Sex Summit Interview Series: Lynn Comella
We’re all getting excited about the upcoming Sex Summit and it’s been a real treat to get a preview of some of our speakers. I met Lynn Comella when she came to San Francisco to research Good Vibrations as part of her doctoral dissertation. She’s always has fascinating things to say about sex, gender, porn, feminism, the media, and sexual politics.
1) What effect do you think media and pop culture have when it comes to influencing people’s ideas about sex, love and relationships?
When I teach classes on gender, sexuality, and popular culture one of the biggest challenges I face, at least at the start of the semester, is getting students to think about media and popular culture as more than just forms of entertainment designed to amuse them, distract them, make them laugh. Pop culture is entertaining, sure, but it’s also a system of meaning-making that teaches us what the world is like, how it should work, and who we should be. So media messages in the form of television, film, magazine, music, etc. are powerful and instructive – whether we are conscious of it or not. And this is certainly true when it comes to messages about sex and love, relationships and pleasure.
Two examples of this come to mind. The first involves HBO’s Sex and the City, a show that I purposefully ignored for the first few years it aired. This changed when I was doing fieldwork for my Ph.D. dissertation at sex toy retailer Babeland in NYC in the early 2000s. At least once a week women – and men – would come into the store asking explicitly for the vibrator they’d seen on Sex and the City, the Rabbit. It was so predictable I could almost set my watch to it. And most of the time these were women who had never used a vibrator before in their lives; but the conversations about female sexual pleasure and agency that were taking place on the show, piqued their curiosity, and seemed to give them permission to explore their sexuality, buy their first vibrator, and, in some instances I am sure, discover what it felt like to have an orgasm for the first time. Critiques of the show aside – and there are plenty to make – that’s some pretty powerful stuff.
A similar thing seems to be happening around the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, which I recently wrote about for Las Vegas Weekly. Whether you love the books or loathe them, the reality is that more than 40 million have been sold worldwide, and when something is that popular, it is really worth paying attention to. What I learned during the course of writing that column is that the Fifty Shades economy – from Fifty Shades of Grey themed getaways to the sale of “pleasure beads” – is booming. I talked with a number of sex toy retailers who are seeing new customers and big increases in sales. They are incorporating Fifty Shades into their marketing schemes, and, in some instances, they can’t keep products mentioned in the books on their shelves.
So in the case of both Sex and the City and Fifty Shades, we see people – especially women – doing things with popular texts, and using them as jumping off points to give themselves greater permission to explore their sexuality. That’s nothing to scoff at.
2) Are there any celebrities you see offering different examples of sex, love, or relationships? What effects do you see them having?
I actually asked my students this question, because I was really interested in what they, as 18 year olds, had to say about the role that celebrities, and celebrity culture, play in their lives. Would they point to Kim Kardashian and the cast of Jersey Shore as influences, or not? Who do they admire and why? A number of students were quick to dismiss the Kardashians. And the cast of Jersey Shore didn’t fare too well, either. (One student described Jersey Shore as a show about nothing more than hook-up culture, which I thought was pretty interesting.)
Instead, my students pointed to people like Ellen DeGeneres and Neil Patrick Harris as people who are modeling for them alternative relationships and family configurations outside the bounds of heteronormativity. What this signals to me is that it continues to be important for GLBT celebrities to come out of the closet, and be open about their love interests and families, because that level of visibility is important for young people, many of whom are struggling to come out themselves, or figure out what the world of love, sex, and romance looks like for them.
3) Social media, reality TV, and the internet have done a lot to change pop culture and what fame means. How have you seen that shape sexuality?
That’s a really good question. I recently had a conversation with a colleague at another university who is doing some really interesting research on hook-up culture, and our conversation made me think about the nexus of reality TV and sexuality. The research my friend is doing is for a documentary film project, so the in-depth interviews that she’s conducting are being videotaped. My colleague, who has previously done some really interesting research on young women’s sexuality, told me that she was really surprised by just how willing and comfortable the college-aged individuals she is interviewing are when it comes to talking in detail about their sex lives – the good, the bad, and the ugly – on camera. She’s observed little-to-no concern on their part about how their images or stories might be used and who might see them, including family members and future employers.
My friend was a bit unsettled by this. But if we think about the genre of reality TV and the degree to which young people see others living their lives openly and without apology on camera, it kind of makes sense. They’ve grown up in a world where people narrate their hookups, heartbreaks, pregnancies, and divorces for a viewing audience of millions. So for young people today, the idea of the “confessional” is in fact quite normal. That’s simply what you do when you are placed in front of a camera: you confess, you say what you think, you tell the world. So the story my friend told me about the level of comfort she witnessed from her interviewees, who were talking about some pretty intimate stuff, made a lot of sense, because the idea of “living on camera” is increasingly normalized in our culture.
4) What are you looking forward to most about the Sex Summit? What’s one thing you’d like to see come out of the event?
I’ve been excited about the Sex Summit for months. I’m really looking forward to being part of the various conversations that will take place throughout the day, seeing old friends, and meeting new ones. I have a bit of a “writer’s crush” on Tracy Clark-Flory, who is one of my favorite sex writers, so I’m thrilled to be on a panel with her. But more than anything, I am excited to be part of such a great mix of people – sex educators, activists, writers, therapists and scholars – who are doing really important work in the area of sexuality. I must say, Good Vibrations has done a terrific job organizing this event.
5) Can you tell us about any of your upcoming projects? How can people find out more about you?
I’m working hard at the moment to put the finishing touches on book that examines the history and retail culture of feminist sex toy stores in the US. It’s been long in the making, but hopefully it will be coming to a bookstore near you in the not too distant future. I also have a chapter in the Feminist Porn Book, which is edited by feminist superpowers Tristan Taormino, Constance Penley, Mireille Miller-Young and Celine Parrenas-Shimizu, and is due out in February. And of course, anyone who is interested can read my monthly column on sexuality and culture in Las Vegas Weekly.
Plus, I tweet. @LynnComella
Are you coming to the Sex Summit? We’re hosting a one-day conference, full of amazing speakers, fascinating panel discussions, and more! Plus, your ticket gets you a seat at the Quickies, our erotic short film competition on October 26 at the Castro Theater, and the post-Summit cocktail party. Get your ticket before they sell out!