Out of the Combat Zone and Into the Ivory Tower

As Boston city officials struggle to cleanup the area’s red light district, the sex industry is getting a more refined look, and dipping into the disposable incomes of college students and young professionals. Collegegait panties anyone?

The Combat Zone, officially known as the Lower Washington Street Adult Entertainment District, was once Boston’s center for adult entertainment. However, many of the area’s strip clubs and pornographic theaters are long gone, replaced by luxury apartments and office buildings. City officials and Chinatown residents seem eager to close down the Combat Zone, but their efforts will do little to eliminate the sex industry.

The sex industry turned a $57 billion revenue worldwide in 2003. In the United States Pornography created a revenue of $12 billion, more than the combined revenue of ABC, CBS, and NBC according to Family Safe Media.

While efforts by city officials and resident activist groups may affect individual clubs, the sex industry as a whole is more affected by consumer trends. One Boston area resident, Miri Perlov, says, “I think the sex industry as a whole is cleaning up, and I don't think that this means it's going anywhere. People no longer want a ‘dirty little secret,’ they want sex, and they want it clean, they want it huge, and they want everybody to know about it. The places that are going under around here are merely suppliers going under, that does not mean that anything happened to the demand.”

Pornography, once reserved for sordid stores in the red light district, has been conveniently made available on the Internet, and more recently, in the city’s universities. The Harvard University-funded magazine H-Bomb is filled with pictures of nude co-eds and educational, if also sexually themed, articles. H-Bomb was the first publication to bring pornography into the ivory tower, but the idea is spreading.

Less than a year after the publication of H-Bomb, Boston University students are collaborating on their own sexually themed magazine called Boink. Boink, which is set to launch in January, is not affiliated with Boston University. In fact, the publication has received criticism from the university’s administration. Dean of Students Kenneth Elmore said, "The University does not endorse, nor welcome, the prospective publication Boink; nor view its publication as a positive for the University community, because of our concern for the treatment of serious sexual health, relationship, and related issues," in a statement released in October.

The magazine’s editor-in-chief, Alecia Oleyourryk, a Boston University senior, is unapologetic about the publication. Though Oleyourryk pointed out that she is “not trying to piss [the administration] off,” during a Boink editorial meeting, she also stresses that “sex is a huge part of college life.” Boink is expected to be more explicit than, H-Bomb, because H-Bomb is censored by Harvard University.

While Boston University administrators oppose the publication of Boink, the magazine is likely to find support among students. Boston University junior Renata Rosen said via email, “I'm glad it's out there. I can't say I'm surprised by it, but I think it's great. I've had a lot of basic sex ed cause I'm from NYC, but I'm constantly surprised by the lack of education of some of my peers. Anything that's going to bring these topics out in the open, give out more information, all that jazz, is good for everybody.”

Student and New York native Yasha Grinberg agreed. “I think it's a good thing...the more it's out there in the open, the less taboo sex has to be. Propagation of pornography as an acceptable thing leads to sex being an acceptable thing,” said Grinberg.

The sex industry is abandoning its shady past and embracing a mainstream approach, which allows for a more diverse market. While sex stores still exist in parts of Chinatown and what is left of the Combat Zone, they are facing competition from sexuality boutiques around the city.

Sexuality boutiques such as Grand Opening in Brookline’s Coolidge Corner, Condom World on Newbury Street, and Eros Boutique in the Back Bay aim to provide an upscale atmosphere. While each shop focuses on a different clientele, they share several features. These stores are in trendy parts of town, easy and safe to get to. They not only provide patrons with a large selection of toys, books, and digital media, but they also employ friendly sales staff who will explain the less obvious items offered.

Grinberg believes that sexuality boutiques make sexually themed products more acceptable. “They welcome all people and make it more acceptable to visit places like that. Places like that have non-creepy atmospheres, unlike straight-up porn shops, and cater to pretty much anyone that wants a new 'thing' in their relationship instead of people who frequent adult shops on a regular basis,” said Grinberg.

Boston University student Sara Rosen* explains the appeal of sexuality boutiques saying, “Red Light districts are sort of seedy, back-alley places filled with unsavory characters. Grand Opening is in a lovely mall in Coolidge Corner. Big difference there. I can go to a mall without fearing for my life and/or virtue. I haven't been to the Red Light districts, but going on mass culture, I don't want to. I don't particularly want to interact with middle-aged creepy guys looking for a quick blow job from an underage hooker. However, a vibrator shaped like a rubber ducky from a cute girl in plastic glasses at a boutique? I can go for that.”

Perhaps what distinguishes these sexuality boutiques from more traditional vendors of pornography is that they are women-friendly. Grand Opening owner Kim Airs estimates that about 65 percent of her clientele is female. Not surprising when you consider that Airs creates an environment that she hopes will be comfortable for women by selecting soft colors for the store and removing display items from packaging that she feels is offensive.

A sex industry aimed at women is a new concept, but a strong one. Grand Opening is just one of several women-friendly sex stores that have popped up across the nation is recent years. Another women-friendly company is Passion Parties Inc., which organizes the pornographic version of Tupperware parties -- private house parties where a Passion Parties consultant presents a selection of products that partygoers may order. These quaint-sounding sex parties sold $20 million in products last year.

Passion Parties sales have grown nearly 50 percent annually for the last three years, and Grand Opening owner Airs has recently opened a second women centered adult entertainment store in Los Angeles. Women who have been largely ignored as potential consumers of sexual entertainment are becoming a driving force in the industry.

Although sexuality boutiques are often aimed at women, men find them more comfortable as well. “Comparing Toys in Babeland, and places like it to regular porn shops is like comparing Victoria's Secret to some trashy lingerie place...there's a certain amount of class, comfort, etc.,” says Grinberg. Grinberg adds, “At a specialty place they're considerably more educated about what they're selling.”

The Internet may be a major push behind this new trend in the sex industry. Not only has the Internet created a new, and more private, way to buy and sell pornography and sexual novelty items it has created an environment in which there is “more education about alternative sexual practices,” according to Grinberg.

Rosen adds that the privacy afforded by the Internet makes resources and education more accessible. “The Internet lets people find things out privately. It takes out having to ask questions you find embarrassing. I may not know how to give a blow job, but I don’t want to discuss it with anyone. It's now embarrassing to be less experienced. So I can go on something like sexproject.com, and find out everything I need to know,” says Rosen.

While the sex industry seems to be abandoning the Combat Zone, some community members fear that gentrification will wipe out some of the city’s historically important elements. A recent move by Mayor Menino would knock down the Gaiety Theater and replace it with a luxury apartment complex. The Gaiety Theater was designed by Clarence Blackall and boasts acoustics that rival Symphony Hall. It also has the distinction of being the first Vaudeville theater in Boston and for years the only one in which African Americans could perform. The Asian Community Development Corporation has proposed an alternative plan for restructuring the Combat Zone and preserving the Gaiety. That plan has been rejected by Menino.

Others agree that red light districts can be historically significant in certain cities. “It depends where it is. It happened in Times Square and good riddance, but in places like Amsterdam though, they should most definitely leave it alone,” said Grinberg.

*Names have been changed