Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment
From the opening essay in Exposure, you will laugh (a lot) and you will cringe (occasionally). Which is appropriate. After all, this is a book about porn — that laugh- and cringe-inducing industry of id. It’s the shadow market force that accelerates tech innovation and the economy as surely as it does libidos, and both mirrors and molds our culture in more ways than we realize.
Once relegated to shady theaters and sticky arcades, porn is now a billion-dollar business with crossover into the mainstream. Still, a stigma remains, and new hang-ups have emerged along with new media.
Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist specializing in gender, sex and media, is our guide through present-day Porn Valley in this collection of anecdotes, theories and observations from her decade-plus of researching the industry.
Tibbals is a prolific writer and commentator. In Exposure, she only skims the surface of her academic research, but you can find much of it online (and I highly recommend you do). Here, she gives us the broad strokes of the industry. Her essays raise more questions than they answer, and that’s the point. Pornography impacts us on many levels, and our relationship with it gets knotted up with our needs, values and feelings on gender, politics and social mores. Untangling these knots is beyond the scope of a single book.
Instead, Tibbals reveals the human side of adult entertainment that will reframe the way you think about the business — not in a judgemental way, but an intellectual one.
Tibbals traces her foray into porn scholarship to a provocative streak and a rejection of unscientific generalizations about adult entertainment. Sadly, she discovered this short-sightedness had infiltrated academia when her graduate advisor belittled her dissertation topic. However, this rebuke only further entrenched her scientific curiosity.
“Porn was capable of making people lose their common sense, analytic skills, and composure,” she writes. “It could scramble the smartest, most educated of brains. And that was it for me. I was hooked — porn for life.”
But it was more than the thrill of the maverick driving her interest. She was also fascinated with her own fear of pornography, which, once she delved deeper into the topic, she realized was actually a fear of “the socially constructed idea of it.”
Some of Tibbals’ finest work is when she’s exploring the meta-space between real and fantasy — real actors with fake personas having real sex presented as fantasy. What impact does this have on the performers? It’s complicated, of course, but the important thing is that Tibbals poses the question in a way that humanizes the participants.
Talk shows flock to porn-star tragedies and draw broad conclusions. Tibbals considers each performer as an individual being. One such star is Joanna Angel, a Rutgers graduate who runs her own production company and stars in its films. Tibbals found one of Angel’s more hardcore flicks to be both intense and empowering.
“It showed an educated woman business owner in control of exactly the kind of sex she wanted, all in order to make exactly the kind of creative product she wanted to sell.”
In her survey of the genre, Tibbals challenges her own assumptions of empowerment and exploitation. In spending time with performers and their fans at conventions, she confronts a complicated culture that she describes as “the strangest mix of human adoration and disgust.” There are earnest and endearing fans, but also stalkers, self-righteous assholes and seemingly well-intended folks who unconsciously break social norms (asking intimate questions or making lewd comments) simply because of the perceived intimacy they have with the performer.
And of course there are the insecure misogynists who simultaneously desire and degrade the women they adore, often in a flurry of bipolar comments (“I love you”/”You’re a whore”) on social media. As though porn actors didn’t have enough detractors on the outside, they also suffer the abuse of so-called fans who “slut-shame” them online.
And it’s not just anti-porn activists and misogynists who get in on the action. Media exploitation of the industry is as pernicious and predatory as it accuses Porn Valley of being.
Take as an example the recent documentary Hot Girls Wanted, which I enjoyed but which ultimately disappointed when it devolved into a patriarchal rescue narrative. The lead subject, Tressa, willingly and knowingly pursues a career in porn, but is infantilized by the documentarians. She starts dating a guy who is aware of what she does for a living, but then he whines about how her career is hurting him. He implores her to give up her job for him. Were you to replace “porn star” with any other occupation — say “ER surgeon” — the jealous, insecure boyfriend would be, at best, an unsympathetic character, if not an outright villain.
In Hot Girls Wanted, though, he is the white knight.
But don’t take my word for it. Tibbals happened to write a fantastic review for Uproxx, which explains the film’s failings far better than I could.
I have long been fascinated with this bizarro intersection of pornography, feminism and media, and Exposure did not disappoint. This book is proof of the importance of porn scholarship, and Tibbals’ is a welcome and needed voice in the field.