The stereotypical image of the suburban woman is one of selflessness, order, and safety: identical houses, minivans en route to soccer practice, PTA bake sales, practical coiffures. She is as antiseptic and controlled as her pristine lawn enclosed by a white picket fence; as orderly and wholesome as the food she packs away in the kids’ lunch boxes. But, routinely, this idealized vision is challenged by narratives of women with desires that cannot be so tidily contained—take the arrival in 2011 of Fifty Shades of Grey, a runaway hit that was attributed to suburban mommies with an interest in kinky sex.
Soon, trend pieces reported that floggers were flying off the shelves, thanks to all those soccer moms with tattered copies of this raunchy book. As one newspaper said of a local sex toy shop, “Drive by the parking lot in the middle of the day, and it’s full—minivans, SUVS and sedans—and inside are women on a mission.” The phenomenon was cast as strange, unexpected, and vaguely threatening. At the same time, it was laughingly neutralized with the phrase “mommy porn.”
This notion of the sex-hungry suburban woman perennially returns. The trope has thrived over the decades, showing up everywhere from fear-mongering news articles to “bored housewife” porn clips. She is both fact and fiction; and alternately serves as specter, fantasy, and absurdist comedy.
The suburban ideal is defined by this ever-present threat of sex. Not just any kind of sex, but sex that falls outside of what anthropologist Gayle Rubin famously called the “charmed circle” of sexuality—namely, sex that is heterosexual, vanilla, private, monogamous, procreative, and marital. Such “uncharmed” sex poses an existential threat to the ’burbs. As frequently portrayed, the danger comes from without, an encroachment of outside influence. From pole dancing classes to Fifty Shades of Grey to enduring intrigue around “the swingers next door,” the suburbs are cast as perpetually in danger of corruption into irrepressible bacchanalia.
All of buttoned-up, well-kept suburbia is seen as at risk, but the focus is often on women and girls, those custodians of civilization. Without their sexual gatekeeping, the suburban ideal could not exist.
For as long as the modern suburbs have existed, there has been concern about the threat of sex-related businesses. The 1950s boom in drive-in movie theaters was supposed to represent a wholesome family activity, but it was also denounced as a “passion pit,” both because young people used their cars as cover for fooling around and because the screening of risqué foreign films sparked a moral panic. In recent decades, outrage has shifted to more explicitly sexual businesses, like sex toy shops. “This plays into the long-running narrative about suburbia being this space of domesticity and conformity,” says Paul Maginn, a researcher specializing in urban planning and regulation of the sex industry. “It’s a patriarchal space in a historical view: women are at home and men are at work.”
Of course, the idea of a similarly clear-cut sexual divide between city and suburb is a myth: people have sex anywhere and everywhere. “Various forms of commercialized sex have always been in the suburbs because it’s been suburban men historically who consume those types of sexual spaces in the city,” he said. Sex-related products themselves have long been part of the suburban home, too. In the post-war period, porn magazines might be hidden in a suitcase in a bedroom closet, he pointed out, and vibrators were sold via mail-order.
Time and again, though, sex, and sexual commerce especially, are treated as dangerous trespassers. Take, for example, the Chicago Tribune covering attempts in the 1990s by suburban towns to block “gentlemen’s clubs” from moving into their neighborhoods. “Warranted or not, fear of a suburban sexual invasion has spread in recent months, spurring village officials from Park Forest to Downers Grove to pass laws—in one case outlawing live entertainment entirely—to protect their towns from fleshy entertainment,” the article read. A couple years later, Minnesota’s Star Tribune wrote: “Whether the suburbs are threatened with an eventual stampede of sex-oriented businesses is uncertain. Most communities say they’re... trying to address the problem before it crops up.”
A 2003 New York Times piece highlighted one such controversy in Milford, Connecticut, over “pornography stores.” In what has become a signature of this genre of reportage, the article contrasted the heavy-handed signs of “suburban idyll” (“tributes to veterans,” “ice cream shops and hardware stores, beauty parlors and antique dealers,” “church steeples”) with “tinted windows” and “dilapidated” buildings.
Thinly sourced trend stories about the purported influx of sex work invariably describe it as an encroaching threat: “Now prostitution is spreading fast in the suburbs—and it could be much closer to home than you think,” read one article. A key component of Rubin’s charmed circle of sexuality is that it is “non-commercial.” Of course, the divide isn’t just between “good” and “bad” sex, but also “good” and “bad” girls.
Sometimes, these articles forward a narrative of empowerment, while also offering over-the-top culture-war fodder: A 2007 piece in the Chicago Tribune highlighted the purported suburban rise of pole-dancing, which had “flared up as a much-hyped Hollywood exercise craze,” “seeped into the collective unconscious,” and “even been spotted as dance props at over-the-top bat mitzvah parties in suburban precincts.” Pole-dancing, the article explained, remedied the way that “some middle-aged suburban women lose themselves and their sense of sexuality as they are consumed by the responsibilities of motherhood.” The article’s headline: “Goodbye, book clubs— hello, pole-dancing parties.”
By the 2000s, worry about these salacious activities had shifted; now suburban women were holding in-home sex toy gatherings in the style of retro Tupperware parties. (Never mind that Doc Johnson had started in-home sex toy sales in the late ’70s.) A piece in SF Weekly profiled a company using in-home sales to move “the dildo into the national mainstream—one housewife at a time.” This company, with a sales pitch promising to help customers “go from stress out to make out,” was “spread[ing] the gospel of the vibrator among America’s once-unreceptive suburbs and small towns.” An NBC News article highlighted the “diced fruit, vegetable crudités and a tray with marshmallows ready for dipping into a chocolate fountain” at one such event, before dichotomously quoting a saleswoman demonstrating a masturbatory sleeve: “OK ladies, now rub, lick, blow.”
Of course, this 2000s-era phenomenon was a direct result of Sex and the City, which in the late ’90s famously introduced The Rabbit to the masses, reportedly inspiring a surge in vibrator sales. And, a decade later, when the Sex and the City movie came around, it inspired coverage similar to those sex toy parties: suburban women were getting together with moms from their “kids’ play group” to “relive their wilder days” or, could it be, see a reflection of “the exhilarating lives they currently lead—yes, even in towns with names such as Downers Grove and Plainfield,” as one piece put it. It is news, apparently, that women continue to exist as complex multidimensional humans post-marriage, post-baby, post-suburbia.
Even when such articles are positive and celebratory, they help to underscore an idea of suburban womanhood. They find comedy and dramatic revelation in the dissonance between crudités and jack-off sleeves. Sometimes, though, trend stories actually suggest that the suburban idea is an illusion. They gesture toward what happens behind closed doors, beyond the picket-fence facade.
Nowhere is that more evident than in the perennial fascination with suburban swingers. Suburban historian Mark Clapson wrote that in the ’70s, “men’s magazines had a field day with the idea that suburban women are ready and waiting on the sofa” and “perpetrated the notion that sexual adventurousness is inherently deviant, suburban and therefore somehow furtive.” Penthouse, he notes, “described wife-swapping as ‘the primary indoor sport of suburbia.’” Decades later, in the ’90s, “Men Only offered its readers ‘the sex secrets of bored suburban man-mad housewives,’” he writes.
This wasn’t just the terrain of men’s magazines, though. In a New York Times review of a 1999 documentary on the lifestyle, Stephen Holden wrote, “What lends the movie a comic undertone is how everyday many of these swingers are. There is absolutely nothing to distinguish these polyester-clad, politically conservative suburbanites from the crowds in any Middle American shopping mall.” A 2003 trend piece begins, “It might look like any suburban home, but every month up to 30 couples meet here to have sex with each other.” The media coverage surrounding an A&E reality TV show, Neighbors With Benefits, similarly underscored “the white picket fence, the 2.5 kids.” In a Nightline segment, a reporter visited the suburban Ohio neighborhood at the heart of the reality-TV show and observed, “To the eye it looks like a typical normal American neighborhood….”
Indeed, Katherine Frank, author of Plays Well in Groups: A Journey Through the World of Group Sex, notes that swingers are typically portrayed as “ugly” and “tasteless,” but at the same time are “repeatedly likened to people who might just be your neighbors or coworkers.” There is an undercurrent of threat: “Once a mental dam bursts, contamination will seeping into your secret garden,” she writes. “Eventually, we have a flood on our hands and no ark in sight. Are they already your neighbors? How would you know? Once they’ve tucked their tawdry medallions inside their shirts or swapped stripper heels for granny flats, these people might be sitting next to you at the monthly PTA meeting.”
In surveying gawking journalistic descriptions of swinger parties, Frank highlights lines such as “she could have been a parent volunteer at my son’s preschool.” She notes that one such journalist reported fielding tons of phone calls after publication from readers who were outraged, just outraged, but who also, uh, wondered if they could have the sex club’s phone number? The implication being that the outraged readers wanted in. These articles—whether it’s around swinging or sex shops—carry a vicarious thrill cloaked in disgust and mockery. Frank notes how such coverage courts “moral outrage, agitated curiosity, or both.”
This brings me, regrettably, to the suburban legend of teen blow job parties. In 1999, Laura Sessions Stepp, author of Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both, published a Washington Post article on “the fad for oral sex among middle-schoolers in Washington’s suburbs,” as one journalist put it when later revisiting the piece’s cultural impact. “Over the next few years, the idea that kids were having oral sex as cavalierly as shaking hands gained traction in the popular imagination.” That idea was often specifically accompanied by descriptions of the suburban setting that made it newsworthy.
Fast-forward to 2009 and ABC News was reporting on a documentary—a whole documentary—on the topic. The segment began with a narrator intoning, “They’re typical teenage girls, from good, middle-class families. But to hear them speak will shock you. These girls from affluent suburbs, freely and frankly describe their secret lives in a new documentary with a terrifying title: Oral Sex Is The New Goodnight Kiss.”
Of course, these dynamics of fear and titillation also surround fictional representations of suburban bacchanalia, like ABC’s Desperate Housewives, in which the picturesque Wisteria Lane burbles with secrets, lies, betrayal, and sex. One prominent storyline included a quote-unquote “affair” between a bored housewife and her underage gardener, who in many states was below the age of consent. And yet a grown woman targeting a high school boy was not the focus of outrage; instead, it was the overarching narrative of a prime-time cast of women stepping outside of their suburban roles. The American Family Association called for a boycott of the hit show and Brent Bozell, founder of the Parents Television Council, proclaimed in a co-authored column, “Desperate Housewives really should have an even more obvious title, like Cynical Suburban Sluts. It’s just the latest in a long series of shows that aims to pulverize the cartoonish 1950s black-and-white stereotype of Leave It To Beaver, creating in its ancient wake a catty, snarky, amoral cesspool.”
No matter how many times we rehearse this narrative of surprising suburban sex, it springs back up again. When the Fifty Shades of Grey empire emerged, it was gawkingly declared “mommy porn.” As Stacie Meihaus Jankowski writes in Communication in Kink: Understanding the Influence of the Fifty Shades of Grey Phenomenon, “There is a sense that this sort of content isn’t often used within these suburban (often white) spaces, particularly by women, and particularly by women who are married mothers.” There is an emphasis on “a ‘fish-out-of-water’ trope, where these types of people should not be reading, enjoying, and certainly experimenting with alternative types of sexuality,” Jankowski writes. “This construction of suburbia as a utopia of innocence and traditional values has been engrained throughout popular culture.”
In the realm of Hollywood fiction, these “alternative types of sexuality” are often cast as suburbanites’ routes to self-discovery. In a 2006 paper, the scholar Greg Dickinson analyzed the treatment of sex by films with suburban themes, like Pleasantville and American Beauty. He found that these movies formulate “boundaries between city and suburb, black and white, homosexual and heterosexual, bad and good.” They show “passionate, authentic emotions” as existing “in the first of the binary,” in the suburb’s “other.” Protagonists move through the realm of “risky sexuality” in a journey of self-discovery, but never fully renounce the white picket fence vision.
Ultimately, these films offer a revised vision of suburbia that is “made more meaningful through nostalgic invocations of the past and more tantalizing with just the slightest hint of racialized or sexualized danger, or both,” he writes.
Just the slightest hint. “Fifty Shades, the news articles say over and over again, is good for marriages,” Jankowski writes. “Is igniting marriages. Is helping marriages. In this way, the transgressive becomes the affirmative of the traditional.” Wherever “uncharmed” sex appears to creep in, there is potential for a narrative of affirmation, one that makes the maintenance of the ideal all the more appealing and tenable. A suburban woman takes a walk on the wild side only to end up right back at home, safely ensconced in her master bedroom, maybe now equipped with a pair of fuzzy handcuffs. Meanwhile, a scarier truth lurks: the sexual boundaries are false, the binaries of city and suburb made up. There is no need for outside sexual invasion. It is already right there. The call is coming from inside the house.
As Maginn puts it, “The reality is all sorts of wonderful sexual stuff happens in the suburbs and always has.”