If sex sells then there should be no need to advertise it. The Hitachi Magic Wand, often referred to as “The Cadillac of Vibrators,” doesn’t even advertise itself for sexual purposes. Even Cadillac, the Cadillac of cars, while often highlighting every other aspect of vehicular amenities in their ads, at least acknowledge their comfortable, climate controlled, luxury boxes are still automobiles.
Independent artist Erika Moen addresses this inconsistency in the inaugural strip of her newest comic series, Oh Joy Sex Toy. Each comic in the series focuses on a particular toy and covers topics like design, use, and drawbacks. The first strip features an illustrated avatar of the author says that although the Hitachi is “officially advertised as a back massager” its true purpose is “a sure-fire, minimal effort, orgasm-maker” that will “rattle your cootch until you’re coming like there’s no tomorrow.” The comic then goes on to cover technique, potential complicating factors related to its use, and a profession of love for the device’s incomparability to “any toy, or partner, I’ve ever had.”
Moen has been making webcomics for 15 years. OJST is an illustrated exploration of “everything that relates to sex, sexuality and the sex industry.” As it says in the title, the majority of the comics have focused on the toy aspect and Moen’s illustrations are the best of all possible educational sex toy advertising. The strips commonly focus on a single toy, or technique, and cover uses not specifically addressed on the packaging. Humor and technical experience are often defined in opposition, but Moen transitions between the two, being equal parts hilarious and instructive. With the help of her husband, fellow comic artists, and even adult entertainers, Moen investigates an extensive personal supply of consumer and professional sex toys in an industry where OJST is better ad copy than what’s usually on the back of the box.
Before creating OJST, Moen self-published the comics DAR! A Super Girly Top Secret Comic Diary and Girl Fuck, for “the same reason anyone starts a blog… to tell the Internet: ‘I exist!’” and “‘what I had for lunch.” For years, it was her dream to create an illustrated “magnum opus” that addressed shortcomings in American sex education. After participating in online reality comic strip competition Strip Search, that idea morphed into OJST. “It’s one thing to read a block of descriptive text and quite another to actually see with your eyes what something looks like, whether that’s genitals or sexual positions.”
Part advertisement, part technical guide, Moen’s comics educate. Anyone who has ever expressed frustration at the nonsensical illustrated figures accompanying ready to assemble IKEA furniture may see in OJST a far more accurate way to build a better bookshelf one week, and then an illustrated meditation on the brain chemistry of sexual desire the next. Moen finds the audience more receptive to new information when there are “engaging images” and jokes that help readers feel like they’re “part of the conversation.”
“I don’t remember if we used any sex-ed text books in school,” Moen says. “I remember we had some classes? Well, I remember one class, once, in high school, and a classroom talk in sixth grade, and another general sex-ed class I took at my church…But back then, I was super, super terrified of sex and naked bodies. [My] mother and the other adult women who took care of me absolutely terrified me about sex. That it was this thing that men wanted to do to you, whether you wanted it or not, and even your most trusted, loved male friends would turn on you and try to force you to do.”
There is a rich history of illustrated images used to entertain and educate the public about sex. Both world wars saw massive U.S. government information campaigns warning against the dangers of “Venereal Disease” across all media, but especially with illustrated advertisements. In addition, Planned Parenthood has used comics to promote sexual awareness and reproductive health, in some manner no less forced or propagandistically. As Bitch Magazine online editor Sarah Mirk recently reported, the nonprofit reproductive health care provider created a Spider-Man comic in 1976 in which the web slinger spreads awareness about birth control.
OJST is motivated by a similar aim to spread awareness, although one more focused on the practice of sex and its accoutrement. “Once I discovered that sex could be this really positive, fun, joyful experience, that was it, I couldn’t shut up about it,” Moen says. “If I’d had a slightly more balanced education, chances are pretty good I wouldn’t have become this obnoxious, sex-obsessed person I am today.” Moen educated herself on books like Heather Corinna’s S.E.X.: The All-You-Need-To-Know Progressive Sexuality Guide to Get You Through High School and College and websites like Scarleteen.com and PlannedParenthood.org.
Moen sees the lack of comprehensive sex education as a deliberate barrier to normalizing sex in society. A comprehensive guide would allow inexperienced people to present thoughtful questions. But the potential for honest sex ed, especially aimed at young readers, has remained a topic of debate. Responding to a protest over the book It’s Perfectly Normal, Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory compiled a list of the most controversial sex-books of all time, the complaints against which include: “Candid discussions of women’s reproductive health,” “a same sex relationship between two male penguins,” and “discussions of AIDs.”
“You keep these kids ignorant and then suddenly they’re in a situation that they don’t even have the words for and they have no idea what to do,” she says. “They’re not taught how to ask for consent, how to give consent, how to revoke consent and stop mid-way through. They don’t know to use protection or to demand it if it’s absent, they don’t know this will spread STIs and pregnancy. They don’t know it’s not supposed to hurt. Can you believe that? So, so, so many people think that sex is supposed to hurt the partner with a vagina when they have sex for the first time. They think that’s just the way it is, that’s just how it goes. That is obscene to me. Enforced ignorance that inevitably results in physical and emotional damage, that’s obscenity.”
As the comic strips become more popular, Moen has devoted more of her time to their creation. The artist spends a week on each strip, which amounts to about 4-6 book-sized pages each, only slightly less than a monthly comic book. Unlike a monthly comic, however, Moen does all the work. “In a superhero floppy comic, the labor is divided per stage of the art. So you have one writer, one penciler, one inker, one colorist, and then one letterist adding in all the text and balloons at the end. I’m just one person doing all of that in the same amount of time.”
Other comics in the series include “Ask a Porn Star” in which adult performers answer reader questions relating to their work. “It was great, rather than me doing the hard work of coming up with engaging, original questions, all I had to do was illustrate their advice to people’s problems and questions.” The series has also featured adult performer and Vice.com essayist Stoya, and queer porn legend, Jiz Lee.
Guest illustrators also create strips focused on a range of subjects outside Moen’s disciplines. “Adventurer for hire” Lucy Bellwood contributed a comic strip on rope bondage and Rooster Tail’s Sam Orchard provided an in-depth look at the Le Butch harness. Dr. Emily Nagoski contributed an academically illustrated thesis on the brain science of desire. Food critic and travel writer Lucy Knisley added a comic discussing her personal experiences with the birth control implant. The most recent entrant is a cartoon history of the vibrator from Emi Gennis, a midwestern illustrator and college professor.
Because any one income stream can fluctuate greatly month-to-month, Moen finances OJST through ads, merchandise, syndication fees, and affiliate sales. Recently, that has meant an account with the web service Patreon, an online crowdfunding platform created in San Francisco by Jack Conte and Sam Yam. Like Kickstarter, the website provides artists with a way to monetarily connect with their fans, although Patreon is an ongoing funding system. Kickstarter is primarily focused on raising money for individual projects while Patreon’s users define a contribution amount per content piece and “tips” contributors every time they create something new. She knows that Patreon is a relatively new service, and things on the Internet have a habit of disappearing. “I’m afraid to trust it to stick around. I’ve only been on there for two paychecks, I’m braced for it to disappear just as suddenly as it came.” Patreon currently lists Moen’s earnings at $668.50 for each strip, thanks to 377 patrons.
As newspapers across the U.S. continue to shrink, so do their comics pages. It’s been almost twenty years since Calvin and Hobbes creator Bill Watterson complained about space limitations on the funny pages, but while the rest of the news continues its slow migration to the web, comics have fallen by the wayside. Sites like Buzzfeed have found themselves in controversial positions after posting uncredited versions of webcomics. Moen sees steps in the right direction coming from sites like Medium.com, whose section The Nib, run by Matt Bors, pays cartoonists real wages with a stated goal of making the site a “destination for good political cartoons, comics journalism, humor and non-fiction.” Moen sees webcomics playing a larger role in both entertainment and news sites, saying, “People are so receptive to reading them and they go viral so easily. If you want people to read, stick pictures in there.”
As anyone who has ever peered beyond the beaded curtain, the plain brown paper packaging, or picked up a computer virus knows; sex is advertised far more frequently than sold, its advertising is often misleading at best, and the few advertisements that speak any truth are barely an afterthought. Oh Joy Sex Toy addresses some of these concerns by walking a fine line between instructional guide and advertisement.
“While I don’t think every artist everywhere has a responsibility to educate their audience, it’s a role that works for me,” she says. “People online spend so much time criticizing the things they don’t like about the world, about the media, about our society. That’s valuable. Now I want to see people creating the media they want to exist. My sex education was horrific and scarring, so now I’m trying to make a resource that I personally needed back then and it just so happens that it’s still needed today.”