex toys (including the Fleshlight, a popular male sex toy, modelled after Stoya’s private parts). Both actors have transcended preconceived ideas about adult movies, as droves of women and teenage girls readily admit to loving their films (if you’re in doubt, just check the many tumblr accounts dedicated to them).

Stoya, who moonlights as a talented op-ed writer for Vice and the New York Times, might have her natural elegance, charm and occasional fiery feminist tirades to thank for her dedicated female following. She’s everything 1990s porn stars were not: understated, obviously brainy, and perhaps most importantly of all, mysterious.

I asked her whether Sexpo was a good way to make sex less threatening to the general public. She agreed that it was a good entry to novelties and material for people who want it to be fun and like a party. But then, she added:

When I turned 18, I went to the nearest hole-in-the-hole adult book store ... you opened this door, and it was all blacked out, and I bought a copy of Penthouse, and the vendor put it in this brown paper bag, didn’t even look at me in the eye, and that was awesome. We need places such as Babelandand Good Vibrations to exist for people who want a bright, happy shiny [place to visit], but I’d take the brown paper bag situation any day.

If everything is so freely displayed, from breasts to dildos, does it not work to lift the taboo associated with sex entirely? It might be a good thing on paper, but does that not, in turn, make sex less exciting? Stoya’s story reminded me of a quote from Michel Foucault:

I would say that in the west, sexuality is not generally something about which people are silent and that must be kept secret, it is something one has to confess.

But what happens to our sexuality when we don’t have anything left to confess anymore? As the art of suggestion slowly dies, so does the magic of eroticism. It’s a bit like finally discovering that fairy tales are not real: the world feels more solid under our feet with everything exposed and out in the open, but inevitably, something is lost too. Perhaps there’s something to be said about a kind of sexy, dirty, scandalous intimacy that can only be shared with sexual partners, and can’t be sold in showbags with bonus lube.