PhD study of transgender porn industry a first in anthropology

PhD study of transgender porn industry a first in anthropology
Sophie Pezzutto (far right), at the Transgender Erotica Awards show in Hollywood in 2018. Image: Rick Garcia.
Friday 19 October 2018

ANU anthropology PhD candidate Sophie Pezzutto is living a life less ordinary.

Currently based in Las Vegas in the United States, Sophie’s research has seen her walk the red carpet for the adult industry’s equivalent of the Academy Awards, attend pornography film shoots in Los Angeles, and go to various industry conventions, expos, and parties. 

Exciting and glamorous as that all sounds, it’s in service of serious research on a segment of the population which faces significant issues of marginalisation: transgender sex workers. 

Sophie, who’s in the ANU School of Archaeology and Anthropology, is doing is an ethnographic study of the transgender pornography industry. She is examining how being in porn as well as being trans shape performers’ experiences and understandings of love, friendship, intimacy, and family. She is very excited, it being the “first ethnographic study of the trans porn industry in anthropology”.

“In academia, accounts of trans people have historically been largely limited to analyses of mentally ill ‘patients’ in medicine and psychology, without a voice of their own, always represented by cis people,” Sophie explains. 

“In research done in the humanities things have not been much better, with some particularly problematic portrayals of trans people in feminist literature of the 1970s. Looking at research on pornography on the other hand, it is almost as if trans people don’t even exist, despite trans porn being one of the most popular types of pornography online.”

“In this sense, academia has mirrored mainstream society in its systematic erasure and exclusion of trans people's stories and lived experiences,” she says. That is now beginning to change – and Sophie is part of that wave.

“As a trans researcher in the humanities, I decided to take up this historic opportunity and contribute to this emerging canon of work on trans issues by trans people,” Sophie says. 

On a personal level, she adds: “it has also been an amazing opportunity to engage with the broader trans community and get to know other trans people living different and in many cases less privileged lives to mine.” 

Her awareness of being a privileged member of the trans community has come with a deep sense of social responsibility. 

“I see my work following in the footsteps of the feminist tradition of consciousness raising and I firmly believe in bringing attention to trans issues beyond the academe,” she says. One of the ways she is trying to achieve this is through a documentary film, which she is currently co-producing about the industry.

Her work brought her to the US, where much of the world’s professional pornography is produced. For the past two months Sophie has been living with porn performers in Las Vegas, following the exodus of many in the adult film industry who’ve moved there from Los Angeles due to high living costs. While she works on her PhD, she’s a visiting research scholar at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV), which she describes as being incredibly supportive of her research, with a number of scholars there also working on sex work related topics.

For her field work in Los Angeles and Las Vegas, Sophie has put herself in situations and environments where she can best learn about, and from, the people she is researching – which has involved, among other things, sitting in on a wide range of pornography shoots.

“I have been to amateur shoots in someone's apartment, to a company's shoot in a warehouse in San Fernando Valley (aka "Porn Valley") and to shoots in unbelievable mansions the size of small castles,” Sophie says. 

“I have been to shoots where the videographer and/or director have been quite abusive to the performers, to the point where the performer had to hold back their tears, and I've been on shoots which have been incredibly fun with everyone having a good time and hanging out afterwards to eat and go out partying.”

Earlier this year, Sophie also walked the red carpet at the Adult Video Network awards as a performer’s “date”, which she described as one of the most visceral and unreal experiences of her life. 

“Red carpet events in Hollywood are the entertainment industry's contemporary version of what anthropologists would call ritual practices,” she explains. 

“They are highly choreographic, and more or less structured the same. They occur in regular and frequent intervals, and function as a rite of passage for newcomers in this industry, signifying their status as "porn stars". 

“They are a way of enacting belonging to a community by functioning as a get-together for everyone in the industry and as a way to acknowledge the otherwise devalued hard work of performers.”

In addition to shoots and red carpet events, Sophie has tried to be part of every relevant event or activity in the lives of her research participants. 

“In anthropology we believe that in order to understand a group of people, you have to fully immerse yourself in that particular (sub)culture and actively participate in people’s lives for a prolonged period of time,” she says. 

“We don’t really believe in the idea of a neutral and objective researcher removed from the events and people we study. If human culture is your specimen, there is no way of standing over it and observing it through a window or microscope! We are always surrounded by culture.”

As a consequence, she has found herself attending “crazy house parties in the hills of Hollywood, going to trans nights at dingy strip clubs, or on shopping sprees to the mall for upcoming shoots." 

“I also sit at booths during fan conventions next to my friends who are giving autographs and help their fans take photos with them and attend industry trade shows and talks.”

Some of the most useful data she has collected though, has been by spending time one on one with performers. In Las Vegas she lives in a share house with two well-known trans performers, which Sophie says has been an ethnographic dream come true.

“The best data I've obtained has been through simply spending time one on one with performers and talking to them about their lives, either at home or during one of the regular four-hour drives to shoots from Las Vegas to Los Angeles.”

Given the level of access she has been granted, it’s perhaps not surprising that people in the industry have been “overwhelmingly positive” about Sophie’s research.

“This has no doubt been immensely helped by my own positionality as a trans researcher, which usually implies that I am not going to ask annoying, stupid or unnecessarily sensationalising questions about trans people's lives and that I care about trans issues,” she says. 

“Only once have I been outright refused an interview by a performer, which to me seemed to stem from a general mistrust of journalists more than anything else.” 

Outside the industry, she adds: “it is funny to see most guys' eyes light up when they first hear what I do!”


Follow Sophie’s research and adventures on Twitter or Instagram @itssosophs

SHARE

Updated:  22 October 2018/Responsible Officer:  Head of School/Page Contact:  CASS Marketing & Communications