Monday, July 6, 2015

Exposure, by Chauntelle Tibbals

Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist with a PhD from the University of Texas, sees herself as a "sociologist at large. . . a public scholar out exploring the world--an embedded public sociologist."  For a large part of her career, she has been embedded "in stigmatized yet legal industries operating in the United States."  In other words, she has made the focus of her academic sociological studies the world of adult entertainment--porn.

There aren't too many people in the world who would (openly) defend and accept porn in culture.  But the numbers are there--it's widely consumed and has irrevocably established itself in popular entertainment.  So it seems only right that academics would study it and evaluate different aspects of its influence and trends, whether positive or negative.  Dr. Tibbals, one of the very few who has chosen to do so, has been shunned in the academic community.  Between conservatives who believe porn to be anti-family values, and liberals who believe it to be anti-women, there's little room for someone who defends and celebrates it from an academic, feminist perspective.

Tibbals leaves no doubt that she is a friend and defender of the industry.  Based on her telling, she has many friends in the industry, hangs out with producers and performers, and believes porn to be entertaining, liberating, and uplifting.  She writes about films being "empowering" to women performers, who sometimes "clearly, obviously, totally" enjoy their work.  Speaking of one film in particular, "the dudes appear to be super happy.  The women are into it, as well.  It's uplifting."

She doesn't have a lot of patience for critics of the industry.  She had heard about a major annual porn expo, and, upon attending, found that "everything I'd ever heard about [the expo] seemed to be either a gross embellishment or an out-and-out fabrication."  That has been her experience in studying the industry.  There's no shortage of critics of porn, but they tend to ignore performers, producers, and consumers who are happy about their role in the production and consumption of porn.

But speaking of ignoring. . . . Tibbals comes down hard as an apologist for porn.  Academics who study an industry should take an objective, analytical approach.  If she really wanted to write a sociological study of the world of pornography, shouldn't she have at least mentioned the role of international sex trafficking? (never mentioned)  The pervasive use of drugs? (briefly mentioned, glossed over)  The abuse of the women performers?  (mentioned in the famous case of Linda Lovelace, but she claims the abuse was not because of porn, it was because of her terrible husband)  The occurrence of STDs?  (briefly mentioned, only in passing)  The links between rape and use of porn? (not mentioned)  The consequences of addiction to porn? (not covered at all) The role of porn in destroying marriages? (not covered)  The impact of porn on sexualizing culture and transforming the way sex is viewed in media? (nope)  The effect of children's exposure to porn on their perceptions of sexuality and sexual behavior? (not mentioned)   The bottom line is that there are major, legitimate concerns about the proliferation of pornography.  In my opinion, a sociologist, whether tied to a university or a 'sociologist at large,' has a responsibility to her chosen field and her readership not to ignore these obvious problems with the adult entertainment industry.

Critics of porn should be careful not to resort to "gross embellishment" or "out-and-out fabrication" when discussing porn.  Tibbals shines a positive light on the industry that makes such critics look like unreliable reactionaries.  But in Exposure, Tibbals goes the other direction, falling far short of her task as a sociologist.  Until she's willing to take a good, hard look at the dark side of porn, the negative effects it can have on individual performers, consumers, and society at large, her study is at best incomplete, at worst, irresponsibly deceptive.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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