SEX WORK

Meet the Porn Star Turned Academic Who’s Revolutionizing the Adult Industry

Aussie Angela White received the U.S. equivalent of a master’s at the University of Melbourne, and her thesis was recently published. But she has her sights set on bigger things.

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Adult entertainment performers—like most sex workers—aren’t particularly well-respected by society. And though the general public is now more familiar than ever with the porn world thanks to increased media exposure, it continues to be reduced to clichés. Female porn performers are still being identified as either the ultimate sex-positive empowered women or helpless victims. Can these labels be shirked?

Australian porn star Angela White is working toward finding nuance in women’s sexual expression, sans labels. The 32-year-old argues for the rise of a new type: an academic freedom fighter who understands the patriarchy and so refuses to claim she’s a hundred-percent empowered but also refuses to see herself as a victim.

White certainly fits the mold. She glides with confidence in front of and behind the camera, performing in scenes and running her own company with a hands-on approach, directing and editing her own content, running her own website, and securing a DVD distribution deal for her films.

It was her experience in porn that motivated White to enroll at the University of Melbourne, where she graduated with honors (and the U.S. equivalent of a master’s degree).

Her academic studies are laying the groundwork for honest discussions about how adult performers are impacted by their work. White’s honors thesis, “The Porn Performer: The Radical Potential of Pleasure in Pornography,” was recently published in the prestigious academic guide The Routledge Companion to Media, Sex and Sexuality. In it, she writes: “The persistent focus on the female performer as either victim or agent not only shapes the ways performers are represented, it continues to impede research into other aspects of pornography, porn performers and their lives.”

In an interview with The Daily Beast, White opens up about what drove her into porn and why she’s pushing back against the labels with an academic approach.

What motivated you to get into the adult industry?

It was the year I lost my virginity. I was fourteen and I’d started exploring my sexuality—that was when I first decided I want to be in porn. When I was in high school I was criticized for my sexuality. I identified as bisexual at that point but now I’ve shunned categories. Early on I was engaging in sex with both men and women and if I was having sex with boys I was considered a slut and when I was having sex with girls I was criticized as being a lesbian. No matter what I did I was criticized for my sexuality.

If you’re constantly having to counter arguments of victimization, you can’t just be yourself.
Angela White

High school can be a rough experience. Were there any moments of criticism that really stood out for you?

I was shamed. I was teased. I had lemons thrown at me. In Australia a slang word for lesbian is “lemon,” so I was at the playground in high school having lemons thrown at my body. It was physically violent—as well as the verbal abuse about stepping out of the normal bounds of female sexuality.

When did you begin to consider the adult industry as a viable option?

I was introduced to pornography by a boyfriend and I finally saw this space where having sex with multiple people of varying genders was actually encouraged and celebrated rather than criticized. It looked like a utopia; it looked like a safe space. By the time I was fourteen I decided I was going to enter the porn industry, so I waited until I was eighteen and did one of my first shoots while I was still in high school.

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What was that like, your first shoot was it in Australia?

I was still in high school and the first shoot I ever did was in Miami, Florida. I was a freshly turned eighteen-year-old flown across the world for my first shoot, which was a solo. I did that and felt really good about myself as a sexual being, which I hadn’t felt before. After being teased for what I did in high school it was encouraging.

It takes a certain amount of courage to get naked for the camera. Were you already confident with your body at that point?

I’m a curvy woman and at that point I hadn’t seen my body type represented in mainstream media. I have large natural breasts and as you can imagine natural breasts hang—they don’t sit super up high like enhanced breasts or smaller breasts—so being someone in high school that was very open with my sexuality and wanting people to look at my breasts but then not having any role models with breasts like mine, there were moments when I had self-esteem issues about my body. So being validated through the capitalistic economy—hey your body is beautiful and we’re going to pay you for it—I was validated as a sexual being and my sexual desires were accepted instead of criticized.

How did you go from being a performer to running your own company?

It was forced upon me in the sense that there were companies I was working with but I was shooting their version of sexuality and I had my own idea about what I wanted to explore and how I wanted to express that. To a certain degree I could express my sexuality but in the end I was still working within the confines of how they wanted me to be and what they wanted to produce for that particular product. I realized if I wanted to bring my own fantasies to life I was going to have to do it myself. That’s when I decided to create my company.

So few performers who direct also edit. Why did you decide to take that on?

In the beginning I had someone editing for me but I’m a micromanager and nobody likes to be micromanaged. I would sit with my editor and tell him to take a few seconds from here and a few seconds from there, and then I realized it took longer to tell him what to do than if I just did it myself. So I taught myself how to edit. Same thing with directing and producing: I had my own vision in mind and wanted to bring that to life. This desire to discover, explore and express myself led me to producing and editing to have the final product really represent a part of me and a part of my sexuality.

Did you tell people that you worked in the adult industry or was it a secret?

I was open with what kind of modeling I did—and that’s when the questions started. It took me aback and it’s also what pushed me toward academia. I didn’t understand why these questions were being asked of me. I was feeling so liberated and empowered, and people were asking me if I felt degraded. That’s when I started reading the anti-porn literature and learning about this narrative, about how women in the adult industry are abused, raped, degraded and only in it because they’re desperate for money or on drugs or forced by a pimp.

How did this lead you into academia?

These myths were so divergent from my own experiences. I wanted to research gender studies so I could spend my time further researching pornography and researching the anti-porn and anti-censorship views. This is something I am very passionate about. I got my honors, the U.S. equivalent of a master’s. In your honors you have to do a dissertation and thesis, and that’s when I started conducting qualitative research on females in pornography.

How did your research differ from what’s already out there?

Most of the academic work on the field is about sex workers but never makes references to their voices. I believe when it comes to the production of knowledge about sex workers, specifically porn performers in this case, I believe they are experts in their own lives and should be heard and represented—not just spoken about. I wanted to contribute to the academic knowledge on the subject albeit through the engagement of female performers themselves. Obviously my work now is both academic and performative: every time I’m on set I use it as an opportunity to collect more data on the issue so it’s all tied to a larger study later.

In your opinion, how is pornography different than the purported myths?

Pornography can allow performers to express themselves, change sexual identity and how they view themselves. The problem with the false dichotomy of victim or agent is that both sides are incorrect. It’s far more nuanced and diverse. No one’s fully in control or fully disempowered, and the false dichotomies make performers feel they have to fit in one or the other.

Why focus only on women in your research?

When you look at the myth surrounding the porn industry it’s always about the women. It’s never that the men were degraded or abused or exploited—everyone’s always talking about the poor, helpless, drug-addicted women with no agency. So I wanted to counter those narratives about the victimized female.

What was your goal in researching women in the industry?

My aim was to present the industry in an unbiased way, as it is—all the good and all the bad. It’s important to see the reality of the industry: no one is fully in control and no one is fully disempowered. When you have these false dichotomies it makes performers feel like they have to fit in one or the other. It’s very important to represent the facts as they are when researching the pornography industry. It has evolved. When I first started getting the degree I wanted to get a better grasp of how it is people have come to view my industry the way they have. The mainstream view of my industry is one of addiction, abuse, and exploitation. I wanted to understand where it was coming from, since you can’t counter an argument like that unless you understand it. As I began my own research, I realized there are so many different ways performers experience the industry—there is so much that is not being spoken about in these arguments that focus on the false dichotomy of the victim and agent, which is why my research is so unique.

What makes your research so unique then?

I don’t look at whether women are abused or empowered. I look at how the performers in porn experience their sexuality—how performing in porn has changed their sexuality—and I think more research on the topic needs to be done. It’s such fertile ground and there’s so much to look into when it comes to porn and it hasn’t been done because of those narratives.

Did the victim/agent narratives have any impact on your research?

Stigma can strain how performers think about themselves, about what they do and about their performance. I never asked them if they felt exploited or abused; I never brought it up and I didn’t start from that dichotomy. Instead I asked them to talk about themselves and the way they viewed their own experiences, which were entrenched in these arguments about their perceived exploitation. Without prompting they would say they didn’t feel degraded or exploited, because this narrative of exploitation is so normalized they feel the need to counter those arguments. Instead of just being able to tell me how their day was they continually have to answer back to this narrative and it constrains the language that can be used to talk about their experiences.

So do you think the victim/agent dichotomy has had an impact on performers?

They are constantly entrenched in these day-to-day arguments about their potential victimization and degradation, and that obviously has a psychological effect. If you’re constantly having to counter arguments of victimization, you can’t just be yourself. Instead you have to constantly defend yourself and your position in the world, justifying yourself and justifying your job. Justifying why you like something instead of being able to just say that you do.

What has porn taught you? Anything surprising?

It’s taught me to be an open person—it taught me to be open to exploration even more so than I already was. It’s taught me about the validity of my own sexuality as well as the validity of sexuality in general, and how much a performer’s conception of sexuality can change. Porn can be positive and transformative both for performers and consumers; it can be validating and life changing. For me, pornography was the first place I was able to see women being celebrated for having sex with multiple people of varying genders—and this was before slutwalks. This was back when it wasn’t cool to make out with women.