The word "porn" remains a serious lightning rod in our culture. Some see it as a positive, empowering expression of sexuality, while others see it as degrading. It's clear, though, that porn isn't any one thing - and, it plays a significant role in the way we interact with sexuality. In order to get a more nuanced, impartial handle on the many sensitive issues involved in the porn conversation, we spoke with Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist who specializes in the adult entertainment industry.
What is it like to study porn?
"The best part is that it's uncharted - that's also challenging, because there's no path that's forged for you. In other areas of scholarship there's a canon that you're looking to sort of plug yourself into. But [the lack of research on porn] is also really exciting because it lets me know that what I'm doing is necessary...there is so little rigorous information known about [adult entertainment]. We don't know scale statistics, we don't know who's buying, we don't know demographics - we don't even know average longevity of performers because people won't spend money on gathering that sort of data."
Why do you think it's important to study porn?
"From a sociological perspective, porn is a part of society. The adult entertainment industry is a huge subculture and a significant part of our global, national, and state communities. Porn is made of people, too - and, it's consumed by people...People talk about porn like it's this little bubble. But, the people who work in the adult entertainment industry have other lives. They have kids, families, dogs, hobbies, and second jobs. The people who are making the content are involved in the same society as the people that are consuming the content.
For whatever reason, the nature of that relationship is something we really don't like to engage, and I think calling attention to that (that it really is this give-and-take and this synergistic relationship) is extremely important. Porn is not feeding us images that we are passively internalizing...porn gives us images that we want, and in turn, we expect to see those images."
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How do you think porn influences the way we live as sexual beings?
"I think an unfortunate byproduct of our wider culture's discomfort with and mishandling of sex and sexualities is that porn is being misappropriated as an education tool, which it is not... But, because of how accessible it is to young minds, because of poor sex education - horrible, nonexistent, awful sex education - more and more people turn to these obvious depictions of naked bodies having sex and look to them as informative [when] they're meant to be fantasy."
So, if not for education, how should people look at porn? And, how as a society can we train ourselves to look at it that way?
"There are many ways to look at it - for inspiration, for a human connection. How people choose to look at it is up to them. I do think [there should be] a tiny little PSA that explains what porn is: a fantasy. For whatever reason, we know as a culture that The Fast and The Furious movies are not drivers' training films, but we can't get there with porn, for some reason... The issue therein is so deep-seated and so widespread, and it has to do with sex education and our cultural discomfort with sex."
What steps can we take to change that?
"I think if more parents were speaking out or reaching out to their young people, if sex education were more available and accessible, if there were more sites out there like Scarleteen, things would change. There are bazillions of young people out there with questions - and adults, people who are in their thirties or their eighties, with questions...we have a lot of work to do as a culture and a society on our sex education and our awareness of sexual health. And, once we get to that, then maybe we can talk about how people should and should not be looking at porn.
Less-conventional porn, like camming, and short little clips, and all these separate interactions, provides a sexual outlet for people who maybe struggle socially, or physically, or mentally in some way - who are just not necessarily out there in the world. There are a lot of physically isolated humans who can get a special relief or a human interaction via adult entertainment. That is absolutely beautiful, and if we didn't have this community we would not have those opportunities for people to engage their sexualities and explore them. I really think it's helped in that way."
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In the past few years, we've seen the rise of feminist porn, which by definition brings in new looks, new types of performers, and presents different definitions of what it is to be sexy. How do you think porn is affecting the way we see sex and what is sexy?
"First, the people who are in porn, all porn, from the 1970s through porn being shot currently, across all genres, all spaces, globally - all of those people are real humans. So, we're looking at real bodies; all of those bodies are real. They may be altered, but those are all people.
The best thing, I think, and one of the most amazing things about feminist porn as a genre, is its overt dogma of 'we have all of these body types.' Because feminist porn also has performers with very 'conventional porn-y' body types involved... But, if you start picking apart content, you can find just about everybody and everything across the board, across time. Obviously, certain looks are overrepresented, and I think that has a lot to do with our wider cultural values that are problematic.'"
California is talking about passing a law requiring performers to use condoms on camera. Do you think that would affect the way that we view condoms and safe sex?
"Possibly... Currently, you see condoms in mainstream porn production; Wicked Pictures has been condom-mandatory for the last ten years, and it's one of the largest production houses out there. So, why aren't people using condoms if so many people watch porn that has condoms in it?
What's happening behind the scenes is maybe that condom has to be changed out five times because they've been shooting for two hours... That reverse cowgirl up on the stairs where the penis is really exposed to the air...can cause a condom to break. If people are absorbing this as sex education, what you will see is more people using condoms in a 'porn-y' way, which is not the way condoms work -condoms are only 80-some-odd percent effective when they're used properly, which is 15 to 20 minutes at a time, with lube, with minimal air exposure. That's not what you see in porn."
Do you think that could be changed?
"I think if porn as a whole was more vocal about saying, you know, 'We are sex professionals; we may use condoms in this scene but we also used this much lube, and we changed the condom out this many times.' Or, 'We didn't use condoms in this scene, but we are STI-tested every 14 days and I have only worked with these partners'... I think if that was made clearer, just that tiny little thing would have such a significant impact."
Justin Sedor, Refinery29 Refinery29 | Love + Sex Tue, Apr 22, 2014 12:58 PM MYT –