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

If you’ve ever wondered where all the academic and sociological thought is on the subject of adult entertainment, we at BaDoink have just the person for you. Coming out with a book next month, and with a staggering bibliography of writing and speaking appearances, is our very favorite sociologist.

Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, “sociologist at large,” has been in the thick of the adult industry for over ten years, researching the ins and outs of a world that is rarely viewed with an academic lens. Over the course of her career, she’s been featured in scholarly journals, and has written for Playboy, Uproxx, and many other publications, and holds a PhD from UT Austin. She’s a frequent speaker and podcaster, among other sorts of appearances, and is becoming more prolific by the day.

After a decade researching the industry, Dr. Chauntelle is set to release a comprehensive account of her findings and experiences, Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment, available July 7, 2015. Having read the book, I can safely say it’s an incredibly poignant, painstakingly researched, often humorous look into an incredibly unique sort of sociological journey. It’s a must read for both adult entertainment enthusiasts and folks who hide their porn stashes alike.

A review of Exposure is forthcoming, so for now, please enjoy this enlivening and enlightening chat with Dr. Chauntelle about the industry, sociology, and everything in between.

Like any sociological superhero, it all starts with an inspiration to begin research…

A decade ago when I started doing this, one of the things that was very compelling to me was that nobody ever asked performers anything other than “What’s your favorite position,” these weird, off the wall questions. And nobody ever asked about labor or feelings or even random opinions about what else [porn stars] think about. It’s a shift for people who are trying to think about it in a more critical way, to not ask those questions. It’s such a complicated series of issues surrounding sex work and porn and all of that, and as we get further and further, we’re peeling away all these different layers, and so the first layer for me was to take things seriously. And now we’re getting to a new layer, where we’re thinking about if we ask a performer “what’s your favorite position?” can we ask that question in a way that’s actually authenticating, if you’re saying, “when you’re working, what is your favorite type of scene, or what do you find to be the most liberating, or what do you find connects with people?” It’s interesting, these mental gymnastics we go through as we evolve culturally are really cool to reflect upon.

I’ve been trying to ask questions that are humanizing without being patronizing. I remember the first part of your book was a terrible meeting you had, in which an academic advisor shouted you out of an office, this academic world pushing away this very prevalent, very huge industry away. You got a feeling that the academic world was turning its back on something that needed that kind of work.

If you think about porn, when I started, there are some grad students who are looking at the industry as a structure, but when I started there was nobody. There were a few people who looked at content analysis, but they could only look at particular types of content, it was only acceptable to look at BDSM and gay porn, and I say acceptable in heavy air quotes, because it should have been acceptable to look at all of it. In terms of connecting with the wider ivory tower, those were the only things that were ok,and I remember earlier conversations with that professor, when I was first interested in looking at this and testing the waters, that was her reaction, she said why don’t I look at gay porn. That’s interesting, but what about this big “mainstream” porn that everybody watches and oh my gosh and what if we took a moment to look at this thing that takes up 30% of the internet traffic for example. That’s where the shit started to hit the fan. That was a long time ago, though.

I wrote academically, so I wrote for research journals and law journals, I did that for a long time. I’ve been in textbooks, I’ve been a professor, all that stuff, but I think that the reach was not very far. Even to get access to an academic journal, you either have to be affiliated with a university or you have to pay $30 for some article that’s written so esoterically that it doesn’t really matter. What happened was I felt like I was doing this work that was getting into this industry and looking at it in a way that nobody else had before, but then at the same time how I was having to talk about it was keeping it just as inaccessible and really just as elitist, and I didn’t want to do that. When I started writing this book, one thing I really wanted to do was put some research insight in it, but also make it accessible so it was interesting and fun and funny to read, and also to not pretend like I had any idea what I was doing, like I wasn’t uncomfortable, like I wasn’t going through a learning process, because I was. I was 26 years old, I had no connection with the industry. I think a big problem that’s in a lot of research, is that research gets presented to the public in such a way that’s so sterile. You don’t realize another human, or another team of humans, is behind this. I thought that would be a greater disservice to the project if I did that too, so rather than continuing to do conventional academic work, I decided to go this route. There is some research in there, but it’s all kind of laced together with stories about me.

That gives a narrative voice to it, people are going to connect with the story, and be able to connect to the research on that level. It’s interesting to see the dichotomy of those two worlds, the porn world, and the academic world, and the way they seem to alienate one another.

It’s interesting how complicated it is, how many different ways it goes. A lot of academics, for lack of a better word, really are incapable of discussing things in plain language. I find myself really hotly critical of that, because if you can’t explain it to your mom, or your neighbor, then you don’t really understand what’s going on. How is it helping anybody, if it’s only communicated to people with your level of training, or expertise, so there’s that dimension of it too. And on the flipside, it’s interesting to think about the responses I’ve had from academics reading this. A lot of people have been really positive in supporting this, but of course there are others who haven’t, who’ve looked at it and been like, “oh my god this is so terrible this is a shame to everything and it’s not sociology.” I’m really excited for when the book comes out because I feel like there’s going to be a shitstorm of people who have angry things to say. I’m excited about that.

I can’t wait for that shitstorm! I think most of the time, when people talk about porn, it’s not researched, or it’s heavily biased. In your book you talk about how a lot about how anti-porn material is really poorly researched.

Yeah! That was the thing, like basic methods. You had all these people, in the 80s and 90s, who were making insights about porn, who weren’t even looking at actual porn, they were looking at compilations of things. It’s just stuff like that, which isn’t methodologically reflective, that isn’t sampled in a rigorous way, and even if it could be sampled in a rigorous way, it’s not everything. It would be really hard to get a representative sampling of what porn is. It’s always changing, and everything’s up in the air. Even if you were to say, OK, I’m going to pick the titles that popped up in the mainstream media the most from the years 2000-2010, even saying something like that, and saying that it’s not representative, this is just me trying to capture some data. This old work wouldn’t even do stuff like that, and methods are the most manipulative and crazy things, and if you were to take some of the research methods from some of that stuff that I was reading, that old school anti-porn stuff, and apply it to any other topic, not just any other media topic, but any other topic, people would laugh. But because people are so uncomfortable with porn and with sex, this stuff kind of got through and into the good work, and wound up being cited and referenced, over and over again, to the point where it’s almost not even questioned any more.

I can give you two good examples of things that have become canonized that are outlandish. The first is the idea of the abuse that was supposedly present in Deep Throat. I have this whole chapter about Linda Lovelace, and watching Deep Throat for the very first time. When people talk about that movie, they talk about how this woman was so abused and covered in bruises and all this stuff, and I remember watching that movie and thinking, “Oh my god I’m going to see this battered woman and these evil people standing over her.” And it was bizarre because I read so much film criticism and so much literary criticism on this film that said the exact same thing, and I remember watching the movie, and everything I had ever read about that movie, it was completely off base. I honestly felt that people wouldn’t even watch the movie anymore; they would just read what somebody else had said. This mystique about this film became canonized, and perpetuated this myth that is still present to this day.

Another thing that was really interesting was the idea of porn being this 10 to 14bn dollar industry. There’s never a citation, there’s never a reference, there’s never even a link to something, it’s like people spout that figure, completely uncritically, until its reified, true by definition. It’s so funny because that figure came from some obscure writing that happened in the 90s, and it was an extrapolation of a projection that this guy just pulled out of his ass in ‘98, but somebody wrote it, and somebody else was like, oh my god a figure! I don’t doubt that porn makes billions of dollars, but what constitutes porn? How is this figure determined? Who added up the sales sheet? Even if we’re talking about conventional content production, just filming regular old porno, the companies don’t report to anybody, nobody knows how much money Vivid makes, versus Wicked or Evil Angel, much less add them all up to say this figure. And yet we repeat it over and over and over again, and it’s stuff like that, basically falsehoods, and they’re these things that we rely on that perpetuate these myths about the industry, and they’re really ludicrous.

Speaking of dispelling the ludicrous myths, what can people expect from the book?

The book is a behind the scenes peek at the industry from a very accessibly written and informed look. It’s not a, “I went and visited a set for an afternoon and this is what I saw,” it’s a, “I’ve been doing this for ten years, and this is what I’ve seen.” But also, with discussion of my own process and evolution. I don’t ever want to try and pretend like I knew all of this stuff going in, I had to learn it. I hope for people who are curious about the industry, or hate the industry, or love the industry, look at it and see it as an interesting subculture, like anything else. It’s not scary, it’s not perfect, it’s just an interesting community of people trying to do the best they can. I also have a store. It sounds silly, but when I used to teach, I used to teach this one book about women and hip hop, and I’d have these 20 year old students and they would have no idea who some of those artists were, so I would give them a soundtrack to go with the book. And so when I was doing everything for Exposure, I had a store built that has the titles I talk about in the book, so that people can go and comfortably compare what I say to what they see. It goes back to when I was talking about Deep Throat. I read so much about what was supposed to happen, and when I finally saw it, it wasn’t the case. So I hope that, in terms of what can people expect, I hope the idea of things being accessible is really prevalent throughout.

Now that you’ve gotten a glimpse into what makes Dr. Chauntelle tick, and how to approach speaking about the adult industry as a sociologist, check out the second part of my conversation (tomorrow) with the “sociologist at large,” where we go more in depth into questions of aesthetics, ideology, and criticism, all to do with sex and the industry.