America Unzipped: In Search of Sex and Satisfactionby Brian Alexander
Welcome to the America we don’t usually talk about, a place where that nice couple down the street could be saddling up for “pony play,” making and selling their own porn DVDs, or hosting other couples for a little flogging. As award-winning journalist Brian Alexander uncovers, fringe experimentation has gone suburban. Soccer moms, your accountant, even your own parents could be turning kinky.
Stunned by the uninhibited questions from ordinary people on his msnbc.com column, “Sexploration” (“My wife and I have heard that a lot of couples in their thirties are playing strip poker . . . as well as skinny-dipping with other couples/friends. Any idea if this is a fashionable trend or has it been going on for some time and we never knew it?” or “I am interested in bondage and hear that there are secret bondage clubs someplace. Can you help me find them?”), Brian Alexander was driven to understand Americans’ desire to get down and dirty—especially in an era where conservative family values dominate.
To find out what people are really doing—and why a country that suffered a national freak- out over Janet Jackson’s breast was enthusiastically getting in touch with its inner perv—Alexander set out on a sexual safari in modern America. Whether mixing it up at a convention of fetishists, struggling into his own pair of PVC pants for a wild night at a sex club, being tutored on dildos by a nineteen-year-old supervisor while working in an adult store, or learning the surprising ways of Biblical sex from an evangelical preacher, Alexander uses humor and insight to reveal a sexual world that is quickly redefining the phrase “polite society.”
Gonzo journalism at its funniest and kinkiest, America Unzipped is a fascinating cultural study and an eye-popping peek into the lives of people you’d least expect to find tied up and wearing latex.
One Dozen Things to Avoid When Exploring American Sex
1. Asking an enthusiastic devotee to explain cock-and-ball torture while standing within arm’s length.
2. Assuming an evangelical Christian will not be familiar with the term “69.”
3. Incredibly tight PVC pants.
4. Trying to become the first male sex toy home party salesman in Missouri.
5. Standing too close to bondage models without wearing overalls and safety goggles.
6. Insisting that Dan Quayle would never invest in porn.
7. Displaying a look of surprise when a grandmother discusses the risk of removing a dildo from a microwave oven.
8. Admitting your sex vocabulary is smaller than an eighth grader’s.
9. Explaining the difference between “cream pie” and “gonzo” to a suburban mom shopping for her son’s birthday sex DVDs.
10. Trying to interview a naked submissive locked on a cage.
11. Expecting answers about sex from a six-foot-tall pink rabbit.
12. Thinking that porn kings could not possibly have Ivy League degrees and run charitable foundations.
From the Hardcover edition.
The Washington Post
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
Here are two rather different approaches to exploring contemporary sexual practices. In America Unzipped, journalist Alexander travels the country meeting perfectly ordinary people who sell sex toys, create amateur porn, or immerse themselves in bondage or fetish cultures. Along the way, he takes a job at a sex superstore in Tempe, AZ; accompanies a Passion Parties consultant to house parties in Shawnee, KS; and (in a particularly explicit chapter that may disturb some readers) spends a day observing BDSM porn videos being created in San Francisco. Alexander notes the uneasy but possibly symbiotic coexistence of social/religious conservatism and sexual adventurousness, which both nurture their communities by self-defining as countercultural. Though himself a sex columnist (for MSNBC's "Sexploration"), Alexander identifies as "vanilla" and seems initially nonplussed at so much sex of such a kinky variety. His narrative persona may comfort some readers and annoy others, but his willingness to go where his research leads him (short of participation) is to be admired regardless.
Sociologist Bogel's is a qualitative, interview-based study of the sexual experiences of undergrads and recent alumni of two colleges. It contrasts the boy-asks-girl-out "dating script," once a mainstay of the collegiate social scene but now relegated to high school and adulthood, with the now-dominant practice of "hooking up" in which people in group settings such as bars and parties pair off for no-strings-attached experiences varying from kissing to intercourse. Bogle notes that hooking up benefits those interested primarily in immediate sexual gratification and not those looking for a sustainedrelationship. She concludes that despite many changes from the dating era to the hooking-up era, including increased sexual freedom for women, a double standard benefiting men continues to prevail. Contrasting with Alexander's informal findings, Bogle also notes that sexual activity on campus is less rampant and promiscuous than many observers (including college students) presume. So is everyone else really doing it, and how and with whom? We still don't know, but we know more than we did before. Both books are recommended; Bogle's is of greater interest in academic settings and Alexander's for tolerant general audiences. [For Alexander, see Prepub Alert, LJ9/15/07.]
Janet Ingraham Dwyer
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
—Marty Klein, Ph.D., sex therapist and author of America’s War on Sex
“Eye-openingly smart . . . Picking up where Sallie Tisdale’s Talk Dirty to Me left off in the ’90s, Brian Alexander’s America Unzipped appreciatively unpacks our culture’s last remaining sexual taboos. (Apparently, we’ve still got a few!)”
—Genevieve Field, cofounder of Nerve.com
“Alexander has written a book that reflects our next sexual revolution and goes behind the scenes to put a human face on this most recent development in our journey toward sexual enlightenment.”
—Barbara Keesling, Ph.D., author of The Good Girls’ Guide to Bad Girl Sex and Sexual Healing
“Entertaining, funny, shocking, smart, provocative, and extremely thoughtful . . . Alexander gains entry into some of the most bizarre worlds—think Alice in Wonderland meets Dante’s ‘Inferno’—and takes us along for the ride.”
—Candida Royalle, erotic film director and author of How to Tell a Naked Man What to Do
“With humor and curiosity, Alexander creates a powerful and entertaining look at what is really going on in the American bedroom—and sex club and adult store and even church—and demands we think about how to move ahead to create a sexually healthier society."
—Eli Coleman, Ph.D., editor of the International Journal of Sexual Health
“A clearheaded and open-minded look at the sexual revolution’s final stage.”
"A swift, smooth, contemplative and frequently hilarious travelogue through America's surprisingly mainstream nether regions."
—Arthur Salm, Books Editor, San Diego Union-Tribune
“[Alexander’s] voice is sensible, humorous and largely unbiased, even when he is aghast.”
“Navigating each episode with both humor and reflection, Alexander see exhilarating liberation but also a kind of ‘kitschy banality’: Where’s the excitement when our thrills are no longer taboo?”
“Scintillating…The author's thoughtful observations on the need for contact at all costs in an increasingly virtual society ring true.” —The Washington Post
“For anyone curious about the state of sexuality in America, this smart, intriguing tour will scratch your (intellectual) itch.” —Publishers Weekly
“Engaging….The point Alexander…drive[s] home is that sexual repression and explosions of sexual ‘deviance’ need each other to exist, and tend to flourish in society simultaneously. While adult sex shops are undergoing a Costco-style corporate homogenization in order to better seduce mainstream suburbia, right-wing social policies are ostensibly trying to stuff the post-Goldwater sexual revolution back into its girdle.” —San Diego Union-Tribune
"Alexander himself is at least as interesting as the people he observed and interviewed...America Unzipped is entertaining. Alexander has a gift for narrative, and he' s not afraid to put himself in the story."
From the Hardcover edition.
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The Sex Mogul of Hillsborough, North Carolina
I Explore Phil Harvey's Empire
Pleasure is so difficult to come by in this culture. I say fight for your right to enjoy your porn, your sexual fantasies, your masturbation and your orgasms.
-Betty Dodson, 2003
He may just have been trying to shock me, but out of the blue, over breakfast, he asked what I thought about threesomes," Kathy Brummitt told me of a conversation she had with her fifteen-year-old son. Kathy is a forty-something brunette from central North Carolina with a short, sensible haircut, a little extra middle-aged weight, and a soft lilt to her voice. She resembles my Catholic-high-school Latin teacher, the one I used to torment by choosing to read aloud Roman narratives about bathhouse prostitutes and by displaying Roman good-luck drawings of erections.
So normally it would have been easy for me to picture Kathy dropping a spoon into her heart-healthy Cheerios, grabbing her minivan keys, and dragging her son to school to demand the principal explain just what kind of education the kid was receiving. But I was having a tough time imagining Kathy's kitchen, because just as she launched into the details of how she handled this ticklish mothering challenge, I became preoccupied with a pretty brunette sitting naked and open-legged in a love swing.
A scrawny middle-aged guy with thinning black hair had his hands on the two straps attaching the swing to the ceiling of a dreamlike darkened room. He was naked, too, and gently pushing the swing back and forth about six inches at a time as he watched his erection slide in and out of the brunette. She, meanwhile, was wearing a big, satisfied smile. Though the scene on the video monitor just over Kathy's shoulder was running without sound, it had the effect of turning Kathy's voice into so much white noise. I thought I heard her say, "So I asked him why he wanted to know," but I couldn't be sure because-really-I was very impressed by the precision measurements that must have been involved in setting up the swing.
Think about it: What are the chances you could hang a swing from your ceiling while factoring in the critical height differential between a hard and a flaccid penis, the weight of the person in the swing, and a dozen other variables, without making multiple trips to Home Depot? How were those calculations made? Did they consult a carpenter? Was a laser device involved?
Meanwhile, Kathy was chattering away like a concerned PTA mom, seemingly oblivious to the video sex going on right behind her. "And it turned out that a friend of his wanted to have a threesome with my son's girlfriend and his girlfriend . . ."
I tried paying attention to Kathy, but now I couldn't help counting all the reasons why, and I mean never in a hundred million years, I could never have broached this subject with my mother.
"He really said this to you?" I asked, interrupting the story. "I mean, you two actually discussed threesomes?"
The guy on the video screen started moving the swing a little faster, bending his knees as if bearing down on a difficult task.
"Yes, of course," she said.
Then he arched his neck and stood up straight as if struck by lightning. His butt cheeks clenched. Apparently the love swing worked.
"And so then I asked him, 'Well, what do you think of threesomes?' I didn't want to appear shocked at all because I think he was testing me, though I do appreciate that he felt free to approach me with such a question, and he said, 'It might be okay.'"
Most mothers would have become hysterical at this point in the conversation, but not Kathy Brummitt. Thinking about threesomes is part of her job. I didn't realize it at first, but Kathy was manning a convention exhibit booth for an outfit called the Sinclair Intimacy Institute, and as I soon learned, she was the director of production on the love swing video, and others, too, for Sinclair, based in the unlikely location of Hillsborough, North Carolina. In other words, it's her job to hire people to have sex, hire other people to film those people having sex, and make sure the whole production looks classy.
"So you make porn."
Kathy smiled. No, she said, she doesn't consider this porn. She knows porn, and porn doesn't look or sound like this. This is education, erotic how-to, an exploration of fantasies and techniques that can forge a deeper bond between loving couples. The way she said all this made the love-swing video sound almost medicinal.
Besides, she argued, the movies she helps create are produced by Sinclair for its Better Sex series, those DVDs and tapes advertised in sports sections of newspapers all over the country, in women's magazines, even in highbrow publications like the New York Times Book Review and the Atlantic. The ads feature attractive people in each other's arms apparently in the beginnings of foreplay. They are who we would like to be, or at least who we wish our lovers would be. This kind of product, Kathy told me, is far removed from the pizza-delivery-boy-meets-horny-housewife world of porn.
To me, Kathy was one of the more interesting people at the sexology convention, which, as far as I was concerned, was mostly a bust. I had gone because I had my questions and thought perhaps I could get most of them answered in two or three days of PowerPoint presentations. There were seminars and symposia and lectures from Women Going Topless on the Red Mile During the Stanley Cup Playoffs, Calgary, May-June, 2004, to Sex with Animals on the Caribbean Coast of Columbia (76 percent of adolescent boys do it, apparently, usually with a "she-ass"). But an awful lot of the dialogue was opinionated and political and not really about why so many of my readers wanted to know if it would be a good idea to have sex in a car for the entertainment of passing truckers.
One researcher's poster did address a question somebody had once asked me. My reader wanted to know about bukkake. I had never heard of bukkake, so I looked it up, promptly dismissed it as urban legend, and never answered. But as the poster explained, bukkake "is a Japanese term that refers to showering a receiver, male or female, with semen from one, several, or many men." I had seen porn and so I had seen the facial "cum shot," but according to the poster, bukkake was neither urban legend nor a pornography trope. It had "spread across the globe and . . . has gone from cult-like status to an accepted sexual practice." There were now organized bukkake groups that "have generated several popular schools and techniques" of bukkake practice and that have brought bukkake into the sexual "mainstream."
Though I was grateful for such bits of information, I preferred talking with Kathy because she was not a sexologist or a sexuality theorist. She was giving people what she said they wanted-more information on how to expand their sex lives in any number of ways, with any number of accessories. Still, I half expected her to be apologetic. Kathy just didn't fit the part of somebody who works in the sex industry. But she is proud, she said. Kathy believes that helping people find more and better sex is a noble purpose. She is a middle-class mom whose concern for others is expressed by making sex videos.
The DVDs seemed popular among the sex therapists, psychologists, and sociologists. Several stopped by as Kathy and I talked. They like the idea of visual aids, they said, because there is now so much curiosity out in the big world away from sexology conferences. People are asking questions they never asked before. Hearing answers from a therapist in an office about how to slide a butt plug into your ass or how to use your tongue on a woman's clitoris is a far less amusing experience than watching a well-made video with folks who look like more attractive versions of your neighbors.
"We're very successful," Kathy said. "We sell to people all over the country. Big cities, small towns, Midwest, South, West, everywhere."
When I asked her if it isn't difficult to find couples to perform for her, especially considering that the videos didn't seem to hire pros with porn-star names like Allysin Chaynes, she said no.
"It's not really hard at all." Some are indeed porn-industry wannabes, "but most are just couples who like having sex in front of cameras." Kathy had a way of making this sound like taking the dog for a walk. "And thank God for them. They help us promote better sexual health, better relationships."
Kathy made her work seem practically altruistic, but she is not exactly employed by a sexier version of the Maryknoll Sisters. Sinclair is a division of PHE, Phil Harvey Enterprises, of Hillsborough, a porn and sex toy empire founded by, naturally, Phil Harvey.
Despite her insistence that she was exactly what I had thought her to be-a mom, a businesswoman, a churchgoer-despite the way she regarded her work as being as American as the Wal-Mart greeter, I had to ask how others living in the geographical heart of the nation's evangelical revival react to her job. Do they stop her in the produce aisle at Food Lion to inquire how the dildo scene worked out that day? Or do they hug their child close and dash over to canned soups?
"We've all had the 'What do I tell my mother?' moment," she replied, referring to how she and her coworkers explain their careers to friends and family in North Carolina. "But everyone accepts that this is a job I love and that we do a lot of good for people."
"So how did you solve the threesome dilemma?" I asked. Her face lit up with the triumph of mothers everywhere who respond with, "If Jimmy jumped off the bridge, would you do it, too?"
"I just asked him, 'Well, how would you feel if your girlfriend wanted to be with you and another boy?'
"He said, 'Ewww! That'd be really gross. No way!' And so I said, 'I think there's your answer,' and that ended his flirtation with threesomes."
Yes, well, having once been a fifteen-year-old boy I was not quite as confident as Kathy that her kid's flirtation with threesomes was over for good. Actually, I couldn't help feeling a little sorry for him. He is being robbed of one of the three ways kids have to persecute parents. Other than drugs or absurdly fast cars with questionable provenance, sex is supposed to be the great tool of teen tormentors. Most wouldn't even have to come close to suggesting a three-way to send Mom dashing for the Valium. At least that's the way it was when I was a kid. Of course, none of us had a mom who was the Harvey Weinstein of sex.
"You ought to come down and see us," Kathy said cheerily as we parted. "We're just regular folks."
Which is how I have come to be sitting in Kathy's office surrounded by sex videos and dildos and talking about Jesus Christ. "He is my Lord and Savior," Kathy tells me. That is exactly the sort of statement that brought me here. Kathy seems to be a rich stew of apparent contradiction and the more I thought about traveling to PHE, the more I thought it might provide insight into what was going on around the country and who or what was making it happen.
PHE is the largest online and mail-order sex retailer in America, possibly the world, selling to over ten million customers. It comprises several divisions. The Sinclair Institute positions itself as the progressive, high-minded instructor in sexual happiness. Since 1994, it has sold over four million copies of its Better Sex videos. Its raunchy big sister, Adam and Eve, earns the bulk of the corporate income by selling sex toys, porn DVDs, and cheap lingerie. Adam Male markets to gay men. A video-on-demand arm sells streaming porn online. PHE also has a growing chain of retail store franchises. Adam and Eve Productions is a pornography powerhouse that finances and distributes over one hundred movies per year. Exactly how much money the entire company makes is impossible to know; it is privately held by Harvey and a few close associates. But sales in 2006 amounted to somewhere north of $109 million.
Sinclair is located apart from the rest of PHE in an office park of redbrick buildings vaguely resembling southern plantation architecture. Kathy drives to work, and most every morning she prays while she drives, giving thanks for a new day because it will present her with another opportunity to help people. She is descended from tobacco farmers who believed what they read in the Bible and they read that all people are equal before the eyes of God whether a body is white, black, or green. Everyone, they believed, is to be treated as you would wish them to treat you. Sometimes, during the days when Kathy was growing up, that created a little friction with neighbors who didn't always agree and that friction taught her that one did not always have to live by the prevailing thinking.
After college, Kathy became a buyer at Thalhimer's. For nearly a century, that venerable Virginia department store was an anchor to Richmond's downtown social and civic life. But then, like all other regional department stores, it succumbed to the merging giants of retail and the malling of America.
She wasn't looking to work in the adult industry; things just turned out that way. Kathy is a family person, the kind of woman who makes sweet potato pudding for Thanksgiving. (Long after I have left North Carolina, she will send me a recipe for chess pie, a heart attack on a plate worth dying for.) So she used to commute often from Virginia back home to North Carolina and when a girlfriend told her about a job opening at PHE, she saw it as a chance to come home for good.
Her story makes for a nice American homespun tale, but when I look around the room it is tough to reconcile the penises and porn and the "Jesus is my Lord and Savior" so I ask, "Uh, Kathy, you don't find all this a little strange?"
"Some people would find it strange, where I work, but I see no disconnect at all. Jesus may have lots of thoughts about how some people choose to use sex. But my personal mission fits nicely into Sinclair's vision of helping people."
This is the Sinclair mantra. I am in Hillsborough for most of three days and over and over again I am told about how they help others. From executives and employees at both Adam and Eve and Sinclair, I hear the phrase permission giving.
From the Hardcover edition.
Meet the Author
BRIAN ALEXANDER is an award-winning contributing editor at Glamour magazine and writes the “Sexploration” column for msnbc.com. His six-part online series, “America Unzipped,” received more than one million viewers per month. He lives in San Diego, California.
From the Hardcover edition.
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