This was the first contribution to Feminism For Real that I found myself seriously disagreeing with. I’ve been struggling since I read it with how to talk about what I think it gets wrong in terms of differing types of knowledge, and when it’s most useful to draw upon them. This contribution to Feminism For Real also ties in closely with part ten (Megan Lee’s essay on class and higher education), and the vigorous conversation baraquiel, Endora and I were having in the comment thread concerning social stratification and schooling. So rather than give my usual in-line commentary this week, I want to write a bit more coherently about what Andrea Plaid is arguing in her essay, “No, I Would Follow the Porn Star’s Advice.” I want to share why I feel uncomfortable with her conclusion that sexual advice from a sex worker is as authoritative as sexual advice from a sexologist, and tie this discussion back to larger themes in Feminism For Real concerning experiential knowledge and its relation to (for lack of a better term) systematized knowledge.
“NO, I WOULD FOLLOW THE PORN STAR’S ADVICE”: A CASE STUDY IN EDUCATIONAL PRIVILEGE AND KYRIARCHY by Andrea Plaid (pp. 97-103).
So first, a brief summary of Plaid’s thesis. The case study referenced in the title is blogosphere reaction to the announcement by Latina magazine that they had hired porn star (how she is identified in the essay) Ann Maria Rios to write a sex advice column. Specifically, Plaid discusses the response of Latina sexologist Bianca Laureano who was offended that Latina magazine chose to hire a sex worker rather than someone with a research background to field questions about human sexuality. Plaid argues that this distinction between “The Degreed” and “the self-taught” is unwarranted — particularly since the backlash against hiring Rios came even before she began to publish her column. The negative reaction was based solely (Plaid argues) on the assumption that someone with an advance degree in sexology is more knowledgeable about human sexuality than someone whose professional resume consists of erotic film-making. “Rios couldn’t use [her experience in the industry] when giving answers about sexual consent and desire?” Plaid asks. “And what she doesn’t know about the anthropological/sociological/psychological couldn’t Rios look up online? She doesn’t need an advanced degree to Google” (101-102). Plaid reads Laureano’s response to Rios’ hiring as bitterness that Laureano’s degree did not make her the automatic first-choice, and as an attempt to “perpetuate educational privilege” (102), “a textbook case of kyriarchy” (103).
When it comes to the broader question of automatically privileging someone with a degree over someone self-taught, I absolutely agree with Plaid. Advanced degrees are supposed to be our agreed-upon short-hand for the training a person does in a particular field: a way of knowing at a glance that (for example) I have completed the training necessary to be a professional librarian, or that I know how to research and write on historical subjects in the manner accepted by the field. In both of those cases there is no reason why a person could not gain training and experience virtually identical to the training and experience I received during my four years of graduate school — yet never set foot in an institution of higher learning. There’s nothing magical about The Degree that sets those of us with an MLS or an MA apart from those with identical training — but not the piece of paper.
However, what Plaid leaves un-addressed in her essay are two related (and tricksome) issues. Let’s say we agree that having a degree in hand is not a useful way assess someone’s suitability for providing advice on matters of human sexuality. The question then becomes how do we assess someone’s suitability? Plaid seems to be arguing here for a couple of methods. First, she suggests that experience in a sex-related industry provides a person knowledge about human sexuality that will be, in some measure, generalizable and useful to the public at large. “I think I would listen to the porn star,” a friend of hers volunteers, “She just finished working so many hours fucking. This sexologist just studied it” (103). Here, not only is experiential knowledge read as sufficient for offering advice, but it is actually seen as superior to the advice of a person who “just studied” human sexuality in an academic and/or research setting. Second, she suggests that the person’s demonstrated record and the public’s response are also a way of assessing whether or not the selected columnist is up to the job (this gets back to the idea that Rios’ suitability was challenged even before her column began to appear). As I’ve suggested in previous installments of this series, I have deep reservations about privileging first-hand experience over systematic study (though I think there’s a strong argument to be made for first-hand experience to count more than it currently does in some circles). As to the second point, it still leaves the question of why Rios was selected in the first place by Latina magazine — that is, what criteria they were using when evaluating someone’s expertise on matters related to human sexuality prior to actually hiring them?
Which brings me to the second tricksome issue at hand — and the one which lies at the heart of my disagreement with Plaid over whether Laureano’s objection was an appropriate challenge or an abuse of her privilege as a degreed sexologist. I think the two types of expertise Plaid is comparing here are fundamentally different, and that one type of expertise is better than the other at providing sound advice to the public about human sexuality. I would argue that when it comes to providing advice and resources to the public generally about matters related to sexuality that someone with a sexologist’s background (regardless of whether they are officially degreed or self-taught) is better qualified for the job than someone with experience in the adult film industry.* Why? Because I think there is something of value in going through a training process (whether in or outside an institution) that encourages you to move beyond your own subjective experience of sexuality and think about what we know about human populations across time and space. While it’s true that there is a lot of really high-quality information available online now, and that you don’t need an advanced degree “to Google,” I do think that there is no substitute for spending a lot of intensive time reading and evaluating the information specific to your field so that you become (through experience!) a wizz at separating bullshit from actual fact. Graduate school, ideally, forces you to do this and prove that you’ve done it by reporting back to your faculty advisers. I think it’s important to practice — in the presence of mentors who can help you assess the outcome — the art of separating your own gut responses from data, and know when to use one, the other, or both as you craft a response.
Someone whose background is in erotic performance is going to have a wealth of really interesting and useful information about sex work.** Someone whose job is to remain current in research about human sexuality will have an overview of what we know and don’t know, as a society, about sex — and what we know about what works and doesn’t in what types of contexts. Both types of knowledge are incredibly valuable. And I agree with Plaid that we often unjustifiably privilege the systematized knowledge over the experiential when it comes to treating someone as an expert or professional. At the same time, I think it’s a mistake to imagine that these two types of knowledge are interchangeable. I think it’s an error to assume that someone who has earned a living through erotic performance is, by virtue of that experience, able to offer better advice on human sexuality than someone who has “just studied” human sexuality.
I think it’s legitimate to ask why, as Laureano seems to have, one would choose to privilege the personal and experiential over a research-based perspective when it comes to offering sexual advice. That’s what both Latina magazine and Plaid’s friend seem to have done: make a judgment call that privileged the advice of a sex worker over (not just alongside) a scholar of human sexuality. And I question the wisdom of that decision. Not because “The Degreed” should have some sort of automatic in, but because I think this is a situation where broad-based research and training is likely to provide more accurate information than personal experience.
Join me next week for the next installment of the live-blogging series: reflections on Theresa (TJ) Lightfoot’s “So What if We Didn’t Call it ‘Feminism’?!: Feminism and Indigenous People” (pp. 105-109).
*I realize these two categories — sexologist and sex worker — are not mutually exclusive, but Plaid is arguing that Rios’ experience as a sex worker qualifies her to give advice on human sexuality, not that she might also be up to speed on issues of human sexuality in a broad-based sense.
**to use anna Saini’s definition from last week: “the economic exchange between consenting adults for a sex act.”