TransEthics: What did you do before you got into sex work?
Courtney Trouble: I started doing phone sex as a job a few months after my eighteenth birthday because between college, my personal projects, and trying to be a freelance writer, I didn’t have the time or interest to stay at an entry-level retail or food job. I just didn’t have it in me. I was initially attracted to sex work because I wanted to work on my art (which at that time, were photography, zines, websites, and music) instead of work at someone’s store. I’ve been doing some sort of internet-based sex work since 2002. So what did I do before sex work? Be a teen, I guess. A nerdy, super creative, artistic, baby riot grrrrl who didn’t want a corporate job.
TE: When did you decide to move beyond working the phones?
CT: I think once I started doing erotic modeling and I started to have a presence and make a little money online with my photographs, doing the phone thing just didn’t appeal anymore. When presented with the option to be a sex worker feeling fully embodied in my own skin, or continue to pretend to be someone else in phone sex, I chose the embodiment. Sometimes I wish I still had a sex worker alter ego like my phone sex personas – but being in my own body and mind while I work is much preferable.
Although I will say that I know plenty of phone sex workers who use their own pics and don’t do personas like I did, and they do well.
TE: Do you consider working in the sex industry an art form?
CT: Sex work itself isn’t an art form, it’s an industry. Within the industry, there’s a whole spectrum of how much people relate to the work they do. I imagine it’s like any other industry – sometimes, sex work is just a job. I feel that way a lot of the times, even when the perception of what I do is overly politicized or aggrandized – sometimes it’s just work. I fuck on film, or I film people fucking. That being said, out of all the art I make, the art I’m making that includes sex work, or the art I make while I’m working, is better than everything else I try my hand at. So for me, sex work is an art form, but only when the stars are aligned. I can do this job without the art – but I prefer the art and try to incorporate it as much as possible.
TE: Is that how TROUBLEfilms came about — the need to express yourself artfully within the industry?
CT: TROUBLEfilms was more about freedom from industry censorship. Previously, I was running my website IndiePornRevolution.Com (at that time called NoFauxxx god bless the pre-SEO internet!) and that whole site was about bringing art back. It was personal and political and super artistic. To translate NoFauxxx and it’s politics into video form and attempt any kind of wider audience, I had to find someone willing to pay for me to make them films – I was too poor to fully fund my first film Roulette by itself, nor any of the following films I made in those days. Good Vibrations paid for, and owns, my first 12 films. I adore each and every one of those films and had a great year pushing myself to put out new things every month – but there were a few major censorship rules that concerned me and stopped me from fully expressing myself the way I do when I self-publish.
I started TROUBLEfilms officially in 2011 (almost a decade after I started making porn!) in order to produce and distribute my own films without having to cut fisting, menstrual blood, or BDSM out of my content.
TE: Do you prefer being behind the camera, or in front of it?
CT: I can’t possibly make up my mind on that. My drive to be a performance person, or at least to be seen, are very strong. As I get older and my body changes, and my gender and sexuality changes, I also think it’s valuable and interesting to document those changes. So often, a porn star stays 22 forever, because that’s when they quit or get pushed out of the industry, so to see someone morph over a decade is fascinating. I guess if you want to start talking about politics (pouting) you can also say that I consider my time spent fucking in front of the camera to be and important mainstay while I continue to film others fucking. My ethos and creativity around making porn come from a sex worker’s point of view. I’m working just as hard as anyone I bring on set, I know what they’re doing from beginning to end because I do it too.
TE: When did you first realize that you’re transgender?
CT: I don’t identify as transgender. I am non-binary, with no current plans of transitioning to anything more binary. My current feelings are very agender, so I’m not sure I can call that “trans.” It’s been a lifelong discovery. I guess I knew my dick was my dick when I was 9. I’m actually convinced that I was more of a man as a child, and more of a nothing-femmish-creature as an adult. I feel like I ran into a pattern in my 20s where I dated a lot of binary folks and trying to feel visible as masculine in those relationships where really hard, because that’s not how my partners wanted to see me at all. I know a lot of my gender shit is repressed. It was a lot easier to be genderqueer before I became an adult.
TE: A lot of people consider non-binary people as being part of the trans spectrum. Do you disagree with that assessment?
CT: The problem with “spectrums” is that they are, in a sense, a binary. You’ve only got two choices, so on the Gender Spectrum, if I’m going to find a way to identify, I will have to say “this much woman, this much man.” Non-binary folks may exist in those numbers, but agender people don’t identify with being either men or women. So I suppose I exist off the spectrum. (UV Gender?)
TE: How do you feel about the use of the term “enby”?
CT: I haven’t heard that one yet. I think because of all the resistance I’ve met trying to be visible as non-binary while also being a fat femme with a vagina has really made me resistant and avoidant of identity labels. I see the value in identity for others, so I respect whatever language we want to come up with. I love language. As queers, we have to totally re-invent everything for ourselves. I love it. For me personally, my “I Identify As” never seem to get me anywhere. So I’ve tried to let go of identifying myself with words. At least not permanently. I’m likely to call myself a dyke or a fag at any given moment. But I guess that’s the thing about being non-binary – nothing ever sticks. Labels are super temporary for me at best. Aside from Fat, Sex Worker, Artist… those stick [to me].
TE: Fair enough. You’ve done some work with trans women. How do you respond to people who would say trans women cannot be lesbians?
CT: Those people are not my people. If you’re saying a trans woman can’t be a lesbian, you’re saying that a trans woman can’t be a woman. A lesbian is a woman who loves other women. There are all kinds of women. This basic logic is so easy to access, and transphobic feminists actively ignore it and fight it, and it doesn’t make any damn sense why they feel like targeting other women instead of helping other feminists fight our government against the increasing amount of restrictions on family planning and sex education. Feminists should be working together on the larger issues, not fighting about who gets to be a girl and who gets to be gay.
So many of my close friends in the trans community have been attacked online in a way that’s caused them trauma in real life. I see the activity of transphobic feminists as a dangerous component to the overall bigotry against trans women. This online abuse also contributes to depression, PTSD, and potential suicidal ideation – I have witnessed it first hand. [Those who perpetuate such actions] should be in jail for perpetuating hate speech. [Those] kind [of people] are a danger to others.
TE: Do you consider yourself an activist?
CT: No. I know a great deal about the issues though, and activism informs my art. I am not the kind of person who thrives on the frontlines of a battle. I’m too sensitive for it. Maybe I was more of an activist when I started, particularly around queer visibility in the media, and fat acceptance. But I think the best way for me to contribute goodness to the world and “make change” if I’m gonna make change, is to make really cool art that’s informed by my own ideologies, and if anything, the activism of my muses.
If there’s anything I feel like I’m really an activist about these days is censorship. I’m frustrated by the limitations of adult cinema, and the ways in which they silence female pleasure and queer sexuality. But again, I’m not on the front-lines. I just make art about it.
TE: Aside from the porn, what other art do you make?
CT: Photography is my main vice, as you’ll see through my tumblr. Most of my photographs are erotic in some way, some of it really just is straight up porn. Photography is what I studied in school, and what I’m going to grad school for. Other than that, I play a ton of instruments and make music (I score most of my own films), I paint, and I fuck around with a lot of digital art, ceramics, and paper arts.
TE: As a sex worker, how do respond to people who claim sex work is unethical?
CT: I’m not going to lie: there are unethical people in sex work. Unethical people are often attracted to illegal jobs, and much of sex work is still illegal. Decriminalization and work towards the civil rights of sex workers will help make the industry more above ground and less “seedy.” And speaking of “seedy,” can you think of any other industries that don’t have problems with unethical people in power? I can think of a few. I can think of all of them. When it comes to global issues of labor and welfare, the ethical downfalls of the porn industry do not compare in the least to the fashion industry, the meat industry, agriculture, fast food, academia.
And I am in no way trying to exonerate the adult industry. Perhaps we aren’t killing people, killing the planet, exploiting children, causing genocide, etc. – but the porn industry is a profit-motivated and self-serving community. We make movies about girls getting choked out and puking on dicks. We make movies that look like rape, and some fuckers commit actual rape on set – it fucking happens and it’s never OK. Some fuckers lie about their STI tests and infect the other workers. These are not acceptable behaviors in our community. The porn world is tiny and the people who actually make it care very deeply about each other.
There’s this whole class of people who make the porn on small budgets, only to sell to a conglomerate like MindGeek and have them, having never met any of the folks who made the movie, package it, sell it with whatever words and photos they see fit, and make millions that the performers and crew laborers will never see. We are exploited – the performers and the director and the crew – in so many ways because our distribution is limited to a few monopolizing and male-dominated companies. Some fuckers user derogatory terms to sell their porn, some men are millionaires because they feed off their customer’s bigoted fantasies. Those fantasies endanger the sex workers in their personal lives, yet it’s how the bills get paid. Sex work is a million folds of complicated and every worker’s story is different.
The adult industry largely adapts itself to its customers, it follows the money. So if porn customers –meaning THE UNIVERSE– start being more proactive about their own understanding of sex work and sexual desire, I imagine the adult industry would follow the light and not protect some deeply invested curse of ethical issues. That’s largely in a sense why I keep engaging with the industry, and not just fuck off and make my art.
TE: But you consider the porn you make to be ethical, right?
CT: I have a really hard time relating to that whole green-room-and-catering “fair trade” trend of Ethical Porn. I have great ethics. I apply my ethics to the art I make, and to the commercial pornography I make. I consider the porn I make to be true to the intimacies of life.
But yes, of course, my porn is “ethical.” I follow the ethics of my performers most of all, and try to tailor my art to their needs as much as possible. Our paperwork includes a full-page of contractual agreements about consent and accountability. We have safe words. We don’t ask people to do stuff they don’t want to do. We don’t hit on our performers when we’re the ones shooting.
We pay people set rates on the day of set. But that’s nothing special – most legit adult studios operate under some sense of ethicality. I feel like people assume the message behind my work in porn and queer visibility is that there’s a good porn versus a bad porn, and that’s never what I’ve set out to say. All I’ve ever wanted to say is that we all have the technology to make our own media, and this can be a powerful way to use sex and art to create visibility for ourselves – and perhaps use it for activism if that’s what we felt like doing. I chose to make media of fat, queer, People of Color, trans, kinky, gay, and lesbian people who love to fuck on film, because that’s where I exist. These are the stories I want to tell the world – how liberated, exhibitionist, creative queers fuck.
TE: That’s awesome! One more question: Who would you want to work with on your next project for TROUBLEfilms?
CT: Chelsea Poe. Over and Over and Over Again.
TE: Thank you Courtney.
CT: Thanks so much!