Porn can liberate people who watch and act in it, says Dr Chauntelle Tibballs

The internet has made pornography easier to access than ever before. We went from sneaking magazines from top shelves in newsagents to being able to download seemingly endless images and footage with just a few clicks. In 2016 alone, some 21.2 billion people visited the website Pornhub alone to consume over four billion hours of footage. 

As technology advances at an incredible pace, experts are now trying to predict what our habits will be in the future. Will hyper-real, virtual reality experiences that interact with our movements stop us from having sex with other humans all together? Will robots replace partners? 

Dr Chauntelle Tibbals, sociologist and author of Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment  has devoted her career to studying our sexual behaviours and pornography. Her view of how pornography has changed and what it will look like is considerably more measured than our predictions. In many ways, she argues, porn has liberated us. She spoke to The Independent about what the future might actually hold, and perhaps more importantly, how we should be preparing ourselves. 

What does the future of porn look like? Will we all be using virtual reality headsets to have sex with celebrities? Or will the changes be more subtle?

Some people may definitely be using VR headsets to add further depth and dimension to sexual fantasy, even maybe about celebrities, sure – VR technology, content, and platforms have advanced markedly in recent years, as has the social acceptance of the use of VR.

 

But I don’t think everyone will soon be deep in VR such that it overwhelms all other types of content delivery. Certainly, VR may scoop up consumers from different erotic media consumption markets, but one very important thing new technology does is make porn accessible to new batches of consumers. Just like 50 Shades of Grey made porn accessible to people who would never dream of consuming erotica in another way, as erotic technology expands, so too does the consumer base.

Is sex something that will never fundamentally change, or do you think we are teetering on the edge of it being changed forever?

Sex is always changing and evolving, and it always has. It’s our commitment to various narratives related to sex and gender normativity that are more difficult to shake. Think about it. 10 to 15 years ago, online dating was almost taboo. Today, people swipe and hook up and date via app – an evolution past online dating, which has been totally normalised.

But the public declarations around “hook up sex” or even the tone associated with how they online date, for example focused platforms that emphasise various community norms, are not quite as evolved as the actual practice. So, rather than “teetering on the edge” of some big change, I think we are moving through a sexual process, one that’s intimately linked to wider social evolutions too.

Has porn had a positive impact on sex at all?

Porn and erotic media absolutely have many positive impacts on the public. It provides sexual stimulus and fantasy for endless numbers of consumers. It gives people who may have limited or differently developed social, physical, or emotional abilities access to sexual stimulation. It gives people in various geographically limited and or social challenged communities access to sex that may be “controversial” or “wild” or stigmatised in their immediate surroundings. It gives performers and models and producers the opportunity to explore their own sexualities. It gives business people endless opportunity to get creative with products and marketing, given the stigma and limitations placed on erotic media from the mainstream. 

Has porn had a negative impact on the sex lives of members of the public?

Negative aspects of porn on the public are related largely to consumer misuse and misappropriation within the context of a sex-phobic and or sexually limited society.

We live in a world that refuses to engage seamlessly incorporated scientifically accurate sex education, for example. As such, people look to the easiest access naked thing for information – and thus porn gets misappropriated as sex ed.

Also, because we don’t have a wider critical framework for understanding erotic media as narrative or film, people more easily overwrite themes of ease, minimal interaction time, etc on their IRL interpersonal lives. This happens with mainstream narratives too, but we have a greater critical understanding of those sorts of media, so the impact is appreciably different.

Do you think pornography needs to be incorporated into sex education more?

Absolutely not – pornography should not be incorporated into sex education. Sex education should be incorporated into sex education. This can include hardcore content produced in conjunction with sex educators and health professionals, intended only for viewers 18 and over. 

Porn is not intended to teach people about sex, just like car race films are not intended to teach people how to drive. Unfortunately, many people gravitate to porn as sex ed tool (which it is not and does not claim to be) due to things like sexual shame, poor to totally lacking sex ed at every stage of the life course, and a lack analytical understanding by which to consider adult content critically.

Does porn need to be legislated against at all?

Porn does not need to be legislated against, though it certainly could be legislated with.

For better or for worse, porn is a reflection of wider society – and that reflection is often uncomfortable. Our unwillingness to engage that discomfort in turn sparks fear mongering and ideas related to banning porn – legislating against – which will only make circumstances dangerous for sex workers, as well as for consumers seeking it out (because that demand will never go away). Legislators should focus their efforts on truly understanding the industry, which would then allow them to enact informed decisions that protect sex workers. This would be a huge step forward. Working on a greater nuanced understanding of human sexual expression, including porn, is a much longer process, but a collaborative effort here too would have a far better impact than attempting to legislate against sex.

What is the most important thing readers should know about the future of porn and how we should accommodate technological advances in our lives?

Sexual shame and poor or absent sex education, which are linked in of themselves, are two keys to wider social ails related to porn and erotic media. And piracy – like any other consumer good, porn is worth paying for. The general public’s overwhelming penchant for stealing content via piracy-based tube sites has had a deleterious impact on the public, as well as on the industry.

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