Trans/Sex: Porn has a trans representation problem

Trans/Sex is a column about trans peoples’ relationships with love, sex, and their bodies. Have a topic suggestion? Contact Ana Valens at [email protected] or @acvalens on Twitter.

One of my favorite adult clips is from Pastel Girlfriend, a lesbian trans woman and sex worker. I fell in love with her work immediately after I stumbled off her Twitter, and so I ordered a custom clip request from her. In it, Pastel strips to two of my favorite songs—”The Weekend” by SZA and “Kiss Land” by The Weeknd, tracks any sex-haver should have on their sex-having playlist—and slowly, tenderly teases the rope bondage underneath her outfit.

It’s very, very hot. It’s filled with submissive and kinky energy. As a lesbian trans woman, she understands how trans girls desire each other, and that comes out in her work. As much as I love queer cis women, nothing compares to trans-for-trans attraction. And it’s one of the reasons I adore queer trans women who do porn.

https://twitter.com/PastelGirlfrien/status/1144243839357505536

Love it or not, NSFW content is extremely popular online. A quick search on Google Trends shows that the term “porn” gradually rose over the 2000s until it peaked in 2013. Six years later, “porn” searches are down, thanks to the Trump administration, but there are more sites than ever to browse late at night. ManyVids popped up in 2014, offering a DIY-friendly clip site run by adult performer Bella French. Assembly Four’s Switter is one of the few social media networks run by and for sex workers. Porn comic sites like Filthy Figments, Slipshine, and Fakku have successful membership models promising bottomless adult content. Whether you’re interested in hentai, furry smut (aka “yiff,”), sexy dating sims, or tentacle porn, it’s out there for you.

But the endless options for porn doesn’t mean everyone feels represented. Our society still assumes that only cisgender men enjoy porn, and that’s reflected in the smut available online. Mainstream porn sites like Pornhub and Nutaku (both owned by online monopoly MindGeek) fixate on men’s sexual fantasies, particularly straight, white, male, and cisgender fantasies. Sextech like Virtual Mate primarily creates cutting-edge sexual experiences for straight men. All of these problems tie into the “male gaze.”

Madeleine Holden, the creator behind the now-defunct Tumblr blog “Critique My Dick Pic,” reflected on privilege, beauty standards, and their intersection with porn for Mel magazine earlier this year.

“[M]ainstream beauty standards still overwhelmingly favor young, white, thin and cisgender bodies without visible disabilities. The grip of the traditional male gaze may be weakening, but it’s still tightly clenched,” Holden writes, turning an eye to corporate America. “Unless there is a corporate interest to be advanced or product to be sold—Dove moisturizer, Fenty lingerie, Fashion Nova bikinis—companies don’t tend to deliver diverse, let alone radical, conceptions of beauty, and on the whole, standards remain traditional and unachievable.”

Adult websites know that it’s not just men consuming porn. Pornhub reports that 29% of its visitors in 2018 were women. Many women’s search results are queer or queer-adjacent, too; a March 2019 study from Pornhub found “lesbian” to be the most-viewed category among women. While it’s easy to assume otherwise, women are into porn, and queer folks are particularly good at it. Case in point, “Critique My Dick Pic” introduced Holden to “the existence of queer and trans audiences,” and, as it turned out, “trans women and nonbinary folks sent [her] some of the best and most memorable dick pics of all.”

Of course, Pornhub’s lesbian category isn’t inherently queer. Many mainstream lesbian porn flicks are made with cis men in mind. And not all women viewing lesbian porn are queer. Writing for AlterNet, Anna Pulley notes that some women enjoy watching lesbian porn because it “focuses on female pleasure” and features sex acts women enjoy. But yes, there are plenty of women seeking out lesbian porn because they desire women, and they’re hot for it.

I suspect this is the case with other porn genres, too. One of the best-known mainstream trans porn stars, Bailey Jay, has openly talked about her role in helping other trans women see themselves through her work.

“Honestly, representation in porn is unavoidable. Sexuality looks like so many different things to different people so we all have a category we fall into,” Jay told Vice in 2018. “To this day I get countless trans women telling me that my porn gave them the courage to start their transition. That was not my intention in the beginning but I like to think that might help me earn my wings.”

Bailey Jay Representation Porn Bailey Jay

Before I came across Jay’s work, I believed a lot of stereotypes about trans women from pop culture. My exposure to trans women was limited to Tumblr. Jay was different in that she was not just out and open about being trans, but there was a lot of online footage showing how she looked, sounded, and talked—both in and out of her shoots. I also identified with her roots; both of us experienced our online coming-of-age on 4chan. In Jay’s case, the imageboard world helped her kickstart her career.

Because Jay worked in a field where she could be out, and she embraced being trans, she inspired me to transition and taught me to be unapologetic about it. As it turns out, there’s nothing wrong with being a girl with a “killer rack and a big dick.” Jay’s online presence taught me that having both is attractive and desirable. It’s no wonder I started doing sex work earlier this year. I probably wouldn’t be out without people like Jay to inspire me.

It all comes down to representation. When I spoke with nonbinary sex worker River Gray for an article on porn and sex workers’ rights, they told me how following nonbinary sex workers on Tumblr helped them figure out their gender identity. Today, they serve as an inspiration to other nonbinary people. And the support they receive from other queer folks clearly means a lot, both emotionally and financially.

“It’s not just the other nonbinary performers that have helped,” Gray told me. “I have some amazing cis and binary trans followers that support me, buy my content, and interact with my posts. Having that support from people of every gender and sexuality is just so incredible and empowering to me.”

Just because trans performers are pushing boundaries, however, doesn’t mean all of the smut they star in is built for us. Despite billing itself as an inclusive “breakthrough” for cis-trans lesbian porn, Adult Time’s Transfixed skimps out on foreplay, focuses on trans women with erections topping, and prioritizes penetrative sex above all. This isn’t because Transfixed’s trans models are nodding along with the status quo; Transfixed star Natalie Mars, for example, curates a storefront on ManyVids where she bottoms or remains soft during sex scenes. This is an industry problem, not a performer one. If someone like Mars, Gray, or Pastel directed Transfixed, it would look very different.

Transfixed Natalie Mars Porn Adult Time

When porn hyperfixates on a marginalized’s star’s body size, race, gender, and/or capabilities, marginalized viewers take a toll. We end up feeling alienated, undesirable, or undeserving of pleasure. This is doubly the case for people who are regularly stereotyped as monstrous or grotesque, such as trans women. We come to believe that our bodies are fundamentally unlovable, or that they can only be desirable on another person’s terms.

This isn’t true. But it’s easy to believe if no one ever hands you the camera and asks you to create porn for yourself. If we want smut that makes room for trans bodies, then trans hands have to write it, direct it, perform in it, and produce it. At the very least, we should be in the room supervising it. Otherwise, we’ll always remain a statistic on Pornhub Insights posts—not as a consumer but as a product.

READ MORE:

Ana Valens

Ana Valens

Ana Valens is a reporter specializing in online queer communities, marginalized identities, and adult content creation. She is Daily Dot's Trans/Sex columnist. Her work has appeared at Vice, Vox, Truthout, Bitch Media, Kill Screen, Rolling Stone, and the Toast. She lives in Brooklyn, New York, and spends her free time developing queer adult games.