Millions of Americans Watch Porn. But For Academics, Studying It Remains A Challenge.

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Aug. 16 2013 1:29 PM

Millions of Americans Watch Porn. But For Academics, Studying It Remains A Challenge.

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A couple studies porn.

(David McNew/Getty Images)

Millions of Americans study porn in the privacy of their homes on a daily basis. But for academics, it's still a challenge to secure funding and institutional approval to take a serious scholarly look at the material. The latest bout of oversharing from Pasadena City College "porn professor" Hugo Schwyzer—and the longstanding war against fellow academics staged by anti-porn activist Gail Dines—have only complicated the work. I spoke with Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist who has published papers on the adult industry everywhere from the Stanford Law and Policy Review to Porn Studies (and is currently rolling out an ebook series on her own experiences studying porn) on the state of the field.

Amanda Hess Amanda Hess

Amanda Hess is a Slate staff writer. 

Slate: Researchers have been studying pornography for decades now, but there are still a lot of basic facts about producers and consumers that remain unclear: How many people watch pornography? Who are they? How do they access it? What are the big questions you’re still hoping to answer?

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Chauntelle Tibbals: If I had a wish list: The first thing that we need is a rigorous, comprehensive demographic capture of what the industry even is. If I have to hear that “10-to-12 billion dollar industry” bullshit statistic one more time … I used it myself, years ago, when I didn’t know any better. But it was “established” back in the early 2000s, when there was a gold rush happening in the adult industry. The number was an estimated fiction then, and it’s certainly incorrect now. It’s troubling that people think the industry is made up of these fat cat porn people raking in tons of money. That’s not the case. But I couldn’t tell you what the actual figures are, because they don’t exist. Individual companies keep track of sales statistics, but they tend to keep those numbers very close to the vest. No one wants the competition to know the numbers. So if I had one wish, I’d like to recruit an army of people to gather demographic data with me.

Slate: Why haven’t those simple questions been answered yet? Is it too expensive?

Tibbals: That’s part of it. Demographic research is by nature very expensive. Most researchers don’t have a couple hundred thousand dollars just lying around in their bank accounts that they can spend on that. Researchers generally get grants for that type of work, and I can tell you from experience that nobody is handing out grant money to study porn. So there’s the money issue. There’s also a trust issue in studying the industry. If your subjects can’t trust the people they’re giving information to, then the information isn’t going to be reliable or accurate. That gets at a sociology-of-sociology question regarding the dynamic between researchers and respondents. A lot of people in the adult industry don’t trust researchers for very good reasons.

Slate: Has stigma about the industry impacted you or your work? 

Tibbals: Always. It was a lot more intense when I was in graduate school but, as my publication record gets longer, it’s started to get a little better. But it still happens to this day. Lately, I've been publishing primarily in law journals because I find the First Amendment and workplace regulation aspects of the industry interesting, but also because law journals tend to be much more welcoming to the subject than others.

Slate: You mention in your book that your academic interest in the adult industry was piqued when your own experiences living in the San Fernando Valley failed to match up with a lot of the things you had heard or read about the porn industry from outside sources. Do you think people living in Southern California have a more normalized view of the porn industry than people in other parts of the country? 

Tibbals: Yes and no. Some people who grew up in the Valley still have no idea it’s in their back yard, but being unaware of something is not the same as thinking it's "normal." But there are all kind of indicators that Los Angeles, as a city, is really kind of over porn. For example, there used to be this convention called “Erotica LA” and then the “Exxxotica Expo” here. In 2005 or 2006, the shows started tanking, maybe because people weren’t interested in going anymore. They were like, “Porn: Who cares?” That’s less true in other U.S. cities. When Exxotica was in Chicago recently, it blew the roof off—or so I heard.

Slate: Pasadena City College professor Hugo Schwyzer seems to have catapulted himself to become the nation’s most famous teachers of pornography by being the worst at it. He recently took to Twitter to admit that he fantasized about having sex with porn stars in front of his class, that he carried on an extramarital affair with a porn star, and that he used his position as “the porn professor” to earn the affections of his female students. How will that affect all the other scholars who are teaching pornography at the college level?

Tibbals: The unforgivable part is the effect it’s had on students. I confess that after his Twitter meltdown—I don’t know which meltdown it was—I went and looked at his blog and read some of the comments. Some of them were heartbreaking: Students saying, “I trusted you.” That’s exploiting a power relationship. It’s really unethical and kind of heartless. I imagine that for students, it’s a feeling of total betrayal to find out that the course was not only a scam, but a scam for your professor to get his rocks off.

[It’s] maddening, because there are respectable people at research universities teaching about adult content, like Linda Williams at Berkeley or Constance Penley at UC Santa Barbara. It’s already difficult enough to get people to take this topic seriously, to view the sex industry as a complicated entity, and to think of pornography as something that people actually think about. I don’t know what Hugo was trying to do, but he claimed that he hoped to get in with porn people and garner some celebrity for himself. And this one circus has now made it more difficult for the rest of us.

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