Hot and Bothered

In their current July-August issues, two design magazines, Print and Step, explore the topic of Sex, their approach as different as that of two inexperienced lovers probing each other’s libido. While Step’s “Designing Desire” section emphasizes the aesthetic aspect of current sexual imagery, Print’s special “Pornutopia” issue examines some of the more offending graphic content presently available in our culture.

It is not a subject matter either magazine is comfortable with. Design and Sex make strange bedfellows, particularly in the professional context of a trade publication. Is it appropriate for the editors of Step and Print to force their readers to deal with sexual imagery they might find offensive? What’s the idea here—what has pornography got to do with design? you wonder as you flip past countless pictures of dildos—glow-in-the-dark, leopard-print, shaped like dolphins, made of heavy crystal, candy-colored, or as thick and shiny as chrome-plated trailer hitches.

“Does anything shock us anymore?” asks Emily Potts in Step’s editorial letter. She deplores TV ads about Viagra, yet she doesn’t see anything wrong with the photograph published on page 52 of her magazine, a handsome color shot parading a dozen ominous “butt plugs.” Is it a case of Form-Follows-Function gone awry?

But enough kvetching. We are all adults. Reporting on what’s happening in our industry is the official intent here.

The ways the magazines tackle the topic reflect two diametrically opposite trends in the porn business—the feminization of the erotica on one hand, and the mainstreaming of the hard-core ethos on the other. Step magazine’s clean layouts epitomize the former, while Print magazine’s slatternly page design pays tribute to the latter.

Two recent New York City venues, one cultural, the other commercial, probably attracted the attention of the editors, prompting them to come up with their coincidental issues. The first is the Museum of Sex (MoSex), which opened in October 2002 on Lower Fifth Avenue; the other is Toys in Babeland, a 1600-square-foot sex shop for women doing brisk business in Manhattan’s Soho since September 2003. Both places are reviewed in the magazines, giving their editorial content a welcomed newsy perspective.

But while Print took a journalistic approach, showing the colorful “penetralia” as it is displayed in stores and museums, in all its smutty glory, Step photographed the vibrators as sculptures, out of their tawdry packaging and without descriptive captions—each phallic object d’art tastefully lighted against a neutral background.

For Claire Cavanah, co-founder of Toys in Babeland, “sex is a visual thing.” Even though both magazines subscribe to this apparently innocuous statement—each in their own way, admittedly—there are still plenty of people on this planet who would disagree. According to Rick Poynor, who was invited to write of opening essay for Print, “Until recently, sexuality was understood to be a private matter—and for most people, it still is,” he remarks. “Intrusive, omnipresent sexual imagery erodes the private/public distinction and evaporates any sense of mystery.”

One indeed could argue that sex is not a visual thing. For those among us who close their eyes or turn off the light while making love, sex is experienced as an invisible geometry, a dance whose rapturous patterns create giant kaleidoscopic abstractions. As soon as you open your eyes, sex becomes a wholly different kind of visual experience—a thrilling erotic adventure, but one whose relationship with love is a little more tenuous.

So yes, sex can be visual—but it is not always the case. One wishes that, rather than simply titillate their readers’ voyeuristic tendencies, the magazines had taken this opportunity to draw the line between sex and what is generally called pornography. If they had, both would have had to use the word “porn” instead of the word “sex” on their covers—and their discourse about online erotica or the glorification of violence and vulgarity would have been more credible, less amateurish.

They chose instead the gentler word “sex,” further promoting what Poynor calls “the rapid normalization of porn,” unwittingly conferring legitimacy to a thriving $10-billion industry that exploits women—for the most part.

In her review of the Museum of Sex for Step, Ina Saltz asks whether or not an exhibition called Get Off! Exploring the Pleasure Principle, sponsored in part by Pjur, makers of sexual lubricants, belongs in a museum. “Fortunately, each of us has the right to decide for ourselves,” she writes.

Fortunately, each of us still has the right to think of sex as something intimate and private.