Tuesday, February 9, 2016

When a Sex Show Does the Bible Belt

America's largest sex convention is swinging through the Bible Belt.

That's right, folks:  Exxotica* Expo 2016 will be in Dallas this coming August, between stops in Chicago and suburban New York.

Big D has always yearned to play with the big boys, and now, at least when it comes to the taboo, it is.

Even if this isn't exactly what many civic leaders had in mind.

Exxotica's conventions purport to be a one-stop-shop for ideas and equipment to enhance a person's "love" life, but it's hard to hide the reality:  our planet's insatiable porn industry is running the show.  And just to be clear, pornography isn't about love - it's about lust.

Let's face it:  There's little altruism and selfless commitment in porn.  Whatever love might be found in the porn business is the love of self, or the love of money.

Ahh, yes!  The money.  Sponsors of the show estimate it will pump seven to eight million dollars into the local economy, not counting the profits sex-oriented businesses expect to generate thanks to their, um, exposure at the convention.

After all, isn't this what convention centers are for?  Dallas built and maintains its convention center to act as a business generator.  The city even recently commissioned a gaudy new high-rise hotel to service convention visitors attending everything from obscure trade shows to the splashy annual spectacle that is the Mary Kay cosmetics "seminar."

Truth be told, the Mary Kay convention is usually the only convention about which most of us ever hear, and that's because Mary Kay is a home-grown success story.  Plus, it attracts hordes of intricately-groomed attendees from around the world to its elaborate convocations.  It's all pure-D, rhinestone, pink Cadillac, over-the-top Dallas.  Mary Kay's conventions are ready-made for our local television stations, offering the type of glamor that makes newscasts easy on the eyes.

Meanwhile, Exxotica first came through Dallas last summer, much to the consternation of Dallas' buttoned-down mayor, Mike Rawlings.  Aside from some billboards advertising the event, strategically-placed near freeways that often double as parking lots here in Dallas, most of us wouldn't have realized they were in town.  Indeed, Exxotica's presence seemed to catch City Hall off-guard.  A last-minute scramble was launched to revoke Exxotica's permit.

Unfortunately for the City of Dallas, since the convention center hosting Exxotica is a public facility, and the sex group met all of the legal criteria for renting the public facility, the city couldn't have even denied Exxotica's application in the first place.  First Amendment free speech rights, you know.  Even though Rawlings asked the city's lawyers to scour their contract with Exxotica for just one loophole, so he could revoke their permit, the show went on as scheduled.

This year, civic leaders hope things can be different.  Tomorrow, Wednesday, at the mayor's request, the city council is expected to vote on a resolution to prevent Exxotica's return.  Rawlings and other civic leaders opposed to the convention hope they've found the loophole that last year proved elusive.

That loophole involves the definition of a "sexually oriented business," and whether an activity that meets such a classification can be allowed within 1,000 feet of public parks, churches, and other family-friendly venues.

Historic Dealey Plaza, the "grassy knoll" where President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, is just down the street from Dallas' convention center, and has become an internationally famous tourist spot.  Three popular restaurant districts are within walking distance.  A couple of Pentecostal churches are a block or two away from the convention center.  There hasn't been a sexually oriented business downtown for years, because of the zoning and diversity of property use.

Sounds like classifying Exxotica as a sexually oriented business could keep it away, too.  Right?

Well, that depends on the legal definition of a sexually oriented business.  Traditionally, they've been defined as places where people pay in person for erotic products and services delivered to them on-site.  But a convention - even a convention of erotic products and services - defies that definition legally, because people can't directly pay for erotic products and services and obtain possession of them for their personal use on-site.

At any convention, customers can order the products on display, but not for their immediate, on-site procurement or use.  You can order a helicopter at the helicopter show, but don't expect to fly it home from the convention center's back parking lot.  You can purchase a home at the home builder's show, but you can't back your truck up to the convention center's loading dock and haul your 3-2-2 away.

Exxotica's managers know the law; the people who visit their show cannot purchase lap dances to be performed on-site, for example.  They can't even illegally arrange for a sexual tryst for later in the evening, because the tryst will have to be held off-site, and that would be the crime scene; not the place where it was arranged.  Exxotica knows all this, and they forbid anything illegal from taking place within their venue (although "immoral" is another issue).  Even Dallas' vice squad, which last year was dispatched to monitor Exxotica's event, said it was pretty boring by their standards, with no citations of any kind being written.  It was all business-by-the-book.  Even if a lot of that business was for products and services that are intended to be quite erotic.

Not to be dissuaded, one of the richest businessmen in Dallas went public this weekend with an impassioned defense of Mayor Rawlings' desire to pull the plug on Exxotica.  In what he calls "an open letter to the citizens of Dallas," billionaire oil tycoon Ray Hunt asks his fellow citizens about the type of city they want Dallas to be.  A moral city, unafraid of enforcing its own laws regarding sexually-oriented businesses, or a city without the "courage to do the right thing?"

Hunt might not like the answer his fellow Dallasites seem to be giving him.  D Magazine, a self-styled purveyor of the city's savviest cosmopolitan vibes, has polled its readers online in an unscientific poll, and 66% of respondents (so far, anyway) say that Exxotica should go ahead as planned.  Elsewhere, public feedback has been decidedly in Exxotica's favor, if for no other reason than it being a lot easier to joke about sexual taboos that are eroding by the day, than stand awkwardly on a moral high ground when First Amendment privilege gives Exxotica the legal edge.

Even Hunt, normally a pragmatic capitalist, doesn't deny that Exxotica has the legal right to hold its convention.  He simply doesn't want their convention held at the city-owned convention center, which happens to sit next-door to some property he owns.  Aren't there more sordid, less prominent venues in seedier parts of town for that sort of thing, he muses?

Perhaps it's more embarrassing than morally outrageous to people like Hunt that an expo like Exxotica can afford to rent out a facility the size of a major convention and exhibition space.  What does that say not only about Dallas, but about America in general, especially since Dallas's show is one of three across the country this year?  Has the sex industry really become mainstream?

No, I don't think so.  At least, not yet.  If sexual taboos had gone mainstream, necessitating a series of cross-country conventions to promote itself, wouldn't we already be seeing a lot of their products and services in other, everyday parts of our culture?  

Sure, Americans are more accepting now of things our society used to brand as taboo.  I'm not happy about it; I think many things that used to be considered wrong are still wrong.  But not all things sexual are wrong, are they?  For example, what's wrong with a married couple purchasing sex toys for their pleasure?  What's wrong with kinky underwear between husband and wife?  Besides, depending on your definition of "lewdness", some of this stuff is currently available on a tame scale at Walmart and Target.

But bondage, nipple decals, and other examples of Exxotica's wares are still deployed mostly behind closed doors.  Sure, there is a smutty curiosity that draws many people to a show like Exxotica, but the titillation most people are looking for remains relatively private, albeit a little less taboo than it used to be.

Granted, most of what's being exhibited at Exxotica barely seems sexually healthy for the most uninhibited of married couples, let alone the throngs of dirty old men who I suspect are already online, scoping out the convention's ticket prices.  But might Hunt, Rawlings, and other foes of Exxotica be missing the broader picture?

Since Exxotica will be held at a public event facility, won't there be plenty of space for churches and socially-conservative organizations to put up displays of their own outside of the convention center's buildings?  Free speech works two ways, right?  Several non-profits, such as Restored Hope Ministries, XXXChurch, and Eve’s Angels, paid for exhibitors' booths inside last year's Exxotica, and will probably be back this year.  They are organizations that reach out to people trying to leave the sex industry or give up the habit of pornography.  Where else could such an outreach take place at such a large gathering of smut enthusiasts?

Another of the arguments Hunt, Rawlings, and others have been using against Exxotica involves the scourge of sex trafficking.  And it seems like an easy jump to make, from a convention celebrating sexual inhibition to the sexual subjugation and imprisonment of women and children across the world.  Yet if that jump is so easy to make, why don't we make the same leap between the alcohol industry and drunk driving?  Or the fast-food industry and obesity?  Why don't we recoil in moral outrage over McDonald's like some are doing over Exxotica?

Yes, the tobacco industry was cowed, but not because smoking is bad for our health.  No, big tobacco lost because tobacco companies intentionally lied about how bad for out health it really is.

Semantics, don't you know.

Nobody in charge of Exxotica appears willing to deny that sex trafficking is evil.  And it's hard to believe that Exxotica's leadership, at least, is willing to ignore any links between their event and sex trafficking.

Now, I don't happen to believe that pornography is good for any culture, but are skimpy panties pornographic?  How do skimpy panties translate into sex trafficking?  Do you see how the link between pornography - which I would argue is sinful - is not direct to sex trafficking?  Nevertheless, if we draw misleading correlations, don't we risk denigrating the battle over sex trafficking by unnecessarily conflating it with pornography?

It's the same argument we use to indemnify beer companies from customers who abuse their products.  If a vendor at Exxotica is selling a taboo product while being unable to control how their customer uses it, where's the legal difference between Exxotica's vendor and Budweiser?

At this point, I could go on a rant about how our society has waged such a long battle against virtue that events like Exxotica are the price we pay for our broader culture's lasciviousness.  We tend to not realize how morally-relative our country has become until a debate like this one bumps into our local consciousness.

Speaking of consciousness, however:  If Exxotica's vocal opponents weren't as vocal as they're being, most of us here in North Texas wouldn't know a thing about it.  That itself speaks volumes about how far the sex industry still has to go before it can be considered mainstream.

If that's a silver lining in this cloud, it might be the closest thing to nourishing rain that North Texas usually gets when Exxotica is scheduled to be held - during our unbearably hot August.

* The official name has three X's in it, but I'm afraid that putting all three online will trigger spam filters and prevent readers from accessing this essay.

Update 2/10/16:  The Dallas City Council today voted to prohibit Exxotica from using the convention center this year.  A lawsuit is now pending.  Here's what I have to say about that.

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