Porn, Prayer and Protests: Exxxotica Expo Comes to Texas

Editor's Note: This story appeared in the December 2015 ORANGE Issue IV. 

EXXXOTICA LOOKS JUST LIKE any other major convention, except here displays are filled with glittering 24-karat gold sex toys in place of artisan soaps and handmade jewelry.

By: Lauren L'Amie

Depending on who you asked, the doors of Dallas’s Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center served either as the entrance to the exciting world of adult entertainment or, as the belligerent protesters wearing neon “FEAR GOD” T-shirts yelled, The Actual Gates of Hell. People lined up outside the convention center were waiting to enter eXXXotica — ”the largest adult event in the USA dedicated to love and sex” — and it was day one of Texas’s first big porn fest.

Bros in cargo pants and polo shirts waited patiently behind groups of spandex-clad women in platform heels and pastel wigs. Some people held adult magazines or cameras; others sported flashing plastic penis necklaces and carried leather whips. They were flanked by stone-faced security guards and attentive convention center officials.

eXXXotica looks just like any other major convention, except here displays are filled with glittering 24-karat gold sex toys in place of artisan soaps and handmade jewelry. Local sex shop owners and escort services can rent out booths alongside traveling exhibitors, some of whom have been following eXXXotica since it was founded in 2006. Tickets sell to the general public starting at $40 for a 1-day pass. Exclusive 3-day VIP passes run for an additional $100, and on Fridays, ladies get in free.

The Dallas schedule featured hourly seminars covering everything in the industry: from open relationships and swingers to social media and how to break into the world of amateur porn. As adult actress and writer Stoya told the Dallas Morning News, it is “the Comic-Con of porn.” The show floor hosted vendors and artists as well as meet-and-greets with some of today’s biggest adult stars.

It’s not often that people in Texas get the chance to roam freely among porn stars, sex toys and cam girls all in one place. Dallas has a deeply religious population — the most evangelical in the country. In the buckle of the Bible Belt, sex positivity, especially in the form of a three-day porn convention, certainly isn’t met with open arms or open dialogue.

The city had been anticipating a reaction from the community for months, since Dallas was announced as an eXXXotica tour stop in January. When eXXXotica billboards first appeared over Dallas area highways in late July, local religious organizations, women’s groups and opinion columnists all voiced their concerns in local newspapers. Women’s groups like the Dallas Women’s Foundation condemned the event in a letter outlining their “concern and disgust.” The mayor reacted by saying he was “deeply concerned,” but couldn’t really take measures to discourage it. Conservative community members, like Dallas-area Catholic blogger Larry Roach, hosted prayer vigils in the parking lots of strip clubs in anticipation of the convention’s arrival.

For a porn fest virgin, browsing the booths at eXXXotica sort of feels like browsing the pages of a NSFW Tumblr page in a crowded office. No matter your level of comfort or experience, bringing something that is normally deemed highly private, or even shameful, into an incredibly public space is new and bizarre — especially when there are picket lines standing just behind closed doors. Live BDSM demonstrations drew a huge crowd, with exhibitors fitting convention-goers into leather harnesses and modeling the correct way to strap a partner into a massive spinning bondage wheel. Nearby, cam girls from webcam site Chaturbate held live chat sessions throughout the day, pausing to take photos with fans and pass out recruitment information for anyone interested.

Laura Bentley, a former teacher turned adult film star and sensuality coach, came to eXXXotica at the request of her agent, but says her ultimate goal is to be an advocate for women in sex work.

“Out here in the Bible Belt, I can’t tell anyone or my neighbors what I do,” Bentley told me at her promotional booth, which held prints of her latest photos and DVDs. “I think the more we repress our natural innate sexual drive, the more problems we’re going to have. We need to be able to have this natural drive to have sex, to experiment and explore that world.”

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The founder, J.Handy, says that eXXXotica typically welcomes 15,000 people through its doors over the course of three days. The Dallas venue sold just as quickly as any other location. As for the choice to host eXXXotica in a city so adverse to the porn industry, Handy simply said Dallas was “next on the list.”

“Dallas is in Texas, Austin is in Texas and Texas is Texas, and those are three different places,” Jenny Block, a Dallas-based, sex-positive author and eXXXotica presenter told me as she arranged copies of her newest book, “O Wow: Discovering Your Ultimate Orgasm” on the display in front of her. “In some ways we can be terribly liberal, and in some ways we are just preposterously not. I know people here are having sex, I know they like sex, but they don’t want people to know either of those things.”

Even in a growing metropolitan area like Dallas, sex work — and sex in general — is still taboo. Texas has a long repressive history when it comes to issues like women’s reproductive rights and sex education. Today, Texas public schools are authorized to teach abstinence-only sex education classes. Recent state abortion restrictions have shut down clinics and decreased accessibility to women across the state. The fight for reproductive and sexual rights for Texas women continues to be a hot button issue in Texas politics, and the porn industry is certainly not exempt from criticism. Texas prostitution and obscenity laws are strict, with the intention of preventing sex trafficking, but because the definition of what is objectively obscene varies between individuals, it is difficult to find a clear-cut solution.

Seated between dancers wearing glitter pasties and displays of high-end vibrators was Vicki Phillips, a volunteer with Restoration Hope Ministries — a safehouse for women and girls affected by sexual exploitation and domestic abuse. The booth was scattered with brochures and free candy and goody bags for anyone who stopped in to ask questions, though there were few takers. Although religious groups were stationed outside, loudly picketing from the hot convention center parking lot, Phillips told me the safehouse is one of the few religiously-affiliated groups that purchased an exhibitor booth at eXXXotica. “The idea is not to hit people over the head and tell them they’re all sinners — it doesn’t have to be obnoxious,” Phillips said. “Rather than being condemnatory, which isn’t our job, [we] say, ‘Look, there is a better way. Let us talk to you about it and respect people for who they are.’”

Larry Roach, a Dallas-area Catholic parishioner, had a different idea. Weeks before eXXXotica’s debut, he blogged about the upcoming “expo of hedonism” and organized an all-male prayer vigil scheduled to meet outside of area strip clubs. According to Roach, a series of “unusual seismic activities,” or earthquakes in the Dallas area could be a “divine warning” for any “sexually oriented businesses.”

“If we’ve abandoned by and large our Christian morality, it’s critical that we return to that,” Roach told me before the exposition opened. “I feel that the direction the country has taken is destructive not only on a moral level but on a natural level as well — that’s the point of our effort — to remind men and women there is a god, and we all will be judged.”

Against these various divine warnings, the show went on without a hitch and welcomed many local sex shops and small business owners, even those who should have felt the quakes. eXXXotica hardly met the hedonistic standards that many locals were holding it to. It was mostly a cookie-cutter, standard exhibition of what the adult industry is all about. In some ways it was lacking critical representation from some of the biggest markets in the industry, featuring predominantly white, heterosexual stars on the mainstage.

Fang Ling Lee, a painter and exhibitor with eXXXotica, said that with all the crazy, in-your-face XXX potential a national porn convention holds, eXXXotica is “generally pretty tame.” Lee, who has been traveling

with eXXXotica for 8 years, keeps coming back for the atmosphere. “I feel more kinship to them because one, I love that it’s a female-dominated industry and it’s very female-supportive and two, I’m a pervert just like everyone else,” Lee says. “I feel like I meet a lot more open-minded, like-minded people.”

The eXXXotica show floor was far from the dark, dangerous, sex-dungeon affair the local media painted weeks prior to the event. Yet, in true Texas tradition, convention center and city regulations required spectators and stars to keep things under wraps even behind closed doors. As the expo shut down at the end of each day, topless women had to cover their nipples, performers and exhibitors traded in g-strings and fishnets for t-shirts and jeans; shiny new vibrators and penis pumps were neatly tucked away before they left the exhibit hall. Official convention center signs placed by the exits offered one final farewell: “Please conceal your purchases until you are in a private area.”