Interview: Down and (Academically) Dirty with Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, PhD (Part II)

In this second part of my riveting conversation with Dr. Chauntelle, we get into the false mythology of adult entertainment, how sex functions in the industry and wider cultural models, and other aspects of studying sex work as a sociologist “embedded” – a defining aspect of Dr. Chauntelle’s work is studying the subculture actively from within – in an incredibly interesting world from which we could all learn a good deal.

Let’s talk about the narrative of this big bad monolithic porno thing. It’s so strange that people will accept falsehoods such as this shadowy mythology.

As we evolve, we get into trends about language, so now we say safer sex as opposed to safe sex, because no sex is safe sex, you can only be safer or less at risk, and things like that. There are those little shifts we go through as a culture when we think about sex. All of it is predicated on this history of being uncomfortable with sex, even if we don’t want to be uncomfortable with sex. We are inherently uncomfortable with it, almost because we’re raised in this culture and this environment that’s afraid of it. We can’t speak of anatomy in a way that isn’t trivializing and ridiculous. We have this body unequal way of talking about things in the media. This is kind of the bedrock that we’re built on, this discomfort. It’s almost like if we don’t get down to the root of the problem, and figure out what is this issue that we have with sex, all of these superficial things, talking about porn, about sex education, about sex work, about consumers, it’s interesting to think about being a consumer of adult content, and how shame based that is in that culture, and thinking about dealing with that one little slice of it. These are all kind of results of a wider problem that is our discomfort with sex. We as a culture are so judgy and think that if the kind of sex that I want to have or I’m having, then everybody should be doing it that way too. That is such a wholly disturbing thing. If we were to say that about religion, environmentalist, politics, people would be like, “that’s terrible!” but as soon as we get into this idea about sex, people lose all rational ability.

I wonder where all that discomfort is coming from. It’s amazing how many ways we can invent to be uncomfortable, and how powerful and unstoppable this discomfort can be.

Sex, like everything else, is interconnected. There’s no such thing as a social pillar that doesn’t interact with other social pillars. Religion interacts with politics, politics interacts with education, education interacts with sex, which also interacts with religion and politics and all of these different things. I think it’s interconnected with everything else, and on top of it, there’s something about this intimate nature. There’s something about it that’s more difficult for us to talk about than politics or religion, and those are pretty loaded things. That makes the closest people at odds with one another. Maybe it’s because you lose your consciousness to some degree, there’s some kind of out of body thing with sex, and how we get there as individuals is variable, and some people can only get there in ways that they perceive to be abnormal, and that causes tension. When it’s sex there is that dimension to it, that one moment where you want something that makes you out of control, and there’s nothing else like that, and that might be the thing that makes it more volatile than anything else. By talking about it, you’re revealing to those around you what it is that makes you lose your brain for a second. Just a theory.

Sex is seen as frivolous or only carnal, but it’s the only reason there’s more humans. There’s the paradox of how sex is the only thing that keeps us alive as a species, yet it’s the most taboo thing.

It’s really weird, right? How it’s the thing, and the anti thing. It’s interesting because when you’re talking about methods, there are so many slippery questions. When you ask a performer how their work makes them feel, or what do they think about this, that, and the other, how do you glean insight into what somebody’s telling you? If you’re talking about what a performer’s saying, how can I extrapolate out of what people are thinking about. The same thing when people, like consumers, are talking about viewing content. Sometimes people will lie to you, sometimes people will write on a sheet that they like this, this, and this, but when you ask them to their face they’ll say they don’t watch porn at all. To try and get information about what’s even going on, to try and engage these questions, about this thing, the only thing that keeps us going, it’s almost impossible because we have this block that makes it so difficult. We can’t even start to work through what it is. Even when I’m trying to talk about this stuff, I sometimes can’t do it. And that’s the whole point of my book. To show that I’m a researcher and a person. A lot of people, when they’re researchers, they try to pretend they’re not people too.

When you think about pornography, it’s all movies, all fantasies. But when you talk about the impact of it, and anything that is a sexual part of who we are, people have such a hatred of this thing that has no real impact on their lives. It’s not happening to them, but they feel the need to protect what, to them, is sacred and real.

It’s really interesting to think about this. There’s no reason why a person who wants to do Thing A should really care that somebody else wants to do Thing B. I always say that as long as consent is involved, and kids are not, it does not matter what people are doing, and yet people are so preoccupied with it. I think it comes down to a lot of reasons that have everything to do with the individual thinking those things, and nothing to do with the people who are actually doing them. I think a lot of our sexual impulses and our social impulses are controlled by bigger, wider social norms that people are almost jealous of or angry about. Nobody says that just because this is a thing that happens, it means you have to do it too. That push is beyond most people’s comprehension, I think, and I find that so interesting. I wonder what it is that can cause a person to care so much about something that they allegedly do not like, or do not care about. The idea of something that has no bearing on my history or my culture or my taste, if I can think of something that can cause me to go out and march in the streets, or just have hateful thoughts, it’s just wild to me, and I wish I understood more of what did that. It’s really interesting when you think about the very paternalistic and presumptuous ideologies that have to go into thinking about it. The idea of an 18 year old who’s old enough to pay taxes and fight and buy cigarettes, and yet people are going to tell that person that they can’t be a porn performer. You can’t have it both ways. That person is either an adult, or they’re not, and if not then we have to go ahead and make some changes.

So how do you read porn? I mean in the way that you’d critically read Twain or someone like that. You can read it like a text, like an object – how would you teach people to read this part of culture?

I look a lot at bigger cultural connections, and I guess the first thing to do is familiarity, and obviously not everyone can sit around and watch hours and hours, decades and decades, of adult content. There’s legions worth of work on every single genre of mainstream film, but that kind of literature and history, written down for people to learn from, doesn’t exist for adult content, so I, and a handful of other people who are really prominent adult film critics, have had to actively learn it. I’d say one way to critically look at adult content is to take it as a genre. But even then, all of that has to be taken into context with the individual who’s watching it and thinking about it. I did this podcast recently, and the host asked me what kind of porn I liked, and for me it’s become a thing that I look at on a different level, and he was asking about what gets me off, and I thought, “dude, you can’t watch your friends have sex, it’s not that interesting.” I think the way to get to read porn as an object, as you put it so well, is that there needs to be that base. That really needs to be done. It’s such a project, because all of the reading of an object changes over time, even just the aesthetics of performers. You can look at a woman who is 24 years old and a performer in 1974, 1984, 1994, 2004, and 2014, and how that woman looks, if she has breast implants, if she is wearing a lot of makeup, if she has hair extensions, if she has tattoos, if she has no tattoos, all of those different things, with that age piece in there, and it will be read differently over the decades. And that’s a cultural aspect and artifact. Getting that base to where we’re informed enough to then look at content in a way that’s critical, and then after that, thinking about how people internalize it and what that means. People have no problem telling you that they learned from porn certain ways to have sex, we hear that all the time. We need to ask why people are watching that text and taking it as a lesson. That is something I read on a daily basis. From no other media is that a one to one corollary that people find logical, and yet they find it logical with porn.

Porn falls into the type of media that can easily be scapegoated for certain actions. It just happens to look a certain way, and is everywhere, and people say the lot of it should be abolished, as if there’s no challenging or creative adult media out there.

There are all kinds of highly creative, highly critical, highly artistic, amazing, thoughtful people working in porn, both in indie porn, and in very mainstream, widely distributed content. The first one that pops into my head is what’s happening with New Sensations and with Jacky St. James right now. Incredible. And the most popular content that’s being created today. There’s also companies that, since the 90s, have been doing longstanding, cute little movies. It’s not rocket science, it’s not art-house film, but it’s also like that straight to DVD stuff that a lot of people really enjoy. I actually think there’s a lot of interesting stuff going on in porn, and that there has been, it’s just whether or not it’s popular, or whether or not people are widely aware of it. A couple years ago, there was a director who just kind of came and went, named Graham Travis, and he made two of the most astounding movies, not porn movies, movies, that I have ever seen in my life. One called Wasteland, and one called Portrait of a Call Girl. Two mind boggling movies. I disagree that there aren’t people trying to be more thought more provoking or critical, I think that there always has been and there always are, it’s whether or not you’re aware of them within this genre of film that has no organization, no school of thought. And the other point related to that, is the evaluation. Who’s to say that the widely consumed jerkoff movie is not the thing that is more stimulating and uplifting than the artistic Graham Travis Wasteland porn. That’s value judging what the purpose of film is. When you talk about what constitutes artistic, and what’s getting to people, there’s a real class element, education element, access element, taste element to that. Deep anal drilling style content is artistic and is uplifting to people, and there is something to be said for that, and there’s something culturally significant about that, and to ignore that as not stimulating is to ignore the fact that it stimulates a lot of people.

People are so quick to the value judgment of what art is, and what porn is. The conclusion to that, one day, will be that we’re not talking about it in terms of porn vs. art, but we’re talking about all of it in an equally academic, sociological, aesthetic way.

A lot of times, people who are outside the industry are unfamiliar with the vast majority of content. There’s so much porn out there. Then there’s the interesting thing that’s tied into piracy. The vast majority of adult content that’s consumed today is via people going and watching it on piracy based tube sites, which I hate. So when somebody goes to something like Pornhub, what they’re seeing is not a picture of what all porn is, they’re not getting this broad spectrum of adult content. What they’re getting is a collection of stolen content that hasn’t been taken down. That’s such a small fraction of what’s out there, and it’s so humorous to me, when I read stuff in the media that says that porn only shows this kind of sex, porn only has this kind of performer. It’s so not true, it’s bizarre. But that might look like it could be true if somebody went to Pornhub and only scrolled through the little icons that are on the first couple of pages. But that gets back to that methodological question, like where are you getting your sample from, and do you understand the industry? Nobody who understood how the adult entertainment industry worked would go to Pornhub to try and get a sampling of what was going on in adult content. You get all of these stereotypes perpetuated, and the reason why they are perpetuated is because the people who are perpetuating them don’t know where to look outside the stereotypes to find a more complicated answer.

There have been a lot of folks who want to wipe out porn. Making it accessible in your book is such an interesting idea, because it could be the cure for our own malice and hatred is often being well informed. You make accessible the information that people might feel shame looking for.

I present things in a kind of friendly, kind of funny, kind of not fancy sort of way. Whenever I do interviews, people always ask what the performers think, and I say, “You should ask!” I can’t tell you what performers think, but for whatever reason, me never having technically worked in the industry, and having a PhD, somehow makes my voice feel more accessible. I try to make it as spoonful of sugar as possible, if someone wants to investigate. I think that that’s a lot of the reason why people continue to have so much fear or hatred, it’s just lack of information, and I’m trying to not change anybody’s mind, that’s not my project, it’s to show people what I’ve seen and what I’ve learned, and make it so it’s easy to look at if they choose. As a public sociologist, that’s really what I want, is to get stuff that people can’t usually get in the wider world, and bring it out there, bring these conversations to people, in ways that are familiar and not off putting. I hope to disseminate all of that, coming to a bookstore near you. If nothing else comes out of this, hopefully it’s that people will realize that we all need to take a closer look and try and set our own bullshit aside and really think about things in a more critical, sociological frame of mind.

Amen to that Dr. Chauntelle, amen to that! For everything and more pertaining to the good doctor, visit her website and follow her on Twitter. And get on Amazon and pre-order Exposure, you’ll be explosively pleased you did!

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