A Trans Woman’s Journey Through Porn

Posted by deep_dives in Cake, Gender & Sexuality, LGBTQ, Staff Picks
June 7, 2017

By Nadika Nadja:

I think I was about 14 when I first read a book that everyone else in the house would have denied even existed. It was a Nancy Friday book called “Forbidden Flowers” — a collection of letters and notes women had written about their sexual fantasies. I am not exactly sure how the book came to be at home; perhaps an uncle or aunt, having read it and not wanting to raise eyebrows, hid it among the many odd books that were always lying about.

The range of fantasies it listed, the carefree happiness the characters conveyed, the cover of the book which featured (if memory serves me right) a nearly naked woman sitting among shrubs in her own garden of Eden; “Forbidden Flowers” was a fascinating read. I didn’t just read, though. I imagined myself in all the situations. And realised I quite liked how it made me feel.

That was when porn first came to me.

A few years — and a frantic, ultimately futile search for other Nancy Friday books — later, the internet arrived. I got online because I was a bit of a shy kid in school, and preferred to spend all my free time in the library. And here was — as everyone told me — the biggest library in the world.

This was the era of exorbitantly priced dial-up internet on scratchy telephone lines. The alternative was to find an internet parlour in the neighbourhood where, for the price of Rs.60 an hour, you could stay online for at least 40 minutes.

It was in one such place I first learned that the internet had more Nancy Fridays. And much, much more beyond.

A user — may they forever have good sex — had forgotten to clear the history of Netscape Navigator, a popular web browser of the 90s. One of the links they’d left behind was called “Red Light District”. I clicked on it.

Back then, “Red Light District” was a black-and-red members-only website, and clearly, I wasn’t a member. I couldn’t go beyond the home page and a cursory tour. But I knew right then that there was more to the internet than the encyclopaedias and HTML tutorials that I had been looking for. ‘Those kinds of websites’ existed; they weren’t just mythical, fictional beings. Life would never be the same again.

That act of generosity (and carelessness) by a previous user is one of the best gifts I’ve ever had.

When I was nine years old, my cousin and her friends dressed me up in her old clothes, slapped on some seriously heavy makeup, and got me to pose for the camera. The ‘fancy-dress’ makeover happened because I had begged to play with them, but the group had a strict rule: no boys, just girls.

Perhaps they expected me to protest or put up a fight. Or resist the clothes, or at least try to hide myself in shame as they were taking a snap. Instead, I stand in the photograph, partly coy, partly proud. Something clicked.

Ten years later, I was, to most appearances, still just your normal Madras boy. I did the things that people like me were supposed to do. But I also did the things that people like me weren’t supposed to do.

I pretended, on the internet, to be your normal Madras girl.

It started with Noelle.

A sexy, blonde girl who was ‘in college’, sexy Noelle had a sexy website. In which she romped about the woods and was visited by her friends, each of whom had their own ‘amateur’ websites.

Looking back, I see some plot holes in this ‘sexy’ story. But back then, I willingly suspended disbelief and truly believed in Noelle’s happy narrative of a carefree life, amazing parties, and accompanying orgies. Those 40 minutes of an hour helped carry me through the next day at school, made it easier to listen to my classmates taunt me for my weight, shape, and reluctance to change into swimming trunks in the locker room.

Noelle helped distract me when I most needed distraction. I so badly wanted to be one of her friends, and if I wished and prayed enough, perhaps the internet gods would make it so.

As is the nature of things on the internet, one link on Noelle’s website lead to another, and soon I was on Sex.com.

The early Sex.com website didn’t resemble its current, slick avatar. It had square blocks, or thumbnails, of categories laid out in a table, each opening up to further grids, containing links to individual porn videos or picture galleries.

Of the categories, some I could immediately understand. Some…well, some were complicated. Shemale, said one thumbnail.

Say what?

Growing up in Tamil Nadu, in a Madras that had only recently become Chennai, I was aware of at least three different terms in the Tamil language to describe trans women. And one in English.

Of the three Tamil words, two were sharp blades — designed and perfected over the years to deliver cutting blows. The third was also used as a sharp, scarring slur to describe effeminate men.

I schooled myself to not display any outward sign of femininity. I stayed as far away as possible from the people who went through the very things I was going through. Because of labels and terms.

Here was one more. Shemale.

Hermaphrodites, said another.

But what I saw on Sex.com were women. Beautiful women. Women with penises. Women with penises having sex.

If there was an entire category of porn with people ‘like that’, that must mean that they were attractive, right? And if I was ‘like that’ too, then I too, must be attractive to someone?

They were mostly white, when I first encountered these women. Then slowly, they began to diversify. Or maybe I was getting better at my searches. White, Black, Latina, Asian. The last only covered the ladyboys of Thailand and a few Japanese shemales — a fetish within a fetish. Would I be the first Indian shemale?

But did I not, only recently, decide I would never let myself be clubbed with the trans women on the streets? Did I not impose onto myself a strict code for how I behaved, looked, walked and talked? All to avoid being called a woman. To avoid the feeling of shame and guilt. Pottai, Onbothu, Ali. Words of crushing weight that disciplined men into being men.

But this was a new term. A term from the internet, so after all, it must be good. A word and a label that I figured no one had yet turned into an insult.

Thus began nearly ten years of trying to be, and wanting to be, a shemale.

How do you describe transgender women without being reduced to describing body parts? Or without using tired, flawed ideas of what it means to be a boy or a girl?

There were girls, bored and alone at home, waiting for a plumber or pizza delivery person to show them a good time. There were women, bored and alone at work (almost always as secretaries), waiting for the boss to discover them bent over a filing cabinet.

These were the trans women I coveted and masturbated to — they were my favourite shemales of porn: ultra feminine and ultra gorgeous.

“These were the trans women I coveted and masturbated to — they were my favourite shemales of porn: ultra feminine and ultra gorgeous.”

The girls in the videos also had things. Lingerie, makeup, clothes, shoes — red and black and white and beige and gold — heels and pumps and boots — things I’d never be able to find, let alone buy, in 2002 Chennai. The girls in the videos were sexy in ways I could never be. To start with, they looked, talked, and acted like girls. And here I was, not sure who or what I ought to be.

When I first began coming out to friends as a trans person — or as someone who does not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth — I asked myself a question. Am I sure? Oh yes, there were moments on Yahoo Chat between fiction and facade, where I experienced real bits of myself — as a woman.

But was I really sure?

I started comparing myself to the women I was seeing on screen. Would I be more, or less attractive than them when I was done transitioning? Would I have natural breasts, or would I, like most of them, have to get cosmetic surgery and sport unreal-looking, silicone balloons? Would I look good in the clothes they wore so effortlessly?

But I also wanted to know if, when, I became a shemale myself, would I have to sleep with men?

I had chatted with men in Yahoo chat rooms, and I did like some of them. I even perhaps fancied ‘being with’ them, especially the ones who were absolutely okay with me not looking like the girls in the videos.

But I was, as I told my friends, when conversations went their inevitable way towards crushes, relationships and girls, ‘straight as an arrow’; I was irrevocably attracted to girls. And I was a boy, at least on the outside, during the day.

At night, I watched women submitting to manly men, all hardness and muscle and gruff voice. And while I did find the men good-looking, and maybe even hot, I couldn’t imagine sleeping with them, even if only for the camera, for the money.

The women were a different story, though. I was torn between wanting to sleep with them, and wanting to be like them.

Maybe then I wasn’t a girl, a woman, a shemale after all?

* * *

It was a Friday evening, and our first year of college. A group of us had had enough of our studies, so we piled onto all available bikes and cycles, and landed up at a friend’s place. He lived alone, in a block of flats mostly housing other students. The ideal setting for a party.

Except it wasn’t a party in the music-dance-alcohol sense. As is the wont with boys living alone, this friend of ours had a stash of ‘dirty magazines’, and everybody grabbed one. The magazine I had in my hand was an old, old issue of “Debonair”. A mix of topless women, letters, agony aunt columns, and stories. Erotic stories. This was Nancy Friday all over again. And I read on. Fascinated.

Later that night, back at home, I went online to look for more erotic stories. Which is how I discovered the “Joe Bates Saga”.

The “Joe Bates Saga” is a web series housed on the erotica website Nifty.org. It’s made up of several episodes (as of my last count, there were at least 50), and deals with a ‘man’ — Joe Bates — who wakes up one morning to discover that he has been transformed into a woman. Take that, Gregor Samsa!

From here on, the series explores Joe dealing with her life post-transition, negotiating clothes and presentation, encountering the male gaze, and feeling herself both attracting men and attracted to men. Joe must also now figure out her relationship with her girlfriend Linda. Would Linda — a straight woman in love with a straight man — make the adjustment to Joe as she was now? Would they be lesbians?

“Joe Bates” was and is a milestone for me. Not for the stories themselves, which after a point became too clunky to read. But for the potential they had for queering the idea of transgender erotica. Here, for the first time, I read of a transwoman being loved by and having sex with another woman.

For me, Joe’s girlfriend Linda was the hero of the story. An absolutely amazing woman, Linda is quick to make the adjustment to her lover’s transition. She is accepting and encouraging, and what’s more, she gives Joe the best darn orgasm she’s ever had — as a man, or as a woman.

“I craved a complete and nearly magical transition that would allow me to pass as a cis-woman.”

The “Joe Bates Saga” became for me a kind of flag, a marker for a point I had to reach myself. I craved a complete and nearly magical transition that would allow me to pass as a cis-woman. And I wanted to find myself a girlfriend-lover who could do for me everything that Linda did for Joe.

* * *

Somewhere in San Francisco is an empty apartment. Couples come here to have sexy times with each other. It’s stocked with everything you could desire — condoms, dental dams, dildos, ropes, feathers — and it’s entirely free to use. The only catch: once you’re done with the apartment, you give the key to another queer couple.

It’s called “The Crash Pad”.

When “The Crash Pad” film came out in 2005, it was a huge hit for two reasons. First, it was queer porn, made for and by queer people, featuring real queer women. And second, it had a plotline. The film stitched together disparate sections and different couples to create a cohesive, sexy narrative. This was unheard of in porn featuring lesbians. This was that rare thing: a first.

From this began CrashPadSeries.com, a website full of short videos and feature films based on the same premise: one queer couple or group per video, many great videos.

I arrived at the “Crash Pad” website via a link on Tumblr, and after a brief ‘preview-only’ glance, I knew I was home. From its ‘model for us’ page to the list of its performers, CrashPadSeries.com contains a glorious variety of choices focussed around who you are, what you want to do, and why you want to do it.

Brown person, white person, black person. Cis, queer, trans, gender non-conforming. You can be anybody and shape, any colour and size. When everybody is different, no one really is. I saw a bit of me on Crash Pad. Or at least, I saw potential for me: as someone having fun with their own body, and the bodies of their friends and lovers.

I contacted the “Crash Pad” team about producing Tamil language subtitles for their videos And they made me a counter offer that I simply couldn’t refuse. I’d watch the videos, go behind the scenes, and have fun. In return, I’d review films on my blog.

Back when I first came across shemales on Sex.com, I didn’t differentiate between porn made for men and porn made for women. Sex.com featured almost exclusively the former, but that didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment or late-night arousal. But now, on “Crash Pad Series”, the porn I was watching showed me, perhaps for the first time, that pleasure could be experienced by all the people featured in a porn video — not just the guys.

“Crash Pad Series” is fabulously queer. It is also fabulously ethical. In ethical porn, all performers have given their consent — not just to the shoot, but to all the sex acts depicted in the video. Safe sex is openly discussed, and the process of negotiating one’s comfort levels is transparent, and oftentimes, recorded on screen.

Ethical porn exists alongside, and as a result of, some pretty radical politics. I began following performers and filmmakers on social media, where they clearly established their independence from big porn studios. Here they criticised male producers who excluded trans performers from their porn videos. Here they questioned why lesbian porn films never featured trans women.

Ethical porn was a revolt. And I was drafted into the cause. I and other transwomen, rising up to fight the powers that were holding us down, keeping us forever in the world of fetish and shame. Through these revolutionary trans women, I learnt how to accept myself and know that I could be attractive; not just as a guilty pleasure or shameful desire.

Ethical porn also takes major pains to ensure that the rights of performers are secured. Paying performers is the easiest way to secure these rights. And to pay performers, the viewer needs to be the buyer.

When most of the internet’s porn is priced in American dollars, it’s easy to not care about the right or wrong of things. To just rip and remix the kind of porn you want.

I know I did that. For the longest time.

But paying for the porn I like tells the people who make it that there is a market for their product. It ensures that the people I like do the things they like, which just happens to be the very things I like too. Paying for my porn ensures there’s more porn for me later on.

“Crash Pad Series” now charges USD 25 for a month’s subscription, and there are other porn sites — featuring queer, ethical, independent porn — that charge more. And some that charge less. Some, like “Crash Pad”, give you other ways to enjoy the site: offer your services, review and analyse the videos, feature it as part of a sex education lecture, or help translate porn into other languages. Barter is a good way to pay for porn.

But be it via cash or film reviews, in the words of Jiz Lee, one of the stars of the original “Crash Pad” film, ‘Buy the porn you want to see in the world.’

And so, at the ripe old age of 32, nearly twenty years after I first encountered porn, I paid for a month’s worth of access to the “Crash Pad Series”. It became a sort of culmination for me: a destination reached.

I was not simply a spectator anymore.

* * *

I am not sure what happened to our household copy of “Forbidden Flowers”; I suspect one of my parents must have come across it, and suitably scandalised, destroyed it. I’ve since looked for “Forbidden Flowers” in the second-hand bookstalls and streets of Chennai. But to no success. However, I have the internet now, and Twitter, Tumblr, Facebook, and “Nifty”. The women I read on these platforms are driven by the same spirit as that of Nancy Friday’s correspondents: a need to own their sexuality, and a desire to tell the world that they too can be sexual beings.

Today, I am a vocal transgender woman comfortable with my own sexuality. I’ve mixed and matched my options and my needs, and have arrived at something that tastes good to me and makes me happy. Today I argue with other trans women and men who use the word shemale. I ask them to consider its origins and its implications. And I wear my own shame for all the world to see.

My coming out as a trans person happened slowly. Tentatively. Seeking firm ground and fast friends. And as I came out and became confident in my identity, I came out as someone who loved porn. All kinds of porn. It was porn that told me it was okay to be a girl even if others thought you were a boy. And that it was okay to like girls, even if you were a girl who was thought of as a boy.

Today, I continue to seek porn.

If I have the time and money, I buy myself a month’s subscription to “Crash Pad”. It costs me $25, but gives me so much more.

I continue to read “Nifty”. I continue to read and think about trans women in porn. I continue to watch trans porn.

But I do this now not to seek answers or define myself. And I don’t do this huddled over the desktop monitor, one wary eye constantly watching the door to my room. What was once a shameful secret, an after-dark activity, is now something I write about, talk about and think about a lot.

I am out now.

Porn made me who I am.

About the author: Nadika Nadja is a writer and researcher, currently in Bangalore. She writes about trans women rights, the internet, and history.

This essay was originally published on Deep Dives as part of the series Sexing the Interwebs.

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