Pornographers in the Mist

[Read the original version of this interview at the x-rated,]

Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals is like the Jane Goodall or Dian Fossey of pornography; this sociologist at large has spent a decade embedded in the adult industry in attempt to unravel the mysteries of this elusive, cultural colossus.

Although porn is easier to access than ever, the adult industry remains shrouded in a mist of myths, stereotypes, assumptions—misinformation that lawmakers and public figures use to condemn and regulate this renegade industry. One reason for our collective ignorance on the social impact of porn is because many scholars are afraid to seriously study this populist art form, fearing the stigmas attached to porn will spread to their work. Dr. Tibbals is one of those rare pariahs willing to risk her academic reputation researching a form of human expression that is too often dismissed as cultural detritus destined for the slagheaps of history. She neither seeks to condemn or exalt porn, but simply to understand it, to know why every society throughout history has created pornography. She wants to understand both what these x-rated artifacts say about the culture that creates them, and how pornography in turn shapes the world it reflects.

Dr. Tibbals’ new book, Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment, serves as a kind of memoir of her decade-long research. I recently had the opportunity to chat with Dr. Tibbals about her work and her new book.

Shawn Alff: What are some surprising things you’ve uncovered about TS (transsexual) porn, beyond the fact that it’s primarily consumed by straight men?

Dr. Tibbals: I’ve always been really interested in TS porn as a genre in part because everyone seems to like it, but no one wants to talk about it. Consumers want it, but until very recently it seemed kind of hush hush, even for porn. One thing I’ve noticed happening in maybe the last three-ish years is a shift in the tenor of the content. TS porn primarily used to be really raunchy and shot with models and performers located outside the US. Now the number of US-based TS performers is exploding, or at least are becoming more visible. You can still find the raunchy, hardcore stuff. But more people are trying different aesthetics with TS porn, which is nice. As with other genres, sometimes you want the raunchy stuff and sometimes you want something a bit less graphic. It’s nice to see the performers cast in scenes that aren’t entirely focused on things like “she-male cock.”

Shawn Alff: Do you think the prevalence of TS porn has helped the general population become more comfortable with the trans community as a whole?

Dr. Tibbals: I would say queer porn has had a bigger impact in that respect. When you are talking about trans visibility, you are talking more about a gender issue, though sexuality is obviously a dimension as well. I think the main thing TS porn does in terms of breaking down stereotypes is that it helps pick apart “normative” heterosexual masculinity. Heteronormativity says that heterosexual dudes are supposed to be a specific way, and enjoying TS content doesn’t coincide with those conventional notions. And yet, I hear through the grapevine that the primary consumers of TS content are heterosexual-identified guys – this challenges what heteronormativity says is supposed to be happening.

Thinking about wider notions of heteronormativity, guys are allowed very little gender and sexuality play, but their sexualities are just as broad as women’s or queer folks’ or whomever’s. So if I had to pick one thing, rather than touching on wider social gender issues, I see TS porn speaking more to issues related to heterosexual masculinity.

Shawn Alff: In your opinion, which pornographers are producing the most interesting content?

Dr. Tibbals: I think Greg Lansky and are doing amazing stuff. I love how they’ve brought something new to the genre. There’s a long, storied, and difficult narrative running through interracial content, which we could talk about forever. And leading up to Blacked, “IR” content as a genre was overwhelmingly raunchy and in my opinion a bit disrespectful. And though many people like that raunch, Lansky gave the genre a new aesthetic. It is beautiful and there’s nothing else like it. I’m sure plenty of people will try to replicate it.

I love Dana Vespoli – I love that she is a strong feminist and shoots such hardcore content. I love that she shoots TS content featuring performers from all different areas of the porn spectrum. Her film, “TS, I Love You,” was so good, while also being so simple. Her work is great. I also love Jacky St. James, especially her “Emma Marx” films. Her work in general is erotic, authentic, and accessible, but her “Emma” movies are especially balanced. It’s difficult to make something that’s erotic and hardcore, while also making it true to the voice of the community it speaks to and still be accessible to a wider audience. It’s extra challenging to get something that looks like real BDSM, like the “Emma” movies do, that soccer moms – presumably non-BDSMers – could simultaneously be comfortable with. She’s able to meet all these different parameters in the middle.

Shawn Alff: What are some of the most noticeable ways in which porn has shaped our culture? Is it just limited to things like, pubic hairstyles or the popularity of anal sex in the straight community?

Dr. Tibbals: If those even. I mean, anal sex existed before porn – porn didn’t invent it. Porn imitates society, and it also shapes it. It’s a synergistic relationship. So the idea of anal sex porn, aside from the act of anal sex being this thing that’s been around forever, wasn’t simply spit out from some isolated porn universe. It’s a product made by social actors, to be consumed by social actors. It’s a cultural artifact just like any other.

But in terms of what sorts of things have come from porn and helped shape the wider world, perhaps the idea of sex work as actually being labor. Prostitution is the “world’s oldest profession” right, but porn is a much more public, visible version of sex work. So perhaps one could say that porn’s visibility has contributed to the increasing awareness in the general public that sex work is actually work. But even that is part of a wider, multi-faceted conversation that’s not without immense challenges.

There are some sex acts that I think porn has contributed a touch of acceptability to via visibility. Squirting for example. Like anal sex, I’m pretty sure squirting existed before Cytherea did it on camera. But she was not the first woman in the world to be a squirter. Then for a couple years, we only saw a handful of squirters in porn. And now there are lots of women performers who do what they can to cultivate their squirting capability, like, they train for it! I would imagine that’s had a positive impact on “average” women out there who do that as well, but aren’t porn performers. Maybe they thought there was something weird about them, or inappropriate, or gross. People never talked about it. But now, people can see in porn that squirting happens and people clearly desire it. That has got to have a positive impact on people’s feelings about their own body’s functioning as well as variable expressions of sexual pleasure. Sadly though, people are trying to regulate out depictions of squirting. In the UK, you can’t even show women squirting anymore – men, it’s ok, but not women – which is wild when you think about what that means in terms of sexual expression.

Shawn Alff: What do you say to people who look at porn as the fast food of human sexuality, offering empty calories of sexual fulfillment that some might consider addictive or detrimental if over consumed?

Dr. Tibbals: Sure, I would imagine that for some people, porn is definitely the fast food of human sexuality. And if you eat too much, fast food is not good for you. For others it doesn’t work that way. For others, it may be more comparable to healthy fast foods, like premade salads. It’s still fast food, sure. But some people are at stages in their lives where they need fast food, and it works for them, and that is okay. It all boils down to the fact that it doesn’t matter what you or I want. It’s about what the individual wants. It is up to the individual to choose how to live his or her life, lots of porn or no porn or everything in between, so long as it’s consensual and no one is getting hurt. It shouldn’t matter if someone is at a stage in his or her life where they want a lot of fast food. Maybe it stays that way forever. Maybe they let it get out of control – that’s possible and it needs to be addressed. Maybe it serves a purpose for that moment.

Shawn Alff: Do you have a problem being objective when you write about porn?

Dr. Tibbals: Anyone who says they are both a human and objective is lying, or at least misrepresenting. We all have opinions, biographies, histories, and standpoints – all humans do, including researchers. And this inherent subjectivity shapes every “objective” thing we try to do. As such, if I told you I didn’t have an opinion about the work I do, I’d be lying. If I told you my perspective as me and everything that makes up me doesn’t shape my work, I’d be being disingenuous to everything that social interaction and humanity is.   So in terms of my work, though I definitely think my mode of delivery and style changes between academic research and articles written for the popular press, I always work to keep a critical eye open, one that acknowledges whose eyes it is I’m looking through. I also definitely pick my battles and arguments. Our world is so critical of porn that when I have the opportunity to talk about the social complexities of content, for example, I definitely take them. Rather than writing about something I may not like or something that doesn’t match my taste, I try to look at productive dimensions, consider the bigger picture, and engage the wider social impact. Which I guess kind of of makes my point – my desire to show a more complex picture of porn as an interactive and synergist cultural artifact definitely shapes what I actually, literally do.

Learn more about Dr. Tibbals and her work, and order Exposure at