Meet L.A.'s (New) Resident Porn Professor

Chauntelle Tibbals wants to "liberalize people's sexual expressions."
Chauntelle Tibbals wants to "liberalize people's sexual expressions."
Photo by Sam Marx

In 2013, Pasadena City College professor Hugo Schwyzer reigned as the Internet-famous “porn professor.” He taught a Navigating Pornography class and drew national headlines for hosting male porn star James Deen as a guest lecturer. Then Schwyzer's career went down in proverbial flames when it was revealed he was sleeping with female students and sexting porn stars; he had a meltdown via Twitter and ultimately resigned from his professorship, porn studies and the public eye.

But sans Schwyzer and his media circus, porn scholarship has gone on — arguably to more credible ends.

California native Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist and former visiting scholar at USC and lecturer at Cal State Northridge, has dedicated much of her career to studying the adult-entertainment community based in the San Fernando Valley.

Blond and bubbly, Tibbals has a stereotypical California inflection and peppers thoughtful meditations on epistemology with gratuitous “likes.” She has an air of “chill” erudition.

Tibbals’ work is academically earnest but raises eyebrows wherever it lands. (Imagine readers’ reactions when they picked up the 2012 Stanford Law and Policy Review and came across her article, “‘Anything that forces itself into my vagina is by definition raping me …’ – Adult Performers and Occupational Safety and Health.”)

Tibbals has spent more than a decade mastering how to respond to people's reactions to her work. With  seven published, scholarly porn-oriented articles and a book under her belt, she’s encountered her fair share of furrowed brows and looks of disgust. 

“You just keep having the conversation and hopefully people will eventually hear it,” she explains.

Chauntelle TibbalsEXPAND
Chauntelle Tibbals
Beau Holland

Tibbals began her master’s degree at Cal State Northridge in 2000. Equipped with bachelor’s degrees in sociology and physiological sciences from UCLA, she says she was the "little nerd in the library checking out all the weird books.”

She started getting into feminist theory and immersed herself in feminist scholarship on sex work from the ’70s, ’80s and ’90s, which overwhelmingly painted the adult industry as abusive and exploitative. When she learned that the porn industry's locus was in the San Fernando Valley, right under her nose, she was appalled. 

“My rational, working-class brain started to kick in,” she says. “I’m, like, if [the industry] is really torture and trafficking and dungeons and burning and slaughtering, like all of these books say, how is it possible that this is happening in the Valley? There aren’t any basements in the Valley!”

Suddenly Tibbals began seeing Porn Valley’s presence everywhere — from Vivid Entertainment trucks hauling DVDs on the 101 to porn stars hanging out near CSUN. None of it seemed particularly sinister. The dissonance between the literature and her lived experience sowed doubt. 

By the time she started her Ph.D. at the University of Texas, she knew she wanted to study porn in some capacity. Her advisers suggested she look at gay porn or BDSM, but she balked.

“I was, like, I want to study this thing that you all hate,” Tibbals recalls. “I want to study blown-out, big-titty blonds, contract girls. I want to study this porn that’s so horrible.”

She decided to actually talk to members of the L.A. adult-entertainment community, something she says nobody was doing circa 2004.

Tibbals reached out to tons of adult businesses seeking access to their offices “to see what was really happening.” Most people ignored her, but one of the more prominent companies granted her a summer internship.

She took notes and did “ethnography stuff,” in addition to sending emails, driving people around, getting lunch and all the other duties of a PR flack. She likens her experience to going up a terrifying roller coaster, only to find there’s no drop. “It was just a small business,” Tibbals says. “The misperception was so insane and so huge that every day I went, it became more and more compelling.”

(Full disclosure: I once worked in a behind-the-scenes role at an adult-entertainment industry office and found it similarly mundane.)

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Her work culminated in her dissertation, which focused on the expansion of women’s rights – in porn and elsewhere – in the absence of a social movement. Tibbals has churned out porno-centric scholarly works ever since, and frequently reports on the industry for Playboy, Mic, Men’s Health, VICE and other mainstream media outlets.

Curiously, the adult-entertainment industry – which is tight-knit and notoriously mistrustful of outsiders – has embraced Tibbals and her work.

There are other scholars on friendly terms with the industry (e.g., Constance Penley of UCSB), but no one is as entrenched or familiar as Tibbals.

“She earned street cred by showing up, doing her homework, putting the time in, attending shows, moderating seminars and writing extensively about the business,” says AVN managing editor Dan Miller. “She’s not just stopping by for a cup of coffee.”

Tibbals believes her familiarity with L.A. helped her gain access initially, but she also believes she delivered on her promise to paint an authentic picture of the industry, warts and all.

“[She] actually saw the complexities – and the positive – in our industry,” says Sssh.com founder Angie Rowntree, who employs Tibbals as the moderator for the site’s periodic live-streamed adult industry debates.

But being a porn scholar isn't all dildos and sunshine.

According to Tibbals, she has never received financial support or grants for her work, which “is not the way that academia generally works.”

Tibbals defines sex work as "any part or parcel of generating commercial sex." That means a pimp is a sex worker, the HR lady at an adult-DVD company is a sex worker, and so is she. She acknowledges that performers bear the brunt of discrimination, but that stigma has colored her career as well.

In grad school, it was difficult for Tibbals to find funding and scholars to peer-review her work. She was ostracized from her school and her department.

The blowback only galvanized her in her pursuits.

“Sociology is figuring out humans … and how they interact and synergistically impact one another,” Tibbals says. “People who work in porn are also humans and social actors. Consequently, they’re also part of that fabric. The idea that that piece of the fabric was absolutely unworthy of looking at and considering seriously, that was all I needed to be like, ‘Oh, I’m going to do that.’”

But with deep misgivings about the university system and a desire for impact beyond the ivory tower, Tibbals abandoned university-bound academia in 2013 to become an embedded public sociologist.

“My writing and research is actually getting to people who are out in the world, not just to other Ph.D.s with big vocabularies,” Tibbals says. “I feel that’s going to have a greater impact in terms of liberalizing people’s sexual expressions.”

Tibbals acknowledges there are many more porn-centric studies that can and should be undertaken in an academic setting, and invites scholars who can secure funding to pick up the torch. 

The first thing she’d like to see happen is a demographic capture of the business done at regular intervals to debunk myths surrounding the industry. She’s particularly irked by the continued assumption that the industry generates $10 billion to $14 billion a year.

“That’s what policymakers want, that’s what lawmakers want, that’s what public officials want – it’s numbers,” she explains. “It would help people wrap their minds around this community and this media’s significance in our society, and come up with ways to think about it critically.

“Whomever wants to do that, if they need help developing their study to get us to those ends, I volunteer my services.”

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