Fifty Shades of Sociology

I've been on a quest. Pouring through classic feminist texts. Partaking in sex workshops and conferences. Participating in conversations about the state of the union between feminism and sexuality. Curating a group art exhibition that asks, "Can pussy and politics co-exist?"

As I sat in a Sexual Health Expo workshop lead by sociologist at large, Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, I knew instantly that if this woman didn't have all the answers, if she couldn't tell me exactly where to find the Wizardess, she could, at the very least, point me to the yellow brick road. So I asked her for an interview:

What is a sociologist? And what does it mean to be a sociologist at large?

Whereas psychology is the study of the inner workings of an individual's mind, sociology is what we do out in public, collectively and together, and the patterns that occur therein. The idea of being a sociologist at large is actually just a catchy way of saying being a public sociologist. That's what I am.

I worked as a professor and a conventional academic for over ten years. Given our changing culture as it relates to the topics I study - sex, gender, media - I just found that my work would be better served out in the public versus locked in a university. So now I'm a free agent! I write for various publications including Playboy and Men's Health. I speak and moderate at different university, trade, and public events, and I have a book publishing in July titled Exposure.

I feel like, this way, my work gets out into the world much more quickly and in a much more accessible way.

I'm so glad you took the leap to become a sociologist at large. So, if sociology is the study of human public behavior, how does human sexuality fit into that realm?

There are a lot of different dimensions that factor into our lives and shape all of our behaviors. There's the physical body, there are psychological aspects, and there's also the social. And you know, far beyond you or me as individuals, for better and occasionally for worse, we as a collective society have established these shifting norms - things that are legal or illegal, things that are considered fringe-y and things that are considered "vanilla" - whatever they are, we've crafted these ideas collectively, and these collective ideas then impact us on an individual level.

So, even though it's often an uncomfortable thing to acknowledge, how we think about sex and sexuality on an individual level is influenced, at least in part, by shifting social norms and wider ideologies. For example, however many years ago [in the US], being gay was considered a mental illness or a crime. And now, even though we are finally making strides in this arena, being gay "just" makes you a second-class citizen. We're finally figuring out that everybody should have equal rights regardless of who they want to have sex with (as long as consent is involved and kids are not), but it's mind boggling to think about - wider social ideas related to queer sexualities, for example, really dictate/d how people may have engaged their own sexual desires, thoughts about themselves, presented themselves to others, and so on. The wider social impacts individual behaviors, even those related to sexualities and identities.

I want to be clear to our Readers that we're speaking within the context of the United States. There are still anti-gay laws on the books in about 78 countries worldwide. You not only study sex and society, but also society and pornography. I love this quote from your upcoming book:

Like it or not, adult entertainment is a hugely influential component of our culture. It plays a part in shaping who we are as a society. And we as a society shape it right back. Porn is informed by our sexual desires and dreams, often in ways that we are uncomfortable with.

- Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals

Let's talk about why we, as individuals in this society, might be uncomfortable with our own fantasies and sexual imaginations.

This ties back into what we were just talking about regarding wider social norms. We get bombarded with endless - truly endless, and often contradictory - messages about what we should be fantasizing about.

Though this is far from the only factor, but I think a big reason why we, as a culture, are still so uncomfortable with porn in terms of fantasy - because in spite of lip service about "porn mainstreaming," we still discriminate against members of the adult entertainment industry; sex work is not considered "real" work; and even though porn is widely consumed, it's still very much considered shameful and embarrassing - is that we see people engaging in sex we may've been told we should not be having. So it's two-fold, at least: fantasies we shouldn't be having and people who get to do stuff we deny ourselves.

Let's chat specifically about women and desire. I'm realizing more and more that my art and curatorial practice is just an elaborate invitation to get people to talk about the things that bother me personally. So Beyoncé declares she's a feminist while releasing a hot and steamy album and performing provocatively in fishnet hosiery on stage. This seems to have confused people.

Haha yes, as if feminism is killed by lust and lust eradicates feminism!


Unfortunately, this type of thinking is something that has caused feminism to stall out in many ways in today's world. Many women want the human equality that feminism touts, but they want to engage this principle in a way that may be at odds with what they feel feminism allows. This is partly due to misperceptions about what feminism is (e.g. it's woman power peppered with hating men - no!), but it's also partly due to people, for example, saying that Beyoncé can't be both a feminist and wear fishnets. In truth, she can do both.

Feminism is about human equality, but how equality manifests across communities, globally, and amongst women and men is basically endlessly variable. This is why a lot of people talk about feminisms - plural. When we forget about this plural, when we forget that feminism can and does manifest in many different ways, many of which do and do not resonate with others, that's where we run into trouble. In my understanding, it's actually pretty anti-feminist to evaluate someone like Beyoncé - who is a strong woman with the capacity to impact more people's lives than just about anyone else at this time in history - on the basis of her hosiery. That kind of cattiness disrespects the good work she does and the version of feminism that she espouses, as well as turns off others from a perspective that they may agree with (gender equality) by highlighting one they do not (acting like a hater).

Tell us a little something about your upcoming book Exposure.

It's due out July 7, 2015.

July 7th is my both my wedding anniversary and Tanabata, a festival held in Japan on this day to celebrate dreams and wishes coming true. What a great launch date!

Oh, I'm so excited about Exposure. 

The full title is Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment. It's an amalgamation of autobiographical stories interlaced with sociological insights and observations. It gives the background of why and how I came to be interested in exploring the cultural significance of adult entertainment, my experiences doing research within the community, and what prompted me to move fully into public sociology. And, since life is only about as serious as we make it, there's lots of funny parts too - stories about me being an unpaid intern at a porn company, tales from sex toy warehouses, sets, and industry trade events, and what it's like to study adult content (for science!).

I [also] developed a wonderful resource to accompany the book, The Exposure Store. Basically, it's a little theatre that streams the [movie] titles I discuss in the book. This way, people can watch content...without having to wade through a huge porn retail site, which may turn some people off. This enhanced accessibility will hopefully encourage readers to take a closer look and make their own determinations.

[Exposure] is also rigorous sociology that encourages critical comparative thinking. Because my goal with [this book] is not to change people's minds about adult entertainment one way or the other, but instead to present a series of facts, insights, and experiences gathered from my standpoint and allow readers to decide for themselves.


Interview by Malika Ali Harding

Header Image: Ghislaine FremauxTake Orgasm, 2013