Author: Sophie Pezzutto, a PhD candidate in Anthropology at the Australian National University. She is conducting the first ethnographic study of the transgender pornography industry in anthropology. Her research interests are fame, social media, selfhood, and loneliness. You can follow her on Twitter: @itssosophs and Instagram: @itssosophs
It is well past midnight in central Hollywood. My informant, Lil Camille, is dragging me towards a white Mercedes AMG on a half vacant, dimly lit parking lot. “Come on!!! Don’t worry, it’s fine! We do this all the time!” she exclaims, sensing the increasing hesitation in my steps.
I had met Lil Camille and her friend Pink on a porn set earlier that day. We’d spent the evening together on a sofa at an award show pre-drinking, smoking, chatting, and testing snapchat filters under a barrage of camera flashes from a stage nearby. At first, they were surprised that I had come all the way across the ocean – from Australia – to learn about their world. But for some reason, they took a liking to me. They decided to adopt me – taking me everywhere they went and calling me “sister”. It was like high school. I was the innocent, straight-edged friend with the thick glasses. They were the cool kids who had decided to give me a chance. Like all the cool kids in high school, though, they also thoroughly enjoyed pushing my boundaries – roping me into their various acts of rebellion.
By the time we left the party they were both intoxicated, but adamant that I ride with them to their hotel for a hang out and an interview. I trusted them and having only been in the field for a relatively short time, plagued by an unending angst about getting sufficiently ‘authentic’ data, my eyes lit up. “I would absolutely love to do that,” I said.
Before I knew it, the three of us hopped into an Uber with a guy Pink had been flirting with. The drive lasted only a few minutes before we pulled over. Instead of being at a hotel, however, we were down a side street in front of a half-empty parking lot in the middle of Hollywood (Hollywood is not a glamorous place at night).
Pink ran into the parking lot, her hands wrapped around the guys’ arm and before I could process it all, our ride had disappeared into the darkness. “Come, come!” shouted Lil Camille, grabbing my hand.
“No wait, why aren’t we at the hotel? And who the f*** is that dude anyway?” I was beginning to panic.
“Oh, just some random dude who’s been hooking me up with K [Ketamine] all evening,” Lil Camille said. “He’s fine. He thinks he’s going to get laid. He’ll drive us to the hotel.”
“Wait, what?!” I muttered, too dumbfounded to protest.
There is just so much that can go wrong here, I thought to myself.
“Come on!!! Don’t worry, it’s fine! We do this all the time!”, Lil Camille exclaimed, this time with more energy, pulling me towards the white Mercedes AMG.
This is probably the part where you should draw the line as a researcher, I thought. Call the proverbial helicopter to airlift you out of the village.
But as soon as the thought had crossed my mind, I heard another voice whispering back: But think of the data!
That voice had, in many ways, been the result of all my experiences in academia up to that point. It was the result of everyone telling me that it is an impossibly tough environment – that I will most likely end up without a job in my field, overqualified for any job outside of it. Only sacrifice, lots of publications, and ground-breaking research would lead to steady work. This was my opportunity to prove myself worthy on the neo-liberal terrain that is the academic labour market.
In addition to today’s pressures in academia, the trope in anthropology of ‘roughing it’ creates the perfect conditions for a conflict between career and wellbeing. Many aspiring anthropologists are familiar with Malinowski’s description of being dropped off on the south coast of New Guinea with all his gear, while the dinghy which brought him there disappeared on the horizon. I remember being inspired by Kimberly Kay Hoang’s Dealing in Desire, an ethnographic study of hostess bars in Vietnam during which she became a hostess herself for several months.
From researchers such as Liza Dalby who became a geisha in Japan, to Katherine Frank who became a stripper for her ethnographic study of strip clubs, the anthropologist’s dedication to “participation” – to truly understand, to throw off the false lab coat of objectivity and get involved – is one of the discipline’s strong suits. It had always attracted me. At the same time, however, the trope of the anthropologist-adventurer is so pervasive, that choosing a safer methodology or more ‘mundane’ field site regularly evokes feelings of guilt.
“You can’t take the subway to the field!”, as Joanne Passaro cynically put it.
Drawing the line
Where do I as an ethnographer draw the line between career and personal wellbeing at home and in the field? How much participation is ‘enough’ to get me sufficiently high-quality data?
What do I do when I’m invited to stay and watch an evening with red wine turn into an orgy? What do I do when I find myself in a car with people driving very dangerously? What do I do when I am offered drugs after a long night at the strip club during an intimate conversation? How do I react when someone touches me inappropriately? What do I say when I am witness to something I profoundly disagree with?
No ethics protocol can ever exhaustively answer all these questions. No ethics training can sufficiently prepare me for every practical field work situation, some quite dangerous, some potentially illegal, and some profoundly uncomfortable. To participate or not to participate?
In the end, the guy bought us dinner at a late-night diner, drove us dangerously fast down Sunset Boulevard, and hung out with us in the hotel room while my informants did drugs I had never seen nor heard of before. Eventually, as his hopes for sex were dashed, he got aggressive and was swiftly thrown out of the room by Lil Camille and Pink. The efficient resolve with which they did so has left me with a deep respect for them ever since. I came to learn that this was a regular hustle – an empowering way of using rich, horny men to get free meals, rides and whatever else, whenever needed. The rest of the evening we ended up just lying in bed, chatting until the sun rose.
As an ethnographer of porn, I entered the field with some hard limits and never crossed them. I never ended up doing anything I regretted, but the pressure to push myself and my boundaries was palatable that evening.
After nine months of heavy drinking, Kimberly Kay Hoang eventually gave up on the hostessing and switched her methodology, serving as an English instructor to the other hostesses during the day and attending the bars as a patron at night.
I, too, have scaled back on the industry parties, the alcohol, and general obsession about not missing out on opportunities for the most authentic data. Now, I mostly do sit down interviews, one-on-one in daylight – maybe with a glass of wine. I like to think that I have lost only a little insight.
[Image by Sophie Pezzutto]