Sociologists aren’t particularly sexy.
That’s not intended as a dig at sociologists. The statement “sociologists aren’t sexy” is simply a factual observation about the cultural position of sociologists. They aren’t sexualized; they aren’t seen as being especially associated with sex, or sexuality or adult content. They aren’t fetishized; there is no sexy sociologist costume for Halloween; there is no sub-genre of sociologist porn (yet). Sociologists aren’t marked as different or deviant. Sociology is a profession without stigma.
Which is, perhaps, why sociologist and Playboy contributor Chauntelle Tibbals chose to frame her book about the adult industry as a personal confessional. Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment is organized as a series of short chapters, each of which is based firmly in Tibbals’ personal experience researching and learning about the adult entertainment industry.
That personal experience is, in most cases, fairly banal. Exposure is not a story of seduction, betrayal, horror and ill-gotten gains. It’s a series of low-key vignettes. Tibbals talks about setting out to buy an adult title (Camp Cuddly Pines Power Tool Massacre) for the first time for her research; she visits several sex shops, some pleasant, some less so, and tracks it down. End of anecdote.
Or she talks about watching a porn shoot in which the guy isn’t able to ejaculate. A moralistic tale of drug use and the impotence of stardom, a la Boogie Nights? Not at all; the shoot was just too long and the location was too hot; the ejaculation was eventually faked, and the man in question ended up discounting his rate since he failed to finish. Tibbals ends up musing, sans sensationalism, on the way working conditions for men in the industry can be more precarious than working conditions for women—a point rarely discussed by either side in porn debates.
The insistence on Tibbals’ personal perspective can sometimes be a little frustrating. I wish she’d traded an anecdote or two for an extended discussion of the politics of condom use in the adult industry, a topic she’s researched extensively but only mentions here in passing. But keeping the focus on the author herself is central to Tibbals’ message.
That message is, in essence, that porn, like sociology, isn’t especially sexy. “Surely, out of all the people working in this industry, there had to be some ‘normal’ folks living 'normal’ lives, right?” Tibbals asks. “It was as if the people involved were concentrated into some sort of porn bubble that enabled them to live, work and contribute to wider society while simultaneously insulating them from it.” Tibbals’ goal, then, is to try to find the normality in porn.
The problem is, highlighting normality is hard to do. This is particularly true with porn, which, as a genre, is built around the tease of revelation and naked truth. Melissa Gira Grant in her book Playing the Whore argues that even sympathetic confessional, or true-life accounts of sex worker experiences often end up being default packaged as sexy consumables in themselves.
For that matter, while sociologists aren’t sexy, sociology, as a discipline, is often built around examining behaviors, or groups, which are presented as deviant or non-normal — juvenile delinquents, teen girls, even plus-size models.
As Tibbals notes, “Isn’t the whole process [of sociology] kind of exploitive and elitist?” To examine or study people in porn is to position those people as non-normal. It’s to suggest that they’re in need of explication and examination, like exotic bugs.
So Tibbals switches the focus of the lens. Instead of looking at people in porn, she looks at people examining people in porn. This means she talks about herself and her experiences, first of all, but it also means she ends up talking about the resistance she’s encountered among other sociologists and academics in researching pornography.
Perhaps the most deviant, crude behavior Tibbals witnesses directly is not porn performers but another academic whom Tibbals refers to as a “Gender Sociology Legend.” Dr. Gender Sociology Legend was supposed to be on a panel with Tibbals, but when she arrived and Tibbals described her research interests, Gender Sociology Legend declared, “Are you talking about pornography? No, I don’t think so.” And then she walked out.
As Tibbals says, this behavior was incredibly rude, but it was also bizarre, deviant, weird. It raises questions, not about porn performers, but about the folks who are fascinated by or repulsed by porn performers. What’s up with them? “Porn was capable of making people lose their common sense, analytic skills and composure. It could scramble the smartest, most educated of brains,” Tibbals notes earlier in the book. “And that was it for me. I was hooked—porn for life.”
The title of Tibbals book, Exposure, then, is not about exposing the world of porn. Rather, it’s about exposing herself—or more generally, about exposing and exploring those who study, and those who view and those who talk about porn.
Tibbals herself isn’t just a porn viewer or studier at this point. She believes that simply studying the community and running back to the ivory tower is ethically dicey, so instead she’s become an advocate, and, in some ways, a participant.
She’s worked booths at industry events, trying to keep patrons in line — and failing spectacularly in one memorable instance involving giant sex dolls collapsing like giant sex dominoes. She’s judged films for industry awards and organized panels at AEE (the Adult Entertainment Expo.) She has many friends who are performers, producers and directors. She may not appear on screen, but she’s part of porn.
In some cases, Tibbals’ identification with porn can undermine her arguments and analysis. When she’s challenged on the lack of racial diversity in a panel she hosted, for example, she becomes defensive and dismissive, rather than trying to grapple with the painful topic of how racism, which affects almost all industries in America, has affected this one as well.
But she’s always forthright about her subjectivity — and ultimately her messy, mixed position as observer, participant, analyst, friend, consumer and publicist serves as a kind of model for a different, less fraught discussion of porn.
Porn, for Tibbals, isn’t some weird, sexy, dangerous alien phenomenon over there. It’s part of our culture and part of the lives of our neighbors, our friends and ourselves. Tibbals wants to take porn out of its bubble and show how even sociologists can be sexy sometimes, and how even porn stars, or especially porn stars, can be normal.
Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture site the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics 1941-1948.