Sex Panic in Pawtucket
The sex police are on patrol in Pawtucket, Rhode Island.
Megan Andelloux, a professionally certified sex educator with 8 years experience working as a sex educator for Planned Parenthood affiliates, was looking forward to the grand opening of her not-for-profit Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health in Pawtucket when she suddenly found herself in the middle of a firestorm. On the morning of September 15 she received a phone call from the Pawtucket Police Department telling her that a “concerned citizen had emailed members of the Pawtucket City Council, alerting them that a “sex center was coming to Pawtucket, a city of 72,000 located just outside of Providence.
“Hello, the email began, “A center for “sexual rights and “sexual pleasure is opening in Pawtucket. Included in the email was a link to the center’s website. Short, sweet, and intentionally vague, the email was enough to set off alarms among the city’s elected officials.
The police officer who called Andelloux that morning informed her that without proper zoning approval, the grand opening event, which included noted experts on human sexuality and a short burlesque performance, could not take place and the center itself could not legally operate in the city of Pawtucket.
As soon as Andelloux saw a copy of the email, which was forwarded to her at her request, she knew that the issue at hand was much bigger than her small, not-for-profit health and education center. Andelloux’s center, it seemed, was caught in a broader political maelstrom surrounding the regulation of prostitution and commercialized sexuality in Rhode Island.
The “concerned citizen behind the email to city councilors was Donna M. Hughes, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Rhode Island and a leading anti-prostitution and anti-sex trafficking advocate. Over the spring and summer months, Hughes was at the forefront of efforts to convince Rhode Island legislators to enact harsher laws aimed at combating sex trafficking and outlawing prostitution, including indoor prostitution, which was decriminalized in Rhode Island in 1980.
Andelloux testified in front of the Rhode Island Legislature in June to speak out against efforts to criminalize prostitution, which many opponents feared would lead to more arrests of women yet do little to address the issue of trafficking. In an op-ed piece published in the Providence Journal following the hearing, Hughes openly disparaged those who had shown up to oppose the legislation. Describing the hearing as a “sordid circus and a “carnival, she attacked speakers based on their appearance, the smell of cigarette smoke, and “other odors allegedly emanating from their bodies, successfully invoking a specter of disgust. She also deployed her penchant for using quotation marks to discredit those whom she perceives as her adversaries, referring to Andelloux as “a tattooed woman, calling herself a ˜sexologist and sex educator.’
Perhaps it felt like political payback to Hughes when she fired off the email to members of the Pawtucket City Council. Whatever her motivation\’genuine concern or something more nefarious\’she is an experienced enough political player (by her own account she has testified at hearings in the State House on a number of occasions) to realize that her email would likely result in an alarmist response sure to cause a headache, if not larger problems, for Andelloux and her center.
For those who lived through, or who are familiar with, the feminist sex wars of the 1970s and 80s, Hughes’ strategy of throwing the “enemy under the bus will ring eerily familiar. Indeed, there are elements of this story that resemble the unsavory tactics employed by anti-pornography feminists at the infamous Barnard Conference on female sexuality in 1982, where ideological divisions resulted in personal attacks on individual women whose positions on pornography, sex work, and other forms of so-called “deviant sexuality were at odds with the anti-pornography feminist platform, resulting in sharp divisions between supposedly “good and “bad feminists.
For Andelloux, the immediate issue was zoning. Zoning ordinances have become an effective strategy for regulating the location of adult businesses and policing public expressions of commercialized sexuality. In New York City, zoning was the lynchpin in the city’s efforts to “clean up the “seedier elements of Times Square in preparation for family-friendly Disney’s commercial occupation in the mid-1990s. Zoning ordinances typically require that adult arcades, bookstores, and video stores, for example, cannot be located within several hundred feet of schools, places of worship, or other adult businesses. In many locales, this means that adult businesses are exiled to the most desolate, and very often the most dangerous, fringes of cities and towns.
Unlike typical adult businesses, however, Andelloux’s center is not a retail venture; it is a not-for-profit sexuality education center that she describes as a cross between Planned Parenthood and a feminist sex toy store, a place where she plans to hold educational workshops and maintain a library of sexuality resources. But in contrast to feminist sex toy businesses, such as Good Vibrations and Babeland, which have longstanding missions of sexual education combined with a commercial imperative, Andelloux is not planning on selling any products. As a result, her center falls into a nebulous, gray area when it comes to zoning. If it is not an “adult business, what is it?
It was precisely this gray area that Andelloux found herself navigating in the days following the phone call from the Pawtucket Police Department. She met with zoning officials and city council members, several of whom toured her space, and she clarified for them that she would not be selling any adult products; she also cancelled the burlesque performance that was to be part of the grand opening, hoping that in doing so she might allay some of the city councilors’ concerns about the kind of establishment she was opening. Despite this, it was unclear to both Andelloux and those working in the zoning office what legal code her enterprise should be zoned under. Many visits to City Hall and many phone calls later, Andelloux was told she should apply for zoning as an “individual educator. She did. On September 18 she was informed by an official letter from the City of Pawtucket’s Zoning Department that her application had been denied because the building in downtown Pawtucket where she had leased her space was not zoned for “education.
It remains unclear what will happen next. In a meeting that took place in late September with Mayor James E. Doyle, which was also attended by the head of the Pawtucket’s Zoning Department, Ronald Travers, the Mayor made it clear that he did not think the city of Pawtucket would accept Andelloux’s center. But it is precisely because Andelloux has received so many requests from people in the community for a sexual education and resource center that she moved forward with her plans for the center in the first place.
Andelloux held her grand opening fete on September 26 as planned “ albeit at an alternative location. According to her, the event was a success: it was attended by approximately 200 people and there were no protesters. The event also raised $1,000, which will go toward offsetting her legal expenses. Andelloux has retained a lawyer who plans to challenge the city’s zoning decision. It is also highly probable that a public hearing will take place where members of the community can weigh in on how they feel about the center’s presence in their neighborhood.
The irony of all of this is that if Andelloux was in fact opening a feminist sex toy business, or even a more traditional adult business, this brouhaha may have been avoided. For it would have been clear from the outset what kind of zoning she would have needed to move forward with her venture and the city could have responded accordingly. There are few models, however, for what she is attempting to do: a not-for-profit enterprise dedicated to adult sexuality education and health. According to Andelloux, “The city has said to me that they don’t know what to do with me. If I was a retail store, they could zone me or not zone me, but because there is nothing on the books [that reflects the kind of business I am proposing], they don’t know what to do.
In an era overwhelmingly defined by abstinence-only education, which has created a generation of sexually illiterate adults, there is more need than ever for places like Andelloux’s Center for Sexual Pleasure and Health. But sex education, especially when it addresses questions of sexual pleasure, clearly remains an embattled issue, a cause for concern, and a source of moral panic for many “ even, in this case, when the target population is adults.
My hope is that once the powers that be in Pawtucket, and “concerned citizens such as Professor Hughes, realize that Andelloux’s center is exactly what she says it is “ a not-for-profit sexuality resource center with an educational mission “ and not a haven for child prostitutes and pimps, this ruckus will be put to rest and Andelloux can get on with the business of educating adults about how to get off in safe, consensual, and pleasurable ways.