Being a Trans Woman in the Porn Industry
When Jelena Vermilion started doing porn in 2014, she had been scouted while working as an independent escort in Kitchener, Ontario. Today, she is an international porn performer who has worked with prominent companies such as Grooby Productions, Evil Angel, and Two Tgirls.
"I believe that the work I do is sacred," Vermilion, 23, who also works as an escort, told VICE. "I am connecting with people, I am facilitating space for people to explore themselves in a safe way with no judgment."
VICE interviewed Vermilion about what it's like today to be a trans woman who is a sex worker, about transphobic slurs in porn marketing, and about why it's so important for people to give their money to sex workers who identify as members of other marginalized groups in society, such as those who are disabled, people of colour, and/or LGBTQ+.
VICE: How were you scouted to appear in your first porn production?
Jelena Vermilion: I was scouted from a Backpage ad [for Grooby Productions], which makes sense. For a transgender porn production company, it's difficult to find talent, people who would be willing to perform in porn at all, so looking through sex workers who advertise as trans seems to be a good place to start. I've always been independent. I started sex work when I was homeless, back in 2013. We hear a lot of stories; it's a trope, a cliché to hear about survival sex work. At this point, it is my occupation. If I didn't have an occupation, yes, I would become destitute. But I'm not doing sex work to survive at this point: It feels like a free, empowering choice. Even at the time I chose to do it for the first time, it was empowering.
As you mentioned, sex work as survival is a common trope. How do you feel about the other stereotypes that exist in society about trans women who are sex workers?
There's a few points here: Poverty based on the lack of opportunity that trans women, trans people find themselves with lead them into certain occupations that are more clandestine, cash-based. It's also worth being said that society sort of demonizes and de-legitimizes trans women's sexualities, creating this sub-industrial market where transgender sexuality is really valuable even though it's secretive because people are so disgusted with their attraction to us, while simultaneously getting off because of us.
The trans women who can conceptualize this capitalize on that—the fact that there are many heterosexual men who are interested in trans women who want to have their company and experience their body and their time… Some people find themselves empowered by that, and some people find themselves stuck in the situation. For me, I'd say I'm the former.
I don't personally believe there's anything wrong with sex work. The word "whore," I use to describe myself—I would never use it to describe another person because it's a slur that needs to be reclaimed on an individual basis. People need to look beyond the surface: A lot of trans sex workers ended up in that position not because they had a bad life necessarily or because they've been abused. Society disallows them opportunities that their cis peers haven't had to fight for, especially when you're visibly trans.
You've said that people should "start a revolution" by giving their money to sex workers who identify as racialized, LGBTQ+, disabled, etc. Why is this important?
All those demographics are important outside of sex work as well as in sex work to give your money to because these are the groups of people who are consistently demoralized in society… There's incredible racism that pervades our society, our media, our culture. Sex work in and of itself as a profession is so misunderstood and vilified, but sex workers are literal angels. They provide love, care, connection at the drop of a hat. I honestly believe that those things—human touch and intimacy—are things that could contribute to saving the world.
It's important to give back to these specific demographics because those people have been given so many obstacles and have been disallowed opportunities. They need reparations and retribution because it's only fair… In this capitalist society that we live in, we need to use that system to bring others up to an equitable level.
What is a recent memorable experience you've had on set working as a porn performer?
I was in Oakland, California filming for Real Fucking Girls 2… On set, one thing that stuck out to me was there were absolutely clear and formal consent conversations—not just between co-performers, but between performers and producers. It was really beautiful to see that happening so that the producer was able to ascertain their performers' safety levels before filming began.
There was a moment when one of the performers said, "I can't do anal today. This is my boundary for today." I happened to be in the room and asked, "Why not?" I was just curious… The producer was like, "Oh no, don't worry about it. You don't need a reason why you can't do anal today." Just simply accepting that [as a boundary] was so valuable.
How do you feel about slurs being used to market your porn sometimes?
It's kind of like a double-edged sword. If I'm talking about me as an individual, I don't personally like the word "tranny" or "shemale" or other words that are used against trans folks… As far as how they're used in the industry, it's kind of a necessary evil because it's the infrastructure, how things have been set up over time by people in power: white cis men who started the porn industry, people currently running the industry (still mostly men for higher-capital companies). Ideally, I'd prefer for those terms not to be used. I wish we lived in a culture where we could just google "trans woman," "trans girl," other more clinical, correct terms, as opposed to fantasized slurs. As far as how to get to that point, I really don't know.
What was it like for you growing up in Southern Ontario as a trans girl?
It was pretty difficult… After Grade 9 in Cambridge, I moved with my mom and went to school in Hanover. That was probably the worst year of my life. It was very rural, very religious. Even in Kitchener-Waterloo [region], there were definitely challenges, a lot of bullying. I was exploring my own gender and myself through high school... Growing up, I was a target all of the time, regardless of what school I went to. Whether it was because I was seen as feminine or whatever, I found I was a constant target.
Being that publicly known—I was one of those kids that others at school just knew about and disliked and chose to pick on… Having that notoriety at that time while dealing with my own identity and severe abuse at home from my parents as well, it was difficult. But I'm alive, I'm 23, I'm surviving, and I'm doing pretty well. I'm quite happy compared to my youth. I had challenges, but I pushed through it.
Have you done hormonal replacement therapy or had any gender-affirming medical procedures done?
I started hormonal replacement therapy at 17… Being on the other end of the tunnel, it was definitely one of the best and healthiest decisions I have ever made. I have had surgical removal of my Adam's apple, but that doesn't affect your voice and is just aesthetics. I haven't had any other surgical procedures done. As far as if I want to, I'm not really interested in genital surgery… None of that is a concern to me with my gender dysphoria. I've had my passport, my health card, all my legal documents changed to female already and my current legal name, which I'm happy with. In regards to facial surgery, I would maybe consider that because I have issues with certain bony masses. But again, everyone has self-esteem issues, so part of me doesn't want to get surgery… I'm contemplative about that, but otherwise I'm pretty happy.
Why is visibility in the media important to you?
I feel like I need to be a nerd right now and use a quote to illustrate my point. I'm a big Twin Peaks fan, and one of my favourite quotes from the series is: "The owls may indeed not be what they seem, but still serve an imperative function: They remind us to look into the darkness."
The point that I'm illustrating with that is I think when you create a culture that is in the shadows, it will remain in the shadows; it will remain unknown until you bring light to that. Exposing myself, my viewpoints, my thoughts to the public eye is really important to me. I think it is necessary because it is normalizing.
(This article previously appeared on vice.com and was written by Allison Tierney)