Why you should care

Led by stars with growing evidence of audience appeal, trans porn is stepping out of the shadows into the limelight.  

High-profile porn star Jessica Drake released the film Jessica Drake Is Wicked with Wicked Pictures, one of the biggest mainstream adult studios, in 2017. In it, the 20-year vet gave her fans all of the industry staple sex acts, from anal to orgies. But in the film’s final scene, she offered them something new — a four-way between herself and three transgender women: Aubrey Kate, Venus Lux and Domino Presley. It was a statement that shook the porn world.

For more than two decades since it hit the shelves, trans porn has been relegated to the industry’s margins. It was rare for cisgender female performers, much less a major star working with a big studio, to make porn with trans women. Trans content was generally ghettoized, produced primarily by studios dedicated to that genre, and targeted since the 1990s as a secret fetishistic pleasure for cisgender, heterosexual men. Porn featuring trans men, which only really kicked off around 2004, is still uncommon and often targeted primarily toward queer cis men. 

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Clockwise from top left: Jessica Drake, Venus Lux, Aubrey Kate and Domino Presley. 

Source Image Getty and Twitter

But led by individual actors and filmmakers with clout and amid evidence of growing consumer interest in trans content, the industry — worth an estimated $97 billion globally and $12 billion in the U.S. — has started to change since Drake shot her scene two years ago. Mainstream producers have increasingly embraced trans women, allowing them to make more diverse and polished content with bigger name cis co-stars than ever before.

Things have come a long way from how they were 10 years ago.

Kimber Haven, trans performer

In 2017, MindGeek, the conglomerate behind some of the biggest porn sites, launched TransAngels, a high-end, trans-focused site. In 2018, Drake released another feature, Carnal, which included trans performers, and other established stars like Angela White and Riley Reid started working with trans women. That year, Bree Mills, one of porn’s hottest director-producers, also launched Transfixed, an ongoing series that explicitly seeks to disrupt trans porn conventions and usher in “a new era in transsexuality.”

“Things have come a long way from how they were 10 years ago,” says trans performer Kimber Haven. “Trans porn has become more mainstream and accepted.”

Until 2017, a few specialist studios produced almost all trans content. Many of those are owned by Los Angeles-based Grooby Productions. The firm’s founder and CEO, Steven Grooby, points out that they’ve featured trans women of different looks, ages and backgrounds. But much of their content (and others’) has focused on women with penises, scandalously revealing trans performers’ genitalia, fetishizing them as novelties or for shock value. It also focuses on hard erections and ejaculations, or on trans women penetrating each other or being penetrated by cis men, often reflecting what cis-het male audiences want to see more than many trans women’s real-life sexual desires or experiences.

 

Trans niche sites have also long leaned into pejorative terms — like “shemale” and “tranny” — for trans women performers because those were the terms their mostly cis-het male consumers used. Grooby’s flagship site launched as Shemale Yum, and when they started a trans awards show in 2007, they called it the Tranny Awards. Grooby renamed it the Transgender Erotica Awards five years ago in the face of activist scrutiny and started stripping slurs out of its site names and content in 2017.

Meanwhile, the traditional porn world largely shunned trans performers. Industry influencers, argues Mills, long perpetuated the idea that they posed elevated STI risks — even if they obeyed the same safety protocols as other performers — and that working with them would tarnish a star’s brand. In 2012, trans stars reported they were kept off the red carpet at the AVNs, the Oscars of porn, and pointed out that since 2007, the show had only presented its transsexual performer of the year award on a screen as everyone was leaving. Drake recalls asking Wicked if she could shoot with trans women around 2014 or 2015, but they hesitated initially, unsure that their fan base would accept it.

But wider cultural forces like the broad acceptance of Caitlyn Jenner have slowly worn at mainstream porn’s reluctance. Pornhub, which started publicly reporting on searches for trans content in 2017, witnessed a 36 percent uptick in searches from 2016-2017 and 167 percent the following year. Around the same time, a few popular performers producing content for their own sites, free of agent or studio input, decided to try shooting with trans women — and their fans mostly embraced it rather than rejecting them. That seemingly served as a signpost telling the industry to change course. 

Grooby and other established trans producers argue that the mainstream rise of trans content is a fad driven by a desire to capitalize on wider trans visibility that won’t last because it won’t appeal to a broader audience beyond their monopolized base of cishet male consumers. Even trans performers working in the mainstream, like Natassia Dreams, believe that some companies just “want to line their pockets and if they had a chance, they wouldn’t shoot trans content.”

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Adult film director Bree Mills attends the 2016 Adult Video News Awards.

Source Gabe Ginsberg/Getty

But Drake and Mills are confident this is not a bubble. Their trans shoots are passion projects and rebukes to both industry attitudes and established trans porn conventions. Mills says that she makes it a point to let her trans performers choose what they want to do on camera rather than mandating specific positions or acts. Drake, Mills and others say they want to make trans content not only more widely visible but also more representative of diverse trans experiences and desires. 

Early signs suggest they can build new audiences. In viewer surveys after Mills distributed her first trans film for free last fall, 80 percent of responders said they had never seen a trans scene before, but 100 percent said they wanted to see more. Drake and other stars have received similar feedback. Both say they’re working on more mainstream trans content. Mills’ series, Transfixed, will start shooting its second season this summer.

Will this shift help to normalize trans bodies and sexuality? Some adult stars like Haven don’t think porn trends influence social trends. However, University of Southern California political communications expert, TJ Billard, who has researched this subject, says, “It would be hard to imagine the way the mainstream adult industry represents transgender performers would not have any effect on how viewers think and feel about trans people.” 

Indeed, Dreams says, “Any light is good light when you’re in the dark.” But most mainstream trans content is still produced by cis directors, catering to a cishet male gaze, acknowledges Drake. Some critics argue even Mills’ films can occasionally perpetuate tropes like focusing on erections — though that might just reflect what the limited pool of trans performers she has worked with so far like or are used to doing. Dreams, Billard and others add that the fact that even conscientious porn treats trans women primarily as sexual objects limits its social value too.

Transphobia is still rife at many studios as well. “Sometimes on set, you’re still misgendered,” says Dreams. And “trans men and [gender] nonbinary folks” remain “left out,” says Riley Reyes, a performer working with trans women. As porn is ultimately a capitalist enterprise, there is always a risk that, as Grooby predicts, the drive to mainstream trans content could collapse due to insufficient interest from paying customers.

But mainstream figures pushing for change have got a foot in the door, and are determined to kick it wide open. Drake, Mills and others hope to not only expand the diversity of trans sex on screen but also to hire trans performers for films that don’t focus on their gender at all — simply for their acting skills. And if their viewership keeps growing, they may succeed in pushing that envelope.

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