Guest Blogger

Can 'She-Male' & 'Tranny' Porn Be Feminist Porn?

Filed By Guest Blogger | May 30, 2015 4:00 PM | comments

Filed in: Living
Tags: feminist porn, Feminist Porn Awards, porn work, she-male slur, trans feminism, transgender porn

Editors' Note: Kelsie Brynn Jones has been an active social justice activist in queer and feminist spaces since 2013. After spending considerable time volunteering to help pass marriage equality and gender identity bills in her home state of Delaware, Kelsie has been involved in the greater discussion surrounding transgender rights.

trans-feminist-sisters.jpgLet's talk about something not all of you may be familiar with - feminist pornography. We'll begin with some basics.

I have heard many people ask the question, "How can any pornography be feminist?" and assert that "all pornography is anti-woman." It's true that traditional pornography often depicts women as subordinate to their male counterparts. A large majority of pornography featuring cisgender males interacting with cisgender females reinforces the patriarchal notion that men have the right to women's bodies. Since the 1970s feminist movement, mainstream feminism has, for the most part, condemned pornography on the grounds that it perpetuates the objectification of women and misogyny more generally. It is therefore unsurprising that women who work in the sex industry have, by and large, been excluded from the feminist movement. The purposeful exclusion of sex workers is particularly common in branches of radical feminism like TERF groups.

So, what is feminist porn? In short, feminist porn is pornography that is created by women, features women, and is often marketed towards women. In feminist porn, women of all shapes, sizes, identities, and orientations exercise sexual agency by choosing their on-set partners and the activities in which they take part.

Some women may choose to masturbate; others may prefer to be hogtied in a BDSM scene. Some women choose to engage exclusively with other women; others choose interactions with men. At the heart of feminist porn is the fundamental belief in bodily autonomy. This means that feminist pornography honors women's ownership over their own bodies and allows them to exercise their right as sole authority when it comes to choosing consensual sexual behavior.

Trans Women in Porn and the Feminist Porn Awards

Since 2006, Toronto sex shop Good For Her has presented the Feminist Porn Awards, an annual event intended to recognize and celebrate new erotic feminist films. After initially moving away from the fetishization of trans bodies and the use of slurs like "she-male" and "tranny," the feminist pornography industry appears to be making a hard shift back towards these negative tropes and stereotypes.

To be a trans woman in mainstream porn is to subject yourself to an endless barrage of slurs. The use of slurs is not only encouraged within the porn industry, it is the primary means of categorizing and marketing content that features trans women. Titles such as "She-male Domination Nation", "Tranny Hunter", "Single White She-male", "My Chick's Dick", and "The Bitch Got Balls" are commonplace throughout the industry.

Mainstream pornography company Grooby Productions manufactures and markets content featuring transgender performers purely as a fetish product. The narrower the hips and the larger the penis, the higher the title appears to gross. While images of these transgender women are sold to mainly cisgender fetishists, very rarely does one encounter a trans woman who is marketed as a woman.

In 2015, the Feminist Porn Awards accepted sponsorship from Grooby, the largest U.S. producer of porn that depicts trans women purely for the male-gaze fetishist. So why did an awards body with roots in Third Wave Feminism accept sponsorship from a company built on misogyny and sustained by transphobic content creation? Why would a company such as Grooby even want to sponsor the Feminist Porn Awards?

Trans As a Fetish Is Doomed

In the interest of full disclosure, I feel the need to state that although I am not an adult performer, I have been previously involved in the adult industry. In the late '90s through early 2000s, I financed websites and co-owned a company that produced unique photography and video content for both straight and gay customer websites. During this time, I attended two professional award ceremonies known as the AVN Awards and I met many people - some of whom are still involved in the industry.

I reached out for comment several weeks ago, but no one from the industry was willing to go on record speaking about this topic. One industry insider who wishes to remain anonymous stated the following during a phone conversation:

Tranny porn just isn't gonna make the kind of money that it's been doing. There's so many of you on things like Oprah and Orange Is The New Black, and now Bruce Jenner. If people are like "Meh, there's another tranny on TV", it kinda kills the fetish, you know?

He raises a good point. As the visibility of trans men and women increases, we become more normalized in society. People start to tolerate us, then they start to accept us. If we're accepted as the men and women we are, we will no longer be a fetish.

Trans is in right now. Let's face it. Laverne Cox, Janet Mock, and Andreja Pejic frequently occupy space on mainstream media channels, the buzz around Amazon's controversial show, "Transparent" has yet to subside, and Olympic athlete Bruce Jenner was recently announced his plan to transition. Transgender people are everywhere. In the news, on talk shows, in the press, in magazines, and even on the runways of high fashion. Trans as a fetish is doomed; yet it may be a slow, lingering death as the last bastion of opposition milks every remaining dollar they can from our bodies and our life stories.

Why Work With Someone Who Insults You?

Members of the trans community have raised concerns about the Feminist Porn Awards sponsorship. When Grooby owner Steve Gallon approached Trans Lifeline, a non-profit crisis helpline staffed by transgender volunteers, offering to sponsor the organization's efforts, the Trans Lifeline Executive Committee refused the offer on the basis of Grooby's rampant use of the slur "she-male" on many of its pornography websites. In response, Gallon took to the internet, writing a justification of his continued efforts to co-opt the transgender "tipping point" for commercial gain.

In contrast, the rationale behind the FPAs accepting Grooby's sponsorship remains wholly unexplained, leaving many of us to wonder. Have the FPAs embraced fetishizing trans women as a possible means to deter trans performers from entering in the future? Have the opinions and practices of performers like self-professed "Gold Star Lesbian" Lily Cade, 2014 Sexiest Short winner and 2015 nominee, influenced the FPA's interest in pro-trans representation in feminist pornography?

If the name Lily Cade sounds familiar, you may have heard mention of her Twitter tirade directed at transgender performer and fellow Feminist Porn Award nominee Chelsea Poe. Lili stated that she would never do a scene with a trans woman, to which Chelsea responded that Lili's assertion was transphobic. Chelsea Poe also recently penned a piece on her blog in which she states that "feminist" awards should be a safe space for all women:

This is a feminist space accepting money from a company that depicts trans women as predators with the slur "Sh*male" among extremely unhealthy standards for performers.

While writing this piece, I reached out to several trans performers, including Chelsea, to hear their thoughts on Grooby's sponsorship of the FPAs. Chelsea was kind enough to speak with me on the subject and stated the following:

I think its completely disrespectful to all the trans woman in feminist porn who have been making really positive feminist porn. Slurs have no place within feminism. I think the feminist porn awards decision really showed they were more worried about growing as a brand than listening to trans women performers/directors.

A film I was in won Best Trans Vignette which is actually sitting on my bed side table right now and I really wish I was in a position where I could have actually attended the awards without being subjected to slurs. I went to the TEA show in February put on by Grooby and it started with a trans woman getting on stage complaining about how everyone is too [politically correct] and how she's a she-male, a tranny, a chick with a dick among other things, and that's simply something I cannot relate to nor want any connection with those terms.

Looking at the Bottom Line

Her colleague, Kitty Striker, has also been vocal about feminism, pornography, and the FPAs. In a recent interview with Cosmopolitan, she refutes the second wave feminist mantra that pornography is anti-woman:

I do not believe that sex on film is inherently anti-feminist - I think we can, and should, do better. But my feminism is intersectional, and therefore my feminist porn must be intersectional as well. I think the FPAs have started an incredibly important conversation, but to maintain relevance, they need to continue to evolve and critique their feminism.

I reached out to Kitty for her thoughts on why the FPAs allowed their awards to be co-opted by Grooby. Kitty went on record to say the following:

Look, we all have to survive under capitalist patriarchy. I get that. I understand that unlearning the ways in which we engage in oppressive behaviors is a difficult and ongoing process, and it's hard work.

I think Grooby and the FPAs make sense working together -- they kind of deserve each other. They're both organizations who want to get ally cookies for the small steps they make while also not listening to any feedback from people who have been doing this work for a lot longer. Allyship, though, isn't an action, it's a continual behavior pattern.

Kitty continues, citing monetary gain in addition to a reputation of allyship as probable reasons for Grooby's continued use of slurs and the FPA's acceptance of Grooby's sponsorship:

I understand that they want acknowledgement for the things they do. It's hard, when you think you're doing something positive, to have the people you're reaching out to say that what you're doing is actually at best useless, at worst harmful. But then, part of being accountable and compassionate is hearing when you mess up, and owning that.

Judging from how Grooby has responded to all these discussions, along with their response to Trans Lifeline when they decided not to accept a sponsorship arrangement, I don't feel that Grooby is behaving in good faith. You cannot just pour money into a problem and think that solves everything - it can certainly solve some issues, but money doesn't make up for financially benefiting from use of slurs in your marketing and on set.

Similarly, I think the FPAs thinks they're making strides when it comes to feminism and pornography, but as long as they are resistant to critique, only listening to people who praise them, they will reflect the worst aspects of white cis feminism. That's really too bad - both Grooby and the FPAs are in places where they could be very effective bridges between activism and pornography. But there's not fast money to be made in being ethical, so I guess it doesn't fit the bottom line.

The Word of Your Sisters Should Be Good Enough

Modern feminism is founded on the belief that a woman has the right to bodily integrity, the right to speak about what concerns her, the right to define herself and her oppressor in her own terms, and the right to agency as an autonomous being free from coercion. Anti-porn and anti-sex worker feminism is a relic of the second wave feminists of the 1970s.

Although the FPA acknowledges the possibility that being unaware of their privilege may cause them to have "unwittingly and unfortunately disrespected others despite [their] best intentions," they do not yet seem to have understood the disservice they have done to trans women, and sex workers more generally, by accepting Grooby's sponsorship and perpetuating the use of harmful slurs. Current "feminist" spaces such as the FPAs require diligent and consist self-evaluations of allyship if they are going to provide equal access to marginalized groups and present respectful representations of the historically disadvantaged groups they intend to promote.

The ethical concerns over the FPAs accepting sponsorship from a company who's activities run contrary to the basic tenets of inclusive and intersectional feminism raises many an eyebrow within the transgender community. To ensure all points of view were reflected, I reached out to Carlyle Jansen at FPA, and asked her to respond on the record to two of the most widely asked questions:

Firstly, why did the Feminist Porn Awards accept sponsorship from Grooby, a company that fetishizes transgender women and frequently uses transphobic slurs to market their products? And secondly, I asked if the Feminist Porn Awards still believes in intersectional feminism, and if so, how this belief fits in with their acceptance of Grooby's sponsorship. Jansen replied to these aforementioned questions in an email.

We accepted sponsorship from Grooby as they are the producers of another awards show, The Trans Erotica Awards. The links on our website point to their awards.

We understand that words like "she-male" are used for marketing porn and do not support using this term in other contexts. It is widely used among some trans performers while others do not use the term. And we have spoken to performers who feel respected in their work with Grooby. We are hopeful that this term can eventually be discontinued and shifted towards the name trans porn without having a negative impact on the livelihood of the many performers on the site.

A handful of trans women who feel respected by a company that markets their work and their bodies using slurs does not negate the opinions of the vast majority who find these words and depictions to be problematic and offensive. Many of these women have made their feelings known both to the FPA personally and through numerous articles and editorials. Although the overwhelming opinion is that we simply don't find this acceptable, the FPA's response appears to be a citation of evidence in support of Grooby that must be taken in blind faith. To put it bluntly, this is nothing more than a transparent attempt to justify the continuation of what I'm sure is a very profitable sponsorship arrangement.

If you call yourselves a feminist organization, the word of your sisters should be good enough reason to reject sponsorship from a company that makes money by degrading transgender women by marketing them using dehumanizing slurs to the cisgender patriarchy.

Chelsea has created a petition to support the removal of transphobic language in pornography. If you support ending transphobic and dehumanizing slurs, please consider adding your voice to the hundreds of others who have already signed.

Let's turn our backs on the 1970s and look forwards to the future together.

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