LOS ANGELES — Last Thursday, XBIZ hosted an 11-person panel to address issues of racism and tokenization spanning the entire pleasure products and retail space. Titled “Race in Adult: An Open Conversation,” the panel spoke to major elephant-in-the-room topics that have long been swept under the rug, like a lack of black voices and staffing in sex toy manufacturing and sales representation and the gross tokenization of black, Latin and other people of color in product copy writing and marketing.
Moderated by Sunny Megatron, sexuality educator and host of the “American Sex” podcast, the panel included prominent people of color who encompassed a variety of careers in the sexual wellness space.
XBIZ called upon a diverse lineup to share their opinions and experiences, including: Lidia Bonilla, pleasure strategist at House of Plume; Dirty Lola, producer and host at SexEdAGoGo.com; Tamara Payton Bell, CEO and founder of the Home Pleasure Party Planning Association (HPPPA); Taylor Sparks, sex educator and founder of e-tailer Organic Loven; Nenna Joiner, founder and CEO of retailer Feelmore; Lotus Lain, an adult performer and industry relations advocate; Scott Watkins, VP of marketing and sales at Doc Johnson Enterprises; Josh Ortiz, brand ambassador and sex educator at XR Brands; Tracy Felder, brand ambassador and product trainer at COTR; and Shani Hart, founder and CEO of retailer Hart's Desire.
Many pleasure industry spokespeople — both white and people of color — have participated in public demonstrations, donations to black-focused charities and organizations, and myriad forms of public stances against racism since this year's #BlackLivesMatter and #JusticeForGeorge protests began.
“Everyone, do better.”
This simple call to action, rightfully demanded by Hart's Desire retail owner Shani Hart in a Facebook group for sex toy professionals, has since sparked another long-awaited revolution in the pleasure product space.
Hart's Facebook post called out manufacturers that use racist language in their marketing or otherwise exclude people of color completely. For her predominantly black customer base, Hart said these products are not only unsuitable for consumers of color but downright embarrassing.
“Most of these products are not made for black people,” said Hart. “Masturbators are made for white men to feel like they’re having sex with a black woman. I would like to have items that are made for black people so that I can serve my customers that are black people. I want my customers to come in and not feel like these products aren’t for them."
Megatron, a regularly vocal participant in enacting change in the adult space, consecrated the Town Hall with her wisdom and experiences.
“Our hope is to not only let you know how black people and other people of color have been overlooked, tokenized, discriminated against, misunderstood, disenfranchised, gas-lit and outright denied a seat at the table, but also how we can work together to fix this deep structural divide,” she said in her opening statements.
Calling it a collaborative conversation, she urged the Town Hall’s audience to look at their own companies' business policies, actions and inactions, and how they’ve negatively impacted colleagues and consumers. Megatron warned that the conversation would trigger uncomfortable feelings, though she encouraged those watching to face such negative emotions and remain engaged in facing the truth.
Throughout the entire history of the pleasure space, manufacturers have thrown their hands in the air in a Trump-esque fashion, claiming that they're only pandering to consumer fantasies.
Megatron encapsulated the opinion of the panelists in a single statement, striking down such excuses made in the name of the almighty dollar.
“You are the change makers and culture makers,” said Megatron. “They’re buying it because you’re supplying it. Change the culture, take that initiative, change what is available for people.”
The tokenization of people of color, additionally seen within the LGBTQ+ community, is heavily responsible for a large portion of dehumanizing stereotypes often found in adult products. Seemingly humorous marketing tropes are often defended by company owners and sales reps, claiming those who feel offended simply “don't get the joke”, or “don't have a sense of humor.”
What the Town Hall participants attempted to make known was the intense personal trauma and population-wide harm these insensitive, false stereotypes can cause for anyone within a marginalized community.
“Being one of a small handful of token trans people in the industry, I know I get it on a visceral, molecular deep level what it's like to be fetishized. My entire existence is reduced to a blowup doll with breasts and a cock,” explained XR Brands' Josh Ortiz. “The biggest thing I hear from big companies is that they’re selling a fantasy. Yeah, we can sell a fantasy but we need to stop selling fantasy on the back of oppression, segregation and dehumanization.”
Throughout the two-hour call-and-response of the Town Hall, pleasure industry people of color spoke of racially charged trauma that until this very day, no one believed to be true.
House of Plume founder Lidia Bonilla shared a heartbreaking story, recalling a time she attempted to tell the male owner of a major retailer about her product and he responded by physically turning his back to her. The experience served as inspiration for establishing the Women of Sex Tech organization, which she co-founded with Unbound’s Polly Rodriguez.
“I could not believe it happened,” Bonilla said through tears. “I was standing there in the middle of this room and I felt embarrassed and ashamed.
“[These are] things that happen to black people in white spaces but it gets pushed under the rug,” she added. “It’s a conversation that’s not just about selling products — it’s not political; it’s about acknowledging their humanity.”
Dirty Lola explained that it’s important for such uncomfortable experiences to be brought to light. She called for companies, including XBIZ, to own up to their mistakes.
“We’ve been conditioned to feel like we have to make people believe us before we can talk about anything,” said Lola. “If I started the conversation with a solution, they wouldn’t listen because they don’t think they have a problem to begin with.”
Offering various definitions and examples of how systemic racism exists in the adult retail industry, the panelists continuously concluded that the only way to move forward was for companies to employ more people of color and, most importantly, actually listen to them.
For entrepreneurs that aren’t seeing what they want in the industry, Feelmore founder Nenna Joiner encourages those that feel marginalized to be the change that they want to see.
“One of the beautiful things about the adult industry is that it’s very small but it’s also very big,” Joiner said. “Someone can say no to you and you can turn that into a career or a company for yourself.”
According to Joiner, everyone is responsible for implementing changes that will improve the industry.
“You have to take accountability for your part in this industry,” Joiner said.
Since the pleasure industry's beginnings in the adult content space and subsequently tokenizing venture into sex toys, many Town Hall panelists described struggles consistent with an industry unwilling to change.
Joiner says that in order to shield customers from possibly being offended, at Feelmore boutique, products are displayed without any packaging.
“That’s the type of environment that I want to have — I want people to not be affected by the race issues in the adult industry.”
However, Tamara Payton Bell, CEO and founder of the Home Pleasure Party Planners Association, said that she has faith that companies can change and become more inclusive. In fact, she's seen it herself.
“I’ve been in the industry about 20 years and I’ve seen an evolution,” she said, noting that she’s had discussions with manufacturers in the past regarding racially insensitive language on packaging.
“I’ve seen changes,” she highlighted. “[Manufacturers] do listen; we’ve had success with that.”
As Scott Watkins, vice president of sales and marketing for Doc Johnson, pointed out, the sex toy and sex-ed space is still in a state of infancy. Watkins believes the industry's initial all-white collection of founders and staff was somewhat accidental.
“This is still a first-generation industry — some of this industry’s founders are still the owners of these companies,” explained Watkins “A lot of them are white and it’s not because they wanted to have a white industry, but it’s just a first-generation industry.”
Watkins thinks the best way forward is to honestly recognize the past, no matter how cringe-inducing it may be, and to think — hard — before making claims about supporting black lives. He's also willing to do whatever it takes to become the change black people have unfortunately had to beg to see.
“We have to own where we were at and where we want to go. That's just fact,” said Watkins. “We haven’t put out a statement at Doc Johnson because we’re not ready to put one out until we can provide facts and tell you the steps we’re going to take to be better. We’re open to change. Let us know what we can do better. We’ll listen.”
Perhaps the most powerful suggestion that united the entire Town Hall panel in raised hands and nodded heads was also the most simple and obvious one: hire black people to help companies do the intense work of dismantling racism and creating more progressive products.
Lotus Lain, an adult performer and industry relations advocate, thinks it's time company founders and hiring managers stopped scouring LinkedIn and reading copy-paste resumes. Lain says the most competent talent with the most relevant, up-to-the-minute knowledge aren't in the traditional career space; they're living their truths as people of color and LGBTQ+ folks in creative erotica.
Adult performers, as Lain described, are often overlooked for their intellectual talents and business savvy, which could also help companies appeal to consumers with their unique understanding of sex and desire. She suggests checking Twitter to see who's in-the-know about modern sexuality.
“You can hire porn stars as consultants. We know so much about sexuality; we have a unique insight into the way people think and want things. I would implore more marketers to think of how they can reach our side of the industry because we have a wealth of knowledge,” said Lain. “Some porn stars might be savvy enough that you may want to hire them to join your team as a sales rep or brand ambassador.”
Additionally, Tracy Felder, brand ambassador and sex educator at COTR, points to the promotion of black people from within the industry. Many are currently employed at the retail level and tell Felder that they have big dreams of having a position like hers.
Felder thinks black floor staff making minimum wage deserve to be chosen for higher-level positions with manufacturers or distributors, and that they deserve more than an impersonal link to a job application.
Felder also says the B2B sector should focus on bringing more affordable opportunities for small, black-owned businesses to become involved in the industry's biggest events and trade shows.
“For trade shows, there should be a sponsorship opportunity for smaller businesses that want to exhibit but can’t afford to. There are a lot of people that have great product, but they aren’t being seen unless you go to a smaller show. [The] Sex Down South [conference] has all these black vendors and speakers and I was like, why am I not seeing this group of people at the bigger trade shows?” questioned Felder. “It’s segregation and I want to put that out there. It’s not fair; it should be more open.”
So what would an actively inclusive, actively anti-racist pleasure industry resemble?
Good Vibes Education Director Andy Duran joined the panel conversation later on and drove home the Town Hall's entire purpose, saying that companies must create “an environment that is so anti-racist that no racists want to work there.”
Organic Loven retail shop owner Taylor Sparks says it all comes down to manufacturers' willingness to support people of color at every level of business. According to Sparks, what many predominantly white company owners have somehow forgotten is the buying power of black people. For those hyper-focused on profit, going anti-racist isn't a bad business move anyhow.
“We want to sell your products; and we have customers that want to buy your products,” said Sparks.
Likewise, Felder reminded audiences — especially those in positions of power — that inclusivity and progressive marketing aren't going to be left behind as soon as 2020 ends and that the elevation of black voices will be sustained by the masses for the betterment of all society, regardless of whether capitalism will recognize people of color or not.
“I also want to see that this isn’t just a trend,” echoed Felder. “We aren’t a trend. We’re here to stay.”
The panelists concluded that it is up to the CEOs who are willing to dig deeper to tap into the people of color who possess the knowledge this business needs to evolve; and that change can only arrive when BIPOC consultants and freelancers as well as part and full-time staff are healthily compensated for the unique, definitive perspective they bring to the adult industry.
To see the Race in Adult Retail Town Hall video, click here.