I recently got to do an interview with Malika Ali of On the Ground Floor, a wonderful and inspiring art space in South Los Angeles.
Malika and I spoke so much that she had to truncate or conversation some! You can read the full interview below, and read the beautifully rendered published version on Malika’s blog here.
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MA: What is a sociologist? And what does it mean to be a sociologist at large?
DrCT: A sociologist is a person who studies external social behavior. So 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.
Most academics work exclusively in higher education, as a university researcher and/or as a college professor. Academic work is generally very very (very) esoteric and inaccessible – both stylistically and in terms of how one actually goes about getting to read it. And that just didn’t seem like what I wanted to be doing with my life – discovering things that most others, for one reason or another, did not have access to.
I worked as a professor and a conventional academic for over ten years, but after so much time and given our changing culture as it relates to the topics I study – sex, gender, media, work – 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 do research projects, 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 – Exposure. I feel like, this way, my work gets out into the world much more quickly and in a much more accessible way.
MA: I think there are parallels to this in the art world. Even when I look at the submissions from professors who are immersed in academia, it feels to me, at least, as someone looking at the work, that there is a loss of soul, very heady, lack of emotion in the work.
DrCT: There’s an interesting thing that happens when you’re working as an academic researcher…
We’re all human, regardless of what we’re doing. Be it working as a sociologist, an artist, a computer programmer, or anything, whatever, we’re all humans with a unique standpoint and plenty of subjectivity. So for example, all of my work is predicated on the fact that I’m a 37-year-old woman, born and raised in LA, etc, etc. I would be doing a disservice to anybody and everybody if I didn’t acknowledge the impact my unique standpoint has on insights and conclusions that come from my work.
But what you see happening in academia is an endless (and futile) quest to remove the humanity from research by ignoring, minimizing, or attempting to erase the standpoint of the researcher. This quest for objectivity is, in my opinion, a fool’s errand – because all research is done by humans! So even if we’re talking about designing survey questions for the US census, a totally impersonal-seeming example that everybody’s familiar with, the fact remains that humans designed those questions, thus each one is inherently subjective. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but to ignore it is to misrepresent what all research actually is. Academia’s quest often points to removing these standpoints, but given the work I do and the way I am (another part of my standpoint!), this just didn’t make sense to me.
MA: I’m so glad you took the leap to become a sociologist-at-large. So if sociology is a study of human public behavior, how does human sexuality fit into that realm?
DrCT: There’re 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 in 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, being gay was considered a mental illness or a crime, depending on who you were talking about. 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 mindboggling 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.
MA: 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.” Let’s talk about why we, as individuals in this society, might be uncomfortable with our own fantasies and sexual imagination.
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 and should not be doing sexually, including what we should be fantasizing about.
Though this is far from the only factor, 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.
MA: 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. So Beyoncé declares she’s a feminist while releasing a hot and steamy album and performing in fishnet hosiery on stage. This seems to have confused people. They questioned: “How could she be both a feminist and radiate lust on stage?”
DrCT: Haha yes – as if feminism is killed by lust, and lust eradicates feminism! Okayyy…
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 also 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 in the history of time – 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 others off from a perspective that they may agree with (gender equality) by highlighting one they do not (acting like a hater).
MA: Can you talk about cross-cultural perceptions of women and sexuality?
DrCT: When talking about issues related to women and sexuality from a cross-cultural perspective, it’s important to remember that same thing about feminisms – plural. Plural, plus subjectivity, working in conjunction with variable norms.
Just like it’s important to remember that not everyone’s feminism looks the same, it’s also important to remember that normative ideas about gender and sexualities are not universal. So, for example, what looks like women’s rights or empowerment in the US, 1) varies within US culture, and 2) varies outside the US. We must always remember that we considering all issues from those unique standpoints I was talking about earlier – and part of that is informed by being part and parcel of US wider culture. This manifests differently in everyone, but it also shapes how we think about what constitutes gender equality as a collective body.
It’s important to remember this when we’re thinking about feminisms outside the US. What seems obvious or “normal” to us may look totally different to another person from another part of the world. Like everything else in life, gender and sexuality vary cross-culturally, both within and outside the US; and all of these variances are interconnected in very complex ways.
MA: Tell the readers a little something about your upcoming book Exposure.
DrCT: Oh, I’m so excited about Exposure!
The full title is Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment, due out July 7, 2015. 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’re 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!).
And regarding studying adult content, I actually developed a wonderful resource to accompany the book – The Exposure Store. Basically, it’s a little theatre that streams the titles I discuss in the book. This way, people can watch the content for themselves, but 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.
The book is highly readable and accessible, but it’s also rigorous sociology that encourages critical comparative thinking… Because my goal with Exposure 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.
pictured: Ghislaine Fremaux, Take Orgasm, 2013 via MA/OTGF – on view beginning 03/28/15 On The Ground Floor
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Got a sociology question? Need some social justice informed life advice? Contact Dr. Chauntelle right here.