My Sexpo Experience: A Closer Look at Cape Town’s Sex Fair

André told me that he wants to go to the Sexpo, South Africa’s largest sexuality exposition at Cape Town’s International Convention Centre (CTICC). When I pick him up on Sunday afternoon his girlfriend lies in bed. She just came back from work and points out that she’s too tired to join. ‘Don’t get drunk!’ she says to André when we head off. I’m puzzled. On our way he confides that he didn’t tell her about the Sexpo. He made her believe that we would go to the Cape Town Beer Festival. André smiles self-evidently. He assumes that our little excursion would get him into trouble.

We reach the entrance. Tickets go over the counter for R120. André is hesitant. It’s a lot of money for the unemployed man in his early 20ies. He struggles to pay his share of the rent with the meagre profit he makes by selling Chronic, a marijuana breed. But we already made our way from the Northern suburbs to Cape Town centre. He looks at me like at an accomplice on a secret mission. ‘Let’s do this.’ We enter a modern exposition hall with stalls and a large stage at the back. The narrow walkways are crowded, about two thirds are men, women are also attracted many of them came with their partner. I read there are more than 40.000 people attending the Sexpo each year during the four days of ‘Health, Sexuality and Lifestyle’.

André is eager to walk past all the stalls as quickly as possible. I’m not sure if the public display of sex toys, soft pornography, and ladies’ underwear makes him uncomfortable or if he’s just bored. I approach a counter with designer vibrators fabricated in Sweden. Around the corner an elderly man sits naked on a chair. He promotes naturism in the name of the South African Nudist Association. Further up a self-declared Picasso paints portraits with his penis. He digs his male brush into paint and pictures the faces of two women sitting in front of him.

Some exhibitors are concerned with sexual health. The issue of men’s im/potency is omnipresent. My impression is, however, that the products advertised and sold have little to do with the medical condition of erectile dysfunction. I approach some Chinese retailers. There is a drug called Sex Man, the slogan on the packet says ‘Easy to be a man.’ Another one is called Maxman. The packaging exposes a bodybuilder’s biceps and chest. ‘Erection Power’ is hand written on a tag. I don’t suffer from impotency but for a moment I’m tempted to buy some pills for an auto-ethnographic experiment. No. I already spent my last Rand on the entry fee.

Other medicines are offered for penis augmentation. They are called Best Penis or Beautiful. A retailer approaches me to recommend a penis pump. Allegedly it is one of the most effective devices to empower and enlarge the male tool. ‘But don’t pump it up to much! Otherwise it will rupture your blood vessels.’ The man warns me with an ironic smile and goes on to assert ‘It helped me to get from 15 to 25.’ A golden sculpture of a penis, about two meters long and erect, seems to set the ideal standard. It is placed in the centre of the hall where the walkways meet. People look at it in admiration and some amusement. A woman approaches it hesitantly, touches the sculpture and then poses in front of it for a picture.

‘A cock-ring for only 40 Rand!’ A young woman hands me over a rubber band with inbuilt capacity to vibrate. Kindly I decline. Always when I make a halt at a stall André keeps in safe distance and does not engage in conversations with vendors or other people. He is more thrilled by entertainment and points to a show announced in a pamphlet. On our way to the stage we pass the American porn star Jesse Jane. A knot of people gathers around the stall in awe. One fan poses with her for a photograph. It’s R120 and for another R80 she is topless. Then the young woman hands out autographs mostly to young men but also some women. The male porn stars nearby are gay.

This afternoon the Sexpo culminates with the show of Arianna Star. André is excited. He’s familiar with her. The Miss Nude Australia gives a stunning performance in curtain acrobatics. Afterwards, we leave immediately. When André sees a sign in the hallway of the convention centre he drops his first comment: ‘Look, there is also a church function going on!’ I ask what his dad would say about the Sexpo. André indicates shyly that he wouldn’t be thrilled. The previous year, a fundamentalist Christian group, in fact, threatened to protest against the Sexpo. It was claimed that perverse sex toys are advertised and that women are stereotyped as sex objects. Ultimately, they argued, this may lead to an increase of sexual violence and abuse.

There is no doubt: At the Sexpo sexuality is something that can be sold and by putting a price tag on it, women are to some degree objectified. What goes often unnoticed is that men are turned into sex objects in their own kind of way. Driven by a perceived need to perform sexually on a mere physcial scale manhood becomes a material thing: a giant, erect, and always functining penis. The irony is that men tend to do this, first of all, to themselves. Through insecurities and fantasies of sexual power men may run the risk of dissociating their bodies from their “souls.”

In how far plastic vaginas, pornography, and erect penises make men in general more violent against women remains an open question. However, it is safe to say that the Sexpo is not just for sexists, misogynists, and wife-beaters. Moreover, it is unlikely that men will turn into sex monsters when they leave the venue. In fact, to me it seemed to be a rather innocent event for couples who want to spice up their sex life as well as for (young) men who feel insecure about their sexuality and unable to act it out within inter-personal relationships. Fear, shame…you name it.

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