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Sex, Media, and Stormy Daniels

UNLV professor Lynn Comella on why academics should find ways to explain the complexities of research to the wider public.

Campus News  |  Apr 23, 2018  |  By UNLV News Center
woman in front of microphones

The intense media coverage of adult film actress Stormy Daniels offered an opportunity for UNLV professor Lynn Comella to share her research expertise and broaden the public discussion. (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: 

This essay was written by Lynn Comella, a professor of gender and sexuality studies at UNLV and author of Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure.

Mainstream media outlets have never been particularly good at talking about sex work or sex workers. Rather, as writer and adult performer Arabelle Raphael has recently noted, “Sex workers have always fallen into the cracks of public discourse.” Reporters often dismiss sex workers out of hand, treat them with contempt, or, as Raphael observes, deploy the label “porn star” as though it was “an epithet.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, good reporting has been difficult to find during the media firestorm of the alleged relationship between Stormy Daniels and President Donald Trump. There have been hot takes, dismissive takes, angry takes, and lazy takes. Some pundits have opined that the story amounts to little more than titillating fodder, a distraction from bigger, more important political issues. Others have used it to lob attacks at an industry they find morally repugnant or personally objectionable. In these and other instances, hand wringing frequently replaces facts, worn clichés stand in for data, and bad puns typed in 140 characters supersede journalistic rigor.

I have written elsewhere about the uneven and one-dimensional depictions of sex work in Las Vegas. The city’s highly gendered and sexualized economy means that strip clubs, webcam studios, porn performers, and the politics of sex work are staples of media coverage of the city.

And yet, reporters, pundits, and op-ed contributors often reproduce a narrow set of stereotypes that position sex workers as either victims or social outcasts, while presenting the larger adult industry in the most sensationalistic, reductive, or predatory terms. And editors, who are often desperate for “clicks” on their online news sites, are willing to forgo fact-checking and journalistic standards for the bump they hope peddling sex will give them. Rinse and repeat.

This is not just a Stormy Daniels problem or even a problem for those of us in sexuality studies. Finding ways to explain the complexities of data, evidence and research to the wider public, especially regarding controversial or misunderstood topics, is a challenge that academics in all fields face.

Public Engagement and Media Outreach

Over the past 10 years I have talked with upwards of 200 journalists about the politics of pornography, the history of sex toys, the state of sex education, and more. I once spoke to a reporter from the New York Times in the middle of a vacation because he was on deadline. A crew from ABC Nightline came to my home in downtown Las Vegas to tape an interview about the adult webcam industry. I flew to Los Angeles to film a segment for the National Geographic Channel about the history of sex, and I recently appeared on a popular morning show in Australia to discuss the growing consumer demand for sexual products.

I’ve had a few bad experiences along the way, but I make time to talk to journalists because I want better, more accurate reporting on sexuality to become the norm rather than the exception.

In late January, for example, a national reporter from the Washington Post reached out to me: Would I be attending the annual Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas the following week? And also, did I know Stormy Daniels?

Two weeks earlier the Wall Street Journal had broken the story that Michael Cohen, President Trump’s longtime personal lawyer, had paid Daniels to remain silent about the relationship. The report injected new life into Trump’s rumored infidelities, while adding a layer of possible campaign finance violations to the mix.

Although I don’t personally know Daniels, I offered to answer the reporter’s questions about the Expo. Several days later she was on a plane to Las Vegas. She believed it was the first time the Washington Post had sent a political reporter to cover the largest adult entertainment showcase in the United States.

It was refreshing to see the Post send a veteran reporter to Las Vegas to learn about the industry, and I was more than willing to step into the role of academic ambassador. I introduced her to people she might want to talk to and watched as she took copious notes about the state of the industry. She interviewed performers and directors, spoke to academic researchers such as myself, and followed up with fact-checking emails. She was intrepid. I was impressed.

Media engagement can take any number of forms. Sometimes it involves providing a pithy quote; other times it requires a 45-minute phone conversation about the history of women in adult entertainment. I do not pretend to be an authority on all things sexual and have no problem declining a media request when the topic is outside my area of expertise.

Reporters need good sources who are willing to talk to them and provide fact-based information and reliable data. They also need contacts who can point them in the direction of other experts. In my case, that includes sex workers whose voices do not factor nearly enough in either media or policy discussions about sex work.

For academic researchers, media work is an important form of public engagement and community outreach. It involves taking information and ideas that often stay within the bounds of academic discussions and making them available for wider audiences. It also works that has the potential to broaden public debates and, importantly, influence policy considerations.

I’ve stayed in touch with the Washington Post reporter. When I recently asked about the paper’s decision to send her to the Expo, she noted that our email exchange was “one example of how that visit has paid off, just as a visit to any other convention would. I met people who have shared knowledge that has informed my reporting.”

The more that academic experts at UNLV and elsewhere can package their research for popular consumption, the better, more knowledgeable the conversations surrounding it will ultimately be. To riff off the Post’s motto, good research also dies in darkness.