The Business of Sex: A History of Pornography and U.S. Commercial Culture since the 1950s

The Business of Sex examines how, between the 1950s and 1980s, several generations of pornography and sex toy entrepreneurs drew upon the repertoires of U.S. business culture to build the modern adult entertainment industry as they worked to transform its image. Revisiting an era in the industry’s history best remembered for the hit film Deep Throat (1972), I show how new retail forms (adult bookstores and sex toy shops), evaluative technologies (consumer guides and awards), and advocacy methods (public relations and trade organizations) emerged during this period through the efforts of businesspeople to secure cultural recognition as a “legitimate business,” to be seen as operating according to professional principles in the interest of middle-class, and mixed-sex consumers, rather than being guided only by avarice or, worse, sexual perversion. By analyzing the commercial practices and representational strategies adult business people tested to make their trade licit amid protests from across the political spectrum, this research highlights the ongoing power of moral conflicts to shape market activity in an advanced capitalist society.

The Business of Sex uses the business and cultural history of the adult entertainment industry as a lens through which to reassess and expand our understanding of consumer culture, market liberalism, and business regulation in the second half of the twentieth century. Illicit industries like the trades in illegal drugs and pornography have typically been cordoned off from the literature in business history, implicitly understood by scholars as exceptional and disconnected from major developments in the history of capitalism in the United States. By contrast, my book project reveals how adult retailers became early adopters of self-service in book retail in the 1950s, experimented with the boutique-craze in the 1960s and 1970s, turned to consumer rights language to sell products in the 1960s and after, and were vital participants in publishing and film industry trade organizations throughout the period under examination. Moreover, viewing the histories of capitalism and political culture from the perspectives of these small- and medium-business owners sheds new light on the history of deregulation, shifting attention from a strict focus on large, federal rulemaking agencies and debates about regulatory capture and toward the more fundamental ways that business people, consumers, and regulators at local and national scales debated the state’s role in policing the moral boundaries of the market.

Elder Intimacies: A History of Aging and Sexuality in Modern America

I am in the beginning stages of research for a second, large-scale project on the history of sex in later life in the twentieth century U.S. At the onset of the twentieth century, medical researchers often defined old age as opposed to sexuality. By century’s end, everyone from television sexperts to Department of Health and Human Services policy writers had come to see sex in old age as not only possible, but also as an important part of aging well. I ask how and why ideas about aging, desire, and emotional wellbeing transformed so dramatically, moving from the micro-scale intimacies among elders and their families to institutional settings like care homes and Medicare public hearings to political economic anxieties centered on population aging. In doing so, I aim to offer a multiscalar account of sexual citizenship that moves beyond sexual identity to consider how public and private infrastructures enable and disable sexual expression in conversation with changing conceptions of capacity, health, and wellbeing.