I learned a lot from this special issue of Transgender Studies Quarterly on trans pornography, but could never quite convince myself – as several of the contributors have – that performing it was “empowering”. The increasing popularity of trans porn in recent years has fortunately moved the industry from its early exploitative origins when trans people were labelled with derogatory terms like “she-male” and “tranny”, but it’s difficult to ignore that most of the people who get involved do so because they’re excluded from other employment. That there are significant issues around race and racism in trans porn, consent and HIV considerations, the fact your window to make money is very small, and that there is a “relatively high rate of regularly occurring suicides in the industry” suggest to me that trans porn might not be your best choice toward “empowerment”.
And yet, life is complicated.
The reality is trans people do need money to survive and because of their limited job prospects, the lure of trans porn, particularly in the age of new media where for the first time they are able to control the content, can be persuasive.
There is a chapter here on trans* porn remix (TPR) videos that analyzes the highly creative ways that “microporn employs images of trans* bodies taken from traditional productions, as well as cisgender images that are remediated to be read as trans*.” These sophisticated editing techniques obviously run afoul of copyright laws and so are created anonymously, but they engage the viewer in ways that I never dreamed possible. Unlike most trans porn which is directed at a nominally cis hetero male audience, TPR engages a broad range of viewers. The videos are a form of sex/gender play in which viewers imagine themselves exchanging bodies with performers of a different sex.
One example of this is a subgenre called “sissy hypno”. A gentle voiced narrator will mimic hypnosis through suggestion and repetition – “you are the girl” is a common phrase – as the “viewer begins as a man and undergoes a transformation into a sissy or woman.” The audience for this type of video is diverse. Cis men may imagine becoming the ‘opposite gender’, but trans women will have different experiences with this material. “TPR represents a dovetailing of identities and sexual practices, in which transitioning becomes mixed and conflated with fetish gender play.” Aster Gilbert, the author of this article, maintains that “TPR represents possibilities for pre-realization trans* people to experiment with their sex/gender identities in productive ways.”
The internet has become the place where we interact with others in our process of sexual self discovery, and so trans porn is the first place many people see trans bodies. The medicalization of transsexual people created an environment where they were expected or required to have a dysphoric relationship with their genitals. “A trans* woman who enjoys the pleasure of her ‘girl dick’ was historically disallowed.” Trans porn has normalized the representation of trans bodies for many, which isn’t a bad thing.
The cis hetero male, however, is still the primary customer and their sexual desire for trans bodies pose no small number of problems, including objectification, shame and, of course, violence against trans women. As Gilbert notes, “within the cultural context of expanded trans* rights and visibility, cis-hetero attraction to trans* bodies remains a troublesome terrain.”
Indeed, there is a chapter here written by a “transamorous” cis man that is perhaps more revealing than he realized. He explains his attraction by noting that his marriage works on an emotional level, but that he hasn’t had sex with his wife in fourteen years. He has a moment of self reflection when he tells us that for a while he blamed himself, but then plunged into having sex with various men and women. He does not tell us how his wife feels about this.
At the end of the article, he regrets that there is a stigma associated with being attracted to trans women and suggests that if the world were less transphobic this stigma may dissipate, but of course he himself would never speak up for his own desires. He has a wife, after all.
There is another essay written by a young trans woman performer in which she gushes about how sex work is the most rewarding job she’s ever had. She feels she’s making a difference in someone’s life when they tell her “My wife doesn’t understand me”. Cheating husbands have been delivering that line to their gullible mistresses since the beginning of time. In this new variant, trans women are the ones playing second fiddle. The author of this essay would do well to read the one in this same volume by Korra Del Rio, a trans porn veteran who has a far more clear-eyed view of the business she’s involved in.
So, yes, it’s complicated. It’s far safer for trans people to produce trans porn in which they have some control and can exercise their creativity than it is to work the street. It can be validating, but its exploitative nature is never far from view.
Pornography in general was not considered a subject for scholarly study until the publication in 1989 of Linda Williams’s book Hard Core: Power, Pleasure and the “Frenzy of the Visible”. This issue of the Transgender Studies Quarterly reveals that there is more than enough for study in trans porn alone.