The “Sin Tax”

When I was a kid, I never really understood why my dad would get so upset over taxes. He either groused about new taxes, or — because he was a school teacher — worried that the local tax base would be defeated. As I got older and began to pay taxes myself, I never begrudged those that went to social programs (though I sure wish the Army had to hold bake sales to buy guns and ammo, and their cookies had damn well better be the best ever).

Until now, that is. A new piece of legislation here in California, just killed yesterday in the Legislature, would have imposed a new 5% sales and excise tax on adult entertainment products and services (this rather vague phrase means, at the very least, books, magazines, recordings, videos, phone sex services, and live performances featuring nudity). Proceeds from the tax would have been earmarked for programs serving victims of domestic or sexual violence. Now, I want to see programs like that get healthy funding so that their important work gets done. But taxing adult products services above and beyond all other sorts of products and services is not the way to do it.

Why not? Because this was essentially a “sin tax” — levied on a particular category of products in part to punish their purveyors and consumers. Adult products and services would thus be linked, never mind how speciously, to a variety of social ills as if the products themselves caused or exacerbated sexual and relational violence. There’s no credible evidence that there is any such link, though the anti-pornography movement has long suggested there is; in fact, some social scientists argue that sexually anti-social behavior may be related more to insufficient exposure to sex information and sexually explicit material.

This hits close to home for us at Good Vibrations, because much of what we sell would be taxable under this law. All our toys, all our videos, and perhaps half of our books would fall under the definition of “adult entertainment products.” Were we to be hit with a heavy tax on these items, we’d have no choice but to raise the price our customers pay, and figuring out what was taxable and what was not would be an administrative headache.

I wrote to the members of the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee to urge its members to vote against the bill, SB 1013. Senator Calderon, the bill’s sponsor, and its supporters inside and outside the Senate, probably have the sleaziest possible image of the adult industry. Calderon has consistently refused to speak to industry representatives — he clearly does not want to be confused with the facts. I wanted the senators to know about the ways Good Vibrations and our few sister women-owned businesses differ from traditional adult industry outlets (though those places do not deserve an unfair tax, either). I explained that we have existed for 20 years to help women as well as men have access to products that help them have a happy, healthy sex life; that staff get ongoing sex information training so that we can address our customers’ questions and help educate them about sexuality; and that we are a respected member of the sex education and nationwide, because professionals know they can refer their clients and students to us.

This culture, in spite of all the strides that have been made in the last 50 years, is still so sex-negative that people like Senator Calderon pepper our legislatures and assemblies — people who honestly believe that sexy books and videos are harmful, or who will pretend to believe it in order to create a political smoke screen to divert the public’s attention away from their other activities. SB 1013 may have died in committee, but this was the second time it had been brought before California’s lawmakers, and it very likely will be brought back again, perhaps in a slightly modified version. Worse, the idea will no doubt be seized on by other states, states with no appreciable organized lobbying force on behalf of the adult industry.

Here in California the industry’s trade association, the Free Speech Coalition, is strong. Their lobbyist, Kat Sunlove, who also publishes Spectator magazine, the best little sex paper in the world, is a fierce, feminist, and articulate fighter against government repression of sexuality and sexual speech. But she told me it was the arrival of the big Hollywood guns — lobbyists for the movie industry — that really sank the bill. Those folks wouldn’t cross the street for my right to sell a dildo, but when it looked like their product might have been implicated in the bill’s vague wording, they showed up to squawk.

Freedom isn’t free, as former Californians Against Censorship Together president (and wife of Nina Hartley) Bobby Lilly likes to say. Especially where free speech and sexual material is concerned, we fight for what we preserve and enjoy. Somebody fights, anyway. To find out how you can support the Free Speech Coalition’s efforts, visit their website at — and next time you hear about these kinds of legislative shenanigans, take a minute to call, write, or e-mail your government representative. Tell them you’re a responsible adult and you expect your government to treat you like one — and that means (among other things) access to adult materials and services.

It is typical that folks who are troubled and scared about sexuality try to take it out on those of us who are just trying to live fulfilling sexual lives. It’s inappropriate, and if we’d all speak up, we could help do something about it.

Dr. Carol Queen

Carol Queen has a PhD in sexology; she calls herself a "cultural sexologist" because her earlier academic degree is in sociology: while she addresses individual issues and couple's sexual concerns, her overarching interest is in cultural issues (gender, shame, access to education, etc.). Queen has worked at Good Vibrations, the woman-founded sexuality company based in San Francisco that turned 35 years old in 2012, since 1990. Her current position is Staff Sexologist and Good Vibrations Historian; her roles include representing the company to the press and the public; overseeing educational programming for staff and others; and scripting/hosting a line of sex education videos, the Pleasure-Ed series, for GV’s sister company Good Releasing. She also curates the company's Antique Vibrator Museum. She is also the founding director of the Center for Sex & Culture, a non-profit sex ed and arts center San Francisco, and is a frequent lecturer at colleges, universities, and community-based organizations. Her dozen books include a Lambda Literary Award winner, PoMoSexuals, and Real Live Nude Girl: Chronicles of Sex-Positive Culture, which are used as texts in some college classes. She blogs at the Good Vibes Magazine and at SFGate's City Brights bloggers page and contributes to the Boston Dig. For more about her at

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