Sex and this City 

Is the Bible Belt loosening up or buckling under to government pressure?

Sex -- or talking about it, at least -- has become the new national pastime.

In recent months, sex has dominated the public agenda like never before. We've been obsessed with Janet's boob, Paris Hilton's videotape, same-sex weddings, a constitutional amendment to ban such marriages, the last episode of Sex and the City, and Howard Stern's battle with the FCC.

Federal Communications Commission hearings on indecency and obscenity led to the House of Representatives approving a bill that would allow the FCC to fine broadcasters up to $500,000, roughly $470,000 more than the current maximum fine, for each offense against public decency.

A day later, the FCC fined radio giant Clear Channel $247,000 for nine violations of graphic and explicit sexual material that occurred on one of its Washington, D.C., stations.

All this in a country where pornography is a $10-billion-a-year business.

What's going on? It's as if the U.S. has suddenly entered puberty, obsessed with sex and feeling guilty about it at the same time.

In Memphis, the very buckle of the Bible Belt, Time Warner customers can watch hardcore adult movies in the privacy of their homes for $10.95 a pop. (The company doesn't advertise the service, but a local spokesperson says they "serve a broad range of interests.")

Local radio listeners can hear Howard Stern and ads for topless clubs and Christal's, a store that features lubes, gels, fuzzy handcuffs, and other like-minded sex toys. (On a recent Saturday afternoon, a few couples and a couple of giggling housewives quietly perused the store's selections.) Drivers with dirty cars -- among other things -- can visit a topless car wash. One of the top national sales consultants for Passion Parties, Inc. lives here and makes six figures a year selling sex toys to women. And Memphis strip clubs are widely known to be some of the raunchiest in the country.

There is opposition, of course. PT's Showclub, which features male and female strippers, was recently shut down by the district attorney's office. (The club was later allowed to reopen but had to put up signs reminding customers that prostitution is illegal.) Christal's has been shut down numerous times for having too high a ratio of adult-to-novelty items.

So, with all the turmoil, how do Southerners really feel about sex? Well, as with most things, it's complicated.

A Plain Brown Wrapper

First of all, it's not like nobody's doing it. Suzi Parker, a Little Rock political writer turned Southern sexologist, knows that only too well. And it's not like they aren't interested in it, either. They just don't want others to know they're interested.

"People want to talk about it," says the author of Sex and the South: Unbuckling the Bible Belt. "Something like this book kind of gives them permission. It gives them an outlet to ask questions that they never would have otherwise and to open their minds to something they may have always been curious about. People want to talk about it, but they feel like they're not their prim and proper self if they [do]."

Parker wears stylish retro black-frame glasses and long dark hair. In terms of Southern women, she thinks of herself as a "Scarlett" (as opposed to a "Melanie") and says there isn't much that shocks her.

After writing a story about Niagara, a Swedish aphrodisiac drink, Parker's appearance on a political talk show for the Arkansas Educational Television Network was canceled. Next came a deposition, when Pfizer, the makers of Viagra, sued the Little Rock distributor of Niagara for copyright infringement. After being forced to answer questions about her sex life in the deposition, Parker set out to prove that the South was just as hedonistic and bacchanalian as any other part of the country. Southerners just happen to hide it better. And if Parker's research doesn't convince you, nothing will.

She infiltrated groups of Southerners who are into such activities as S&M, cross-dressing, and swinging. She also found people who pretend they are horses and like to be ridden and men who want to watch muscular women crush cereal boxes with their thighs.

"A lot of people don't want these stories to be told," says Parker. "They don't want to think that this stuff happens in the South. They don't want to think that swingers are in the South."

She theorizes that it's because they don't want to admit to themselves that they might have a kink, too.

In Memphis, Parker went to Platinum Plus because, for years, she had heard about the club from men in Little Rock who'd made the pilgrimage. "Men come over here and go to Platinum Plus. I heard it all throughout the Mid-South. It's kind of a legendary spot."

She also tried to go to a Memphis bondage club, but members were worried about their prominent members being outed. Instead, she went to Alabama, where she met people at a bondage convention who looked as if they would be equally comfortable at a church potluck.

"The deal in Dixie," she writes in her book, "is that everybody does it but no one talks about it. Because no one talks about it, sex is encased in a plain brown wrapper making everything about it taboo, taciturn, and twisted, with just a smidgen of sin to top it off."

She admits, however, that that attitude may be changing in more urban areas of the South, such as Memphis or Little Rock. "I think a big part of that, especially with women, is Sex and the City. It's very much like this book. It gave Southerners a chance to talk about these things over chicken salad sandwiches and ice tea at the country club." Her caveat, of course, is that attitudes still have a long way to go.

She had expected to encounter some openness in small Southern towns and suburbs, but that wasn't the case. "I think everyone is doing something in these small towns, but they're not talking about it. They won't even talk about hosting a sex-toy party."

Recently, she caused a bit of a furor when she spoke at a Rotary Club meeting in southern Arkansas. The organization usually meets in a Baptist church, but her talk had to be moved to a Presbyterian church. Even then, the Presbyterian minister got calls.

A Double Standard?

"To say that the image of the past is one of straight-laced sexual behavior is inaccurate," says Dr. Barbara Ellen Smith, the acting director for the Center for Research on Women at the University of Memphis. "What's being challenged in the South is in terms of women. Men, especially white men, have always had access to women outside of marriage. There's a long history of a double standard with race and gender."

Smith says sexual attitudes are generational and situational and are linked to everything from class to race and gender. She also cautions not to disregard the historical perspective, such as the relationships between white men and black women that in parts of the South, New Orleans especially, were almost institutionalized. This relationship was epitomized by the publicity about the late Strom Thurmond's illegitimate black daughter.

"One of the things that strikes me about the South is that there's a difference in public behavior and what happens in the backyard or through the back door, traditionally the way black slaves entered the house," Smith says.

Smith says it's hard to get an accurate portrayal of real sexual behavior in the South because there is so much posturing and moral and religious constraints.

One thing that's definitely changed is the age when people first get married. It's later in life for both men and women than it was in the 1950s, making it more likely for sex to happen outside the traditional confines of marriage. Smith says one reason for the delay could be economic. "If a couple plans to be together for some time and raise a family, they're going to delay doing that if they feel that their economic prospects are uncertain. That's one element that's possibly a factor."

The flip side of that argument works, too. If both partners are self-sufficient, there may be less incentive to marry. Smith points out that women are still making less money on average than men. "I think one of the reasons you see opposition to the women's movement is that as long as [women] are economically dependent, women don't have an alternative but to stay with men. Once they are economically independent, it's a whole different ball game."

A Passion for Parties

CJ Haynes knows a business opportunity when she sees one. Twenty-one years ago, her daughter told her about direct sales parties in Cincinnati that were kind of like Tupperware or Mary Kay parties with more of an adult twist.

"I finally went to one," says Haynes, "and there were a bunch of ladies there having a good time. [The sales consultant] didn't have a lot of inventory with her, and two ladies were offering to pay her twice the price if they could take the stuff home with them that night. I thought, Oh, my soul. I can do this."

At parties, the sales consultant presents her sexy wares -- lotions, massagers, and toys -- to the group. The party-goers handle and pass around the merchandise then meet individually with the consultant to order what they want.

Haynes, who had moved to Memphis shortly before her introduction to "fun parties," started holding parties here. At first, her only concern was if she could make her money back. "I thought it was sort of a fly-by-night business, but the demand was phenomenal. I was working seven days a week and I couldn't keep up," she says.

Eventually Haynes quit her day job. Last year, she made around $350,000, and it's probably not surprising that she thinks it's the best job in the world. Now 63, she only works about 20 hours a week. "You come in and party with a good bunch of girls," she says. "You drink their drinks, you eat their food, then you leave with their money, and they love you."

Haynes is Passion Parties' leading sales consultant nationally. She has short, frosted-blond hair and the deep, throaty voice of a smoker.

For parties, she dresses up in high heels, dresses, and jackets. Once, in Germantown when she arrived for a party, the woman who answered the door said, "Did someone invite you?" Haynes thought maybe she had the wrong day.

"She said, 'I expected someone with a lot of makeup, big hair, fishnet hose, and a short skirt.' I said, 'No, ma'am, that's not me, but I am going to show you a good time tonight.'"

Haynes netted about $4 million in retail sales last year with her group of "girls," sales consultants she has recruited. She was also one of the founders of Passion Parties, selling the party idea to a mail-order company about 10 years ago after having trouble with her first supplier. This year she expects to do about $5 million in sales. Part of the reason, she says, is that she isn't embarrassed to talk about sex.

Nationally, the company has seen 50 percent growth for the last 31 months. Sales from sex products, targeted toward monogamous couples, are expected to hit $30 million to $35 million this year.

"It just goes to show that somebody out there wants some passion in their lives," says Passion Parties president Pat Davis. She attributes some of the company's success to the fact that since taking her position three years ago, she has tried to make the company be one that "mainstream America would understand." Passion Parties' slogan is "Make every day Valentine's Day."

"I think it was the right time, as well," Davis says. "Women are becoming more demanding and more open about their sexuality. I can't pick up a magazine without seeing articles about sex, losing weight, or how to look young. It's just out there. Women want to be empowered. Just look at Sex and the City."

Davis says that sales figures are "very strong in the Bible Belt."

"Southern women are very social, so they love our parties. It gives them a comfortable place to be open. You don't want to go to the back of a truck stop where there's some burly guy and ask him how to find your G-spot," says Davis.

Sales consultants aren't sex therapists, but because many women treat them as though they were, they're trained to know what they're talking about. If a consultant can't answer a question, the company has experts they can e-mail.

When Haynes first started doing parties, she wasn't sure how to market the idea. There were a lot of questions about who to invite. At her first party, the hostess only invited her sisters and her sister-in law.

Customers also were skittish about having Haynes in their homes. She would often be asked to come in through the back door.

"It was sort of a secretive thing," Haynes says. "No one wanted anyone to know they were having a passion party but their select friends. Now they're hanging balloons from the mailboxes."

The CONSULTANTS have changed, too. "It used to be mostly housewives looking for a little extra money," Haynes says. "Today it's getting more and more professional. Women are looking at it as a career. I look at it as a career."

One of Haynes' "girls," Amy Leonard, was working in a factory when she got introduced to the business. With three teenagers at home, she needed a job with flexible hours.

"My best friend had been recruited and one day she had car trouble, so I drove her to a party. That was the first time I really saw one. I thought, I have so been missing all the fun stuff," says Leonard. "It took me three more years to get into the business. I had a husband who was threatened about being replaced by something with batteries. He's very supportive now that I've surpassed his income."

Another one of Haynes' consultants, Brenda Coley, had a similar transformation. "I thought, I can help with the house payment. Now I pay the house payment."

The three women share an easy camaraderie, firing off double entendres and one-liners. They've had plenty of practice. They use humor to ease into their sales pitch when they get to parties, because sometimes not all the participants have been told what kind of party it is.

Leonard says she once had a party where someone had invited their traditionally minded aunt. "As we passed the toys around, she wouldn't touch them," says Leonard. "She said if she touched it, she was going to hell. I said, 'Well, that's your opinion, but I don't see it that way.'" When the woman wasn't interested in hearing Leonard's opinion, Leonard reminded her that maybe the "other people you damned to hell might."

Haynes had a similar run-in with a woman who had brought her Bible to a party. She says she asked the woman to show her where in the Bible it said passion parties were wrong. The woman couldn't, and then Haynes pointed out a passage about how a man should treat his wife.

The passion party women don't shy away from church. Leonard even did a party for her Sunday school class. Coley offered to talk to a preacher after he got wind of one woman's party and disapproved. And Haynes once recruited a minister's wife out of Chattanooga who quoted an apt Bible passage with every product she presented.

"[Women] are comfortable with us. They're comfortable with the products because we use these products and we're normal," says Coley. "Women are getting a lot more aware of their bodies. Sex used to be about him. Now it's about me. We help women. Not only do we help them make money, we help women to understand their bodies."

Adds Haynes: "It just tickles me that I can help them be empowered from the bed to the bank."

A Sexual Crossroads

In some ways, the country may be at a sexual crossroads.

Women's-studies professor Smith says that attitudes about sexuality and sexual freedom ebb and flow.

But is the country going the way of the South or is the South going the way of the rest of the country? According to an article in The New York Times, FCC member Michael Copps is against media consolidation because he thinks the large media conglomerates have lowered decency standards across the country. Basically, because these companies control media for large portions of the country from national offices, they can push the envelope without feeling local pressure to change. The effect is a sort of Manhattanization of standards: a bunch of Southern women, for instance, identifying with Carrie Bradshaw.

But maybe that's changing.

"The country [has been getting] more liberal sexually, but it seems to be reversing itself now," says Parker. "I think it has a lot to do with the Bush administration, the FCC, and Ashcroft and [covering up the bare breasts of the Spirit of Justice statue]. All that starts feeding into the national psyche that sex is bad. That's been preached in the South forever because it's the Bible Belt. And there's a church on every corner to remind you that whatever you're doing wrong you're going to hell for."

Recently, Parker got a taste of the new FCC. She had a booksigning at a Hot Springs, Arkansas, lingerie store. When the store tried to buy a radio ad to advertise the signing, the station -- a small independent company -- balked. "Because there was this big fear of offending the FCC, [they] became very gun-shy about the ads," Parker says. "I asked, 'Can we even say the name of the book or was it like Blank and the South? Was it beeped?'"

The ad did run, but Parker wonders if in the current climate she could have done the same big radio book tour she did before the Janet Jackson Super Bowl incident.

"I don't think anyone is pushing the envelope any more than they have been," says Parker. "I think the government is just focusing on it to make it a political issue to lure voters to vote Republican."

Parker's point that sex is being politicized may have some merit. Shock-jock Howard Stern, for instance, has been doing essentially the same show for 20 years. Madonna released the sex-drenched Truth or Dare long before she kissed Britney. And you can see all the bare breasts you want on cable 24 hours a day.

Will political pressure push sex off the public airways and back into the closet? Does America really want to return to the days of Ozzie and Harriet? Not likely. But it's possible, at least until the current furor dies down, that the rest of the country will just have to learn to do what we do here in Dixie: Have all the sex you want. Just don't talk about it.

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