i have adventures (sometimes)

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Sexpo's Straight White People Problem

Contrary to popular opinion, I don't particularly enjoy arguing on the internet. Sure, sometimes I'll send hostile tweets to Mark Driscoll when I'm in a bad mood, but on the whole I find arguing tiring and stressful and I like to leave it to people who can argue much more competently than I can, and there are lots of those.

But on Friday I found myself embroiled in several online arguments about something that seemed pretty obvious and straightforward to me: Sexpo's straight white people problem. Are there bigger problems in the world? Sure. Does this mean that we should just shut up about representation until we've solved poverty, violence and war? No.

Obligatory disclaimer: I am a white, basically straight person. This is not a problem that affects me directly, and I don't want to white knight about it. I also think that's kind of what I'm doing here, and so I'm in two minds about posting this. I don't claim to speak for the people who've actually been excluded here. I wanted to raise this problem for discussion, but I'm very open to correction.

Sexpo claims to be
the world’s largest event of its kind focusing on a broad spectrum of adult related topics and spectacular stage performances by local and international adult entertainers. The aim of the exhibition is to educate, inform, entertain and celebrate our sexuality in a fun, exciting and safe atmosphere.
What it doesn't mention on the website is that it mostly wants to offer all these things to white heterosexuals - or at least, so I infer from their advertising. Every single poster/billboard I've seen features white, hetero couples. Their website also gives a pretty good indication of who they think worth representing (only here without any thin white men to get in the way of gazing at thin white women).*

Here, have some thin white ladies for your male gaze.
I'm also not the first person to think so, based on this very interesting post about Sexpo Australia:
This experience has opened me up more than ever to the normative and heterosexual-oriented nature of the exhibition. Although it markets itself as a show about ‘lifestyle’ and ‘sexuality’, I found anything but this in my searches of their website and from the organisers themselves. Their desire to represent ‘sexuality’ (other than heterosexuality) seemed confined to throwing together a couple of gay back-up dancers to perform and have a handful of half-stalls selling sex toys for men.
So I wrote to them.
Hey Sexpo,
Why do all your posters feature white hetero couples? It's exclusionary and in no way reflects the reality of sexual relationships in South Africa or elsewhere. I'm very disappointed and will not be attending Sexpo.
To their credit, I received a response quite promptly. To their credit, it was an apology. Less to their credit, it wasn't a very good one. I'm going to break it down here and talk about why. As it presumably represents Sexpo's official response (a friend who sent a similar complaint got the same email), I don't have qualms about reproducing it here.
Hi there Alison,
While I fully understand your feelings towards our advertising campaign I ask that you bear in mind that our show is a lot more than just an a billboard on the side of the road. 
So, here's the first thing. If you want to make your apology sound sincere, maybe don't start with "while I fully understand...". I'm one word in and I can already tell you're not about to give me a sincere apology - and also that you probably don't fully understand. Similarly, don't lead with asking the person you're apologising to to do anything. Apologising is acknowledging that you screwed up. And that means not imposing your wishes and demands on the other party.

More importantly, what "our show is more than our billboard" seems to say is "our billboards don't represent us". This is clearly counter-intuitive. The first and most obvious point is that, if your ads don't represent your event, then your ads aren't very good. But what really gets me is that this clearly isn't even true.

  • Above is the front page of their website.
  • I've already quoted from a post discussing exactly this in relation to Sexpo Australia.
  • This is their banner. (Source)
  • This is a billboard of theirs that got banned last year.
  • This is their Twitter feed (would you like some more thin white ladies for your male gaze?)**

Edit (23/09/2013): Since my initial post, I've found what I assume is actually the official Sexpo SA Twitter account. Neither is verified and they both claim to belong to Sexpo, but this one has more activity. It's less terrible than the other one, but has a lot of the same sort of content.

Their posters seem to be representing their event just fine. If they're misrepresenting it in any way, I guess it's that they made me think that Sexpo was for white hetero people, whereas after visiting their website and tracking down their Twitter feed, I realise that they're actually talking to white hetero men. My mistake.
I ask that you view it as an oversight on our part as we put the campaign together very quickly with a design team who presents different options and due to the fact the show has so many elements we sign off as quickly as possible. 
Again, stop asking me to do stuff. But let's gloss over that, because this is my favourite bit: it was an oversight. It was an oversight, you guys. Oh, well then. If they just didn't stop to think about other people, then that's totally cool.

No, wait, that's sort of the whole problem.

Not thinking about other people is pretty much what privilege is. Don't get me wrong, I have a whole lot of privilege and I get stuff wrong a lot. Among my many other faults, I've managed to be horrendously racist and classist in the past, and I'm ashamed of that. I don't doubt I still get things very wrong now. I didn't do those things out of malice. I didn't say things that contributed to other people's oppression because that was what I set out to do. I did it because I didn't think. But that's an explanation, not an excuse. I don't get to stop there. I have to acknowledge the problem, commit to doing things differently and educate myself.

"It was an oversight"? Not really cutting it for me.
I appologise (sic) personally for any offence this may have caused but ask you take into account that with all the elements of the show we have seemingly dropped the ball on one.
Seriously bro, stop asking me to do stuff.

One of the things that really grates me about this apology is that it doesn't go nearly far enough. I grant that it's a step above "I'm sorry your feelings got hurt although I take no responsibility for that", but not by much. It doesn't suggest to me any real engagement with the problem or understanding of wrongdoing.

If I were making this apology and wanted to sound sincere, I might have mentioned those things by way of explanation, but then added "but that's inexcusable". I also wouldn't have used the phrase "seemingly dropped the ball". Because none of this says to me that they actually understand that this is a problem.

What this does say to me is that they don't understand that this isn't a matter of personal offence. This is not about my feelings. So what if I feel offended? Some people feel offended by same-sex couples and women showing their knees. It doesn't mean we owe them an apology. I pointed out an actual problem with the fact that Sexpo seems to value only white straight people men. My personal feelings aren't really the concern there.
I promise that next year an effort will be made to rectify the mistake. I am sadden (sic) by the news that you will not be attending owing to this mistake but that said you will be missing the best show of all.
Well, that's something. Ish? Committing (sort of) to doing things differently is good, and I appreciate the promise. Although I will wait until I see it before I believe it.

On the other hand, "you're missing out lol" (ok, I paraphrased) really isn't doing anything to change my mind about the fact that they just don't get it or think my concerns are very serious. Sexpo has made it very clear who they value, and that group doesn't include a lot of my friends. After looking at their website, banner and Twitter feed, I'm not at all convinced it includes me either.

So, no thanks, Sexpo. I don't think I'll be missing out at all. Unless your banners, billboards, posters and online presence don't actually reflect your event, in which case I respectfully suggest that you rethink your marketing strategy.


And that was just where my arguments on Friday started. I'm going to totally ignore the ridiculous Facebook argument,*** but I do think it's worth briefly mentioning the discussion I (and Comrade Ayesha) had with Sexpo's marketing manager over Twitter.

If you would like to read the exchange, I've Storified it here.

I originally wanted to spend more time talking about this conversation, but I think its main purpose here is just that it seems to support what I've said about them not understanding the problem. Or, for that matter, how apologising works. The highlight might be the phrase "no need for hostility lol".

Yep, "looking for something to latch onto". Because there's no deep systemic problem here and there's nothing we feminists love better than a good nitpick. I guess we just need a better hobby?


As ever, I'm disappointed and, as ever, I feel naive for expecting anything else. Sex is an arena which has the potential to be so transgressive, and instead, Sexpo's just propping up the same old hegemony. Yawn. Even in South Africa, which is so incredibly sexually conservative, I think we could do better. Hell, I feel like especially in South Africa we should do better. In a country this heteronormative, where race and class divisions are so entrenched, the people with the power and privilege to have a say in representation have a responsibility to do better than this. (But now my naivete is really showing.)

This isn't a crusade against Sexpo. It's a bigger societal problem and they just happen to have illustrated for us so nicely. All in all, they seem pretty regressive and boring and I have no interest in going or giving them my money, but I have no particular grudge against them. If they actually do things differently next year, then we'll see. I'm not trying to put anyone off going, either. I hope that everyone who wants to attend goes and feels safe and welcome and shows the Sexpo organisers how wrong they are in being so exclusionary. Or maybe they'll get exactly the white hetero crowd they apparently want and we can all feel a little bit naughty for saying "sex" out loud and this will all be forgotten by next year.

But now I'm just being hostile lol.

*Full disclosure: at the time of posting, the front page now also features "Pricasso" and one other dude in a suit. Otherwise it's thin white women all the way down.
**I'm not being unfairly selective here. I've chosen 3 tweets out of a sum total of 11. One is a duplicate. One is a pair of white lady legs in sexy lady shoes. One is... disturbing. And the reason I use birth control. One is a boring and heteronormative joke. One is a request to Twitter support. You get the idea. (The idea is that they are not very good at Twitter. No, sorry, that's incidental.)
***The phrase "political correctness" was used, which basically tells you all you need to know. Although that "gays and ethnics" was used probably tells you more.


  1. I enjoyed seeing those tweets! Ah yes, the whole "I was raised by a homosexual, therefore it's impossible for me to be discriminatory towards homosexuals" argument. Gah, it irritates me so much! Exactly the same as someone making a racist remark and then saying "but I have black/white/Asian etc. friends, so I'm not being racist!" If that was true, then technically murderers can get away with saying that they're not murderers because they do have friends who're alive. I must say, I laughed while reading the tweets and seeing him flounder and attempt to defend himself, while overusing "lol" and "haha". What. An. Idiot. (yes, say that in Hermione's voice)

  2. Also think it should be mentioned that this isn't just one billboard. On William Nicol there are 3 or 4 in a row that all show *different* white hetro couples. I mean it's one thing if you happen to choose a white straight couple for a single billboard, the difference here is that it's across the entire campaign that features a large variety of people/couples and they're all white and all straight which is a little more than a simple oversight.

  3. Hey Ali,
    I think it's good of you to bring this up. To paraphrase my thought trajectory when first encoutering this issue: "Sexpo is private company -> Choose marketing that generates Best returns -> May unfortunately be white, skinny women". This is obviously not an excuse and rather I think Sexpo is in a rare position where they can make some good corporate-societal contributions by including other genders/sexualities (and, well I would think including other races would just be obvious!). It's an interesting and very engagable issue, so thanks for bringing it up. I do want to say, though, that I think (at least in the Twitter feed) I find you came across as more aggressive and angry than "he" did. I don't want to dwell on this - how accurately can one really gauge the "feeling" behind a tweet if it's not stated excplicitly? - but I feel a strength in feminist discourse is to invite questioning and discussion, not to try and prove others wrong, or shame them with sarcasm.

  4. @AstroKatie on twitter recently said "Anyone who says they'll only work against sexism if women ask nicely never really wanted equality to begin with." and I think that applies here.

    Criticising Ali because she could have been sweeter in her tweets to Sexpo is just a subtle put-down, and an unwarranted one. Inequality is a daily injustice and that makes people angry - and telling a feminist to 'just calm down' and 'try being nicer' exposes your privilege really, really quickly.

    If you have more of a problem with Ali's tone than with Sexpo's blatantly exclusionary advertising - well, then your brand of feminism is warped and I'm not on board with it.

    Of course, I might be wrong - you might be a badge-carrying officer of the Tone Police.

  5. Thanks for the comment! Yeah, it really is the old "some of my best friends are black". It's not a get out of jail free card!

    And using "lol" like a punctuation mark is a surefire way to get my blood pressure up immediately. I love language and the Internet and how they work together, but there's just something about it that drives me nuts. XD

  6. Yes, good point! I'd only seen that one billboard and a series of posters that all had what looked like the same couple. You're right, it's way beyond an oversight - and an oversight just isn't a good enough excuse anyway.

  7. Hey Alex

    Thanks for the comment. As Dasia has already said very eloquently though, your comment on my tone is not really helpful, and to be honest I find it quite condescending. Tone policing is a derailing tactic (http://geekfeminism.wikia.com/wiki/Tone_argument).