Don’t Quibble with Tibbals: “Exposure” And Why It’s Problematic To Study Porn

chauntelle-tibbals-exposure-ponante-2With a title like that, it might seem like “Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment,” by Chauntelle Tibbals, Ph.D., would be a Jane Goodall/Marlin Perkins-style journey through the Heart of Darkness that is the adult industry. Instead, the engaging (and sometimes wide-eyed) Tibbals offers a refreshing look at a business that has often proved academia-proof.

Not academia-proof in the sense that it can’t be studied or that pornographers are anti-intellectual (witness the 2-volume epic “Dirt Pipe Milkshakes“), but academia-proof in that academics often treat Porn Valley as a dumping ground of shoddy critical thinking (witness the work of Gail Dines).

Tibbals, with coursework and degrees from California State University-Northridge (at the very heart of Porn Valley), UCLA, and UT-Austin, approached the adult industry from a labor perspective, particularly “social movements in the absence of on-the-ground organizing or activism.” As this pertained to the marginalized adult video business — a demonstrated market force but one barely a generation removed from illegality in most of the United States and one that bears a marked social stigma — Tibbals had a lot of raw material to work with.

And her winning nature and enthusiasm quickly earned her a backstage pass at porn powerhouse companies like Wicked, New Sensations, and Elegant Angel, even as her academic colleagues repeatedly snubbed her work and questioned her motives.

The reaction of other academics to Tibbals and her study is where “Exposure” emerges as a pioneering work. The book opens with a heartbreaking meeting with a graduate advisor and is peppered with snubs from eminent sociologists and bitchy people at parties. Regardless, Tibbals made it out of the viper-swarmed groves with her doctorate, a commitment to not abandon her subject matter and, well, a continued struggle gaining acceptance from fellow scholars.

“Exposure” is filled with nods to Tibbals’ own learning curve, her reflections on the way the industry does business, how it handles trends (she compares a pubic hairstyle to that of “Melrose Place” actor David Silver at one point, but I did not do further research on this because I am not a sociologist), and how it responds to external pressure (such as 2012’s “Condoms in Porn” ordinance passed in LA County).

In addition, Tibbals offers thumbnail sketches of people significant in the history of pornography, such as Traci Lords and Linda “Lovelace” Boreman. All in all, “Exposure” is a memoir that is always coming of age (just like Traci Lords!) as we experience Tibbals’ shock, curiosity, acceptance, eye-rolling, and defense of an industry she has studied for a decade.

Where “Exposure” left me wanting more (I used the phrase “blue balls” — a term of art in the milieu in which Tibbals has immersed herself) was the selective dropping of names. Where Tibbals offers condensed histories of Linda Lovelace and Traci Lords, she often makes up or obscures the names of companies, academics, and porn personalities — entities with whom she has had direct experience and which would have, I believe, made “Exposure” more immediate and relatable. She shares an anecdote about wrangling a bunch of sex dolls as part of her internship at the Adult Entertainment Expo. I happen to know they were RealDolls modeled after Wicked Pictures stars, one of whom was groped by a soggy fan, but Tibbals doesn’t mention the company. If it’s a memoir, I want to know who these people are!

Tibbals responds:

In terms of the blue balls aspect, that was also a purposive choice. Some names are mentioned – things that are public knowledge (box cover text, Traci Lords, etc.) but other aspects were left veiled. When I was in the very early stages of this project, talking with different publishers and “think” people, inevitably, what every single person wanted was some form of gossip. That was really telling to me (like, in terms of where people’s heads were at), and it felt like the adult entertainment industry was only interesting to people in some sort of gooey, sordid, or generally titillating way. I get that, but that’s not what I wanted to write about in “Exposure.”

What I wanted to talk about in “Exposure” were the bigger cultural and interpersonal issues related to porn that shape society, as well as the ways in which porn is a reflection of wider society. And also, my role in it (which is the only role I can authentically speak to). Put simply, it doesn’t matter whose booth I was in when the dolls fell. What matters is that I had to be a flunky gofer first in order to get to a place where I became a voice of authority. And it doesn’t matter who was being groped by the wet guy. What matters is that we still live in a world where men feel entitled to touch women’s bodies because of their jobs. I didn’t want to distract from the points and wider social issues by name-dropping people and companies that may hold no relevance to a reader. The idea of a wet dude groping a lady hits a sharp note on its own. (Plus, name-dropping would have felt salacious, at least to me.)

I do appreciate Tibbals’ response to my question, even if it makes me feel like I’m a bad person for wanting to know who “Akeela Song” or “Rod Johnson” really are (or if they really are) or to hear any of the juicy stories that may have tested the good doctor’s forbearance. Because we all have a lot of them. I wanted more of the memoirist and less of the sociologist. I wanted to know if Tibbals tried any of the things she learned in any of the movies she watched at home. Would that have made me a copy of her old thesis advisor, the one who shrieked “Why do you want to watch people fucking, Chauntelle?” Have I missed the point? Has the abyss begun staring into me? As Tibbals likes to say in her book, it’s problematic.

“Exposure” is one woman’s journey through a world that seemed to be a lot nicer to her than the one she came from, and students and educators alike would do well to follow Tibbals’ example of gentle, methodical scholarship.

Buy the book here.

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