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02/19/2019

2018 Research Grant Recipient Report

2018 Grant Recipient tells us what she's accomplished

Larissa Brian - PhD Candidate, University of Pittsburg

Title – Illicit Objects: The Politics of Sex Toys Under Alabama’s Anti-Obscenity Enforcement Act

My current research project explores the rhetorical and phenomenological contours of the effects of Alabama’s Anti-Obscenity Act.  This “sexlaw” was passed in 1998 but continues to hold persuasive force in that it legally bans the sale of sex toys that are “used primarily for the stimulation of human genital organs.”  Indeed, any sale of sex toy items such as vibrators and dildos (typically purchased by and for women) must be sold under the guise of a medical-juridical discourse that equates the desire for erotic pleasure with a medical lack—that is, as “sexual unfulfillment.”  Drawn to the law’s textual framework, I became most interested in how scenes of pleasure come to take shape against a legal backdrop that does not want it to exist.     

 

In order to study the ways in which the politics of pleasure are constituted within the parameters of the “Anti-Obscenity law, I traveled to Huntsville, Alabama where one adult entertainment shop in particular, “Pleasures Romance Boutique,” has learned to function within the discursive constraints of the law itself.  The ORWAC Research Grant afforded me the means to travel and stay in Alabama while conducting field research on this project.  While in Huntsville, I visited “Pleasures Romance Boutique” several times a day over the course of four days.  I physically perused the store itself, analyzing the spatial layout of the scene—how the toys were arranged, how “pleasure” was visually articulated and embodied, and how the drive-thru window all constellated together to form a particular kind of community (and consumer) sex space.  I was able to procure copies of the “questionnaire” (that consists of ten questions) that the employees are legally required to distribute to customers in search of pleasure objects and also able to have conversations with the store employees.  In addition, I was able to sit down and have a more formal interview with the regional shop manager and “pleasure coach,” Toni Kennedy, who had first-hand experience with the contentious history of the store and its struggle to maintain permanence within a sphere of interminable litigation and court appeal failures.  I discovered that the store not only sells erotic consumer products, but is also home to a series of community workshops ranging from kink/BDSM seminars to lessons on how to improve sexual communication between partners.  Indeed, I learned that “Pleasure Romance Boutique and Intimacy Clinic” holds a pedagogical force; even in its alleged “illegality,” the discrete sale and purchase of sex toys in this space shares in meaning-making practices that shape forms of democratic participation and community-building that, perhaps, undermine the force of the law itself.  This holds special import for feminist sexual politics, given that the law originally sought to sexually disempower women (as the law was built out of an aim to outlaw women’s nude dancing).

 

This research I gathered in Huntsville will serve as the foundation to a journal article that is currently underway for journal publication. I would like to thank ORWAC for delivering a grant that allowed the opportunity to more closely study the phenomenological and rhetorical relationship between sexuality and law.  My time in Huntsville revealed that scenes of pleasure are often rhetorical—appearing alongside and against their own discursive limits, emerging in contingent moments that give way to the unique convergence of language, bodies, and (illicit) objects in a particular time and place.

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