Sex

Sex and the Suburb

One town's struggle to save mom-and-pop porn shops

|

"Porn" isn't the first word that comes to mind when I think of home, but the quiet community where I grew up has become a national symbol of suburban smut. A recent New York Times article places Milford, Connecticut first among a host of suburban towns forced to reckon with large, upscale "adult emporiums." Milford's main streets have been lined with blacked out windows for years, but the store in question has rejected the traditional low-profile facade, and the mayor is not pleased. Daniel Quinn, owner of the 10,000 square foot "Penthouse Boutique" is engaged in a war with Milford's city council over zoning laws and police permits. But even amid the controversy, the store's instant popularity suggests that pornography continues to shed its stigma and widen its appeal.

The Penthouse Boutique is one part porn shop and two parts Wal-Mart; though it's the first store to carry the Penthouse name, the outfit has all the makings of a large chain. It's well-lit, spacious, and divided into different sections for shoes, costumes, oils, DVDs and magazines. The employees wear conservative black uniforms, and the book section includes such salacious titles as Great Sex for Moms and Sex for Dummies. The only customers in the shop on a weekday morning were two other twenty-something females. Much of the merchandise has a playful, self-mocking appeal, epitomized by the giant rocking "love sex swing" at the back of the store.

Quinn had hoped to open his mega-store with a giant gala featuring Penthouse Pets, hors de oeuvres, and tuxedoed waiters. July 24th, two hours before the party was set to begin, the mayor informed Quinn's lawyer that Quinn would be arrested if anything were sold. The Boutique greeted its 1100 guests with the warning that merchandise was off limits. The next day, Quinn's employees loaded much of the newly arrived store's adult material into trucks in order to avoid further confrontation. The city says he needs an adult permit to operate; Quinn claims he does not, because less than 50 percent of his merchandise can be classified as adult. That week the city council voted to raise the threshold—henceforth, any store with 30 percent adult merchandise would need a permit. But Quinn claims that only 28 percent of his merchandise qualifies for Milford's definition of "adult," which specifies "instruments, devices or paraphernalia designed or marketed for use in conjunction with specified sexual activities or that graphically depicts specific anatomical areas." Still, many of the store's shelves remained bare for weeks in order to avoid a showdown with the city.

"This is a morals issue," says district manager Gary Cohen. "They never gave us a reason why we couldn't operate as planned."

Legal issues aside, one can understand the discomfort of residents who picketed during the mega-store's opening festivities. The city's other adult stores tend to be small, dark, and stationed squarely in the liquor store/ nail salon part of town. Penthouse Boutique's pink stucco facade, flanked by Greek statues and positioned near a suggestive billboard, seems out of place in this church dotted suburb. Perhaps most disturbing to offended residents, Quinn is actively marketing toward the decent people protesters want to protect.

"We're featuring a couple-friendly format," says Cohen. "Everyone from newlyweds to senior citizens looking to spice up their sex lives. Right now, 70 percent of our customers are women."

The Penthouse store has arrived just as the Penthouse magazine looks ready to fold. The publishers of Penthouse declared bankruptcy last week, and leasing the name out to stores like Quinn's is part of a strategy to keep the Penthouse empire afloat as the magazine flounders. Some attribute the magazine's financial woes to a graphic, hardcore approach that has turned off advertisers and alienated readers. Its chief rival, the more conservative Playboy , has maintained a stable circulation base. The future of porn may belong to businesses that can anticipate middle America's relatively conservative tastes in pornographic magazines, videos, and DVDs—businesses much like the Penthouse Boutique.

Quinn is capitalizing on the mainstreaming of porn, a revolution that began when the VCR brought porn out of seedy sex stores and into suburban living rooms. The internet, of course, has made porn virtually unavoidable. Now that all sorts of people can get porn, it turns out that all sorts of people like it. And they're not all comfortable in the porn shops of yesterday.

Down the street from the Penthouse emporium is Vinny's Adult Video, a dingy, blacked out hole of a store. A curmudgeonly clerk describes the new boutique as "our arch enemy" and expresses resentment at the anti-smut backlash it has provoked. Cohen suspects that such reactions show rivals fear Penthouse "will probably put them out of business." The mom and pop porn shops of suburbia, in other words, have reason to fear.

The flood of mainstream porn carries with it a spate of celebrities—porn stars and magnates elevated to the level of household names. Larry Flynt and Mary Carey are both running for governor of California, and though running in that particular race in no way signals normality, the fact that two candidates from the porn industry trigger immediate recognition indicates that Americans are well versed in their porn trivia. Traci Lords recently appeared on Larry King, suggesting that her previous work and his staid program share some audience crossover. Fox is currently planning a series called Skin which will involve the $4 billion industry.

Does this latest spate of porn proliferation suggest an accelerating descent toward vulgarity? Porn was once difficult and embarrassing to obtain; today, people seek new technologies to keep the stuff from flooding their in-boxes. But as middle America moves toward porn, the industry itself moves toward middle America. Quinn's store, for instance, brands itself on its classy image. In this well-lit fantasy land, one doesn't get the idea that there are stacks of child porn sitting in the basement.

Salon.com's Peter Keating has written about "sex-positive feminists", young professional females who "see pornography as an extreme but not inevitably inauthentic representation of the pleasure, power and entertainment that sex can carry while remaining leery of its nastier incarnations." Such women, it seems, are rather conservative about their porn. A brand that wants to court them would do well to steer clear of violence and children. The L.L. Bean-wearing, SUV-driving customers of Quinn's store will likely share similar limits.

There are significant arguments against carrying porn into everyday life, but they're better heard from the Howard Stern contingent than Milford's mayor. In the 1972 film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex, Woody Allen quips "Is sex dirty? Only if it's done right." At the Penthouse Boutique, sex isn't particularly edgy, but it is accessible and comfortable—just like the suburbs themselves.

Attorney General John Ashcroft has announced that fighting obscenity is a high priority, and legislating against internet porn is a favorite pastime of family values activists. But the biggest challenge to porn's worst incarnations is less likely to come from Washington than from the quiet enclaves of suburban America. Once the Penthouse Boutique resolves its zoning woes, it just may drive its seedy competitors out of business—and leave Milford a more traditional town than ever.