11 American Sexual Pioneers Who Aren’t Straight White Dudes
In the days following the pornography mogul Hugh Hefner’s death, I saw mixed reviews of his contributions to the world of sex. Remembrance pieces in major news outlets painted Hefner as a “sexual pioneer”, posthumously devoid of controversy. On social media I witnessed fellow sexologists praise Hefner while also using words like “problematic” and “sexist”. There were also remembrances that did not shy away from the problematic aspects of Hefner’s career, like one amazingly scathing New York Times piece.
As a feminist sex and dating coach and an expert in sexology, I consider Hugh Hefner simply as the guy behind the magazines my dad kept hidden in my parent’s closet. When I think of sexual pioneers, the people who come to mind are those who contributed something new to the discussion of sex and gender.
The most influential sexual pioneers are great thinkers who challenge norms. They are radical culture makers and represent a cross-section of America that is rarely, if ever depicted in Playboy. They are everything but straight, white and male meaning they are brave for coming forth and representing the people who could not step forward with them. They are advocates for equality and diversity.
The contributions of the folks on this list have helped me to understand sex and gender more fully, with nuance and complexity. That is empowering in a way that Playboy bunnies just aren’t.
11. Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw
Kimberlé Crenshaw gave us the term “intersectionality”. Without it, we would not have a clear way to discuss how a person’s race, gender, class, ability, age and sexual orientation impact their sexual experiences. Intersectionality is also a framework for understanding how sexually marginalized groups as well as groups within groups experience power and institutional structures differently.
10. Joycelyn Elders
This “Condom Queen” and staunch proponent of masturbation education in grade schools is one of my personal heroes. Elders was the first African-American Surgeon General who served in the Clinton administration for just over a year until she was ousted for her frank, outspoken sex positive ways. If only she had been able to stay in her position longer, think of where we might be!
9. Judith Butler
Philosopher, feminist and queer theorist Judith Butler is best known for her 1990 book Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity and the concept of “gender performativity” that is laid out therein. Butler was instrumental in changing the discussion of sex and gender by highlighting the performative nature of gender. We are all acting our gender in many subtle and culturally determined ways, and these performances need not be restricted to traditional binary male-female rules. We have Butler to thank for the gender-queer/non-binary movement.
8. Patricia Hill Collins
Patricia Hill Collins is the President of the American Sociological Association Council, the first African-American woman to hold this position. Among the many books she has written on race gender and sexuality, she is the author of Black Sexual Politics: African Americans, Gender, and the New Racism, which examines how racism and heteronormativity negatively impact the sex lives of African Americans, particularly with regard to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. This work called out homophobia and misogyny in the black community as counterproductive to anti-oppression movements.
7. Janet Mock
Author and trans activist, Janet Mock became a media sensation after the release of her first book, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More. Mock boldly tells her personal story of gender transition, noting that there is no one way to be trans. With this she has given others who identify as trans permission and space to tell their own stories and construct their own gender identity in a way that feels authentic.
6. Tristan Taormino
Tristan Taormino is a sex educator, author, activist and pornographer. Most known for her work in feminist pornography, she also hosts the wildly popular radio show and podcast Sex Out Loud where she interviews today’s most innovative thinkers in the fields of sexology, porn, gender and queer theory and LGBTQ advocacy. Taormino is the editor of The Feminist Porn Book which features thoughtful essays about the importance of porn made by and for feminists.
5. Chuck Holmes
Chuck Holmes was the founder of Falcon Studios which produces and distributes gay male porn. When Holmes started the company in 1971 it was a mail-order service which was discreet for clients interested in gay content. The success of this distribution method was due to the strong demand for gay porn for private, home viewing. Holmes allowed men who may have feared going to a public porn theatre (or who had no place to see gay porn) access to depictions of the kinds of sex they wanted.
4. The founders of feminist sex shops
A recent book by Lynn Comella explores the social impact of female-owned and operated sex shops that began opening all over the US in the 1970s. Vibrator Nation: How Feminist Sex-Toy Stores Changed the Business of Pleasure tells the stories of Babeland, Eve’s Garden, Good Vibrations and the women who founded these amazing stores. These sexual pioneers created space for women to explore sexual products in a safe, supportive and educational environment. Prior to these stores, women were not the target demographic of sex shops often creating an intimidating environment for women in search of pleasure products and pornography.
3. James Baldwin
Writing about the nuances of same-sex attraction in the 1950s, James Baldwin was not only a sexual pioneer, he was a badass. Unafraid to include gay and bisexual characters in his works, he helped normalize what were incredibly taboo sexualities. He gave readers who identified with these sexual orientations a chance to see themselves. His participation in the Civil Rights Movement furthered his influence as a cultural change-maker, his speeches about equality and anti-oppression still heavily resonant today.
Iconic in so many ways, Rupaul has created a drag empire. Rupaul’s Drag Race is a platform for gay men of all backgrounds, shapes and sizes to showcase the art of drag. Rupaul’s career as an entertainer started in the 1990s when the world was just barely ready for what he had to offer: courage, uniqueness, nerve and talent. As an openly gay African American man with a successful performing career, he has paved the way for so many gay men in media today.
Do I really need to say anything here? Beyonce has been a cultural force as an African-American woman who has used her musical platform to advocate for sexual equality. Songs like “Flawless”, “Pretty Hurts” and “Formation” are female empowerment anthems. She also isn’t afraid to sing about female sexual pleasure, her expectations of her partner and the importance of mutual respect in relationships. This is why in 2016 she was named on the BBC Radio 4 Woman's Hour Power List as one of seven women with the biggest impact on women's lives over the past 70 years.
This is by no means an exhaustive list. Please comment with people who you view as sexual pioneers and what they mean to you.