CHATSWORTH, CALIFORNIA—Bree Mills is crouched in the darkened hallway of an adobe ranch house, her face illuminated by a high-resolution monitor. She’s clutching a pair of bulky headphones to her ears and watching as a family falls apart.
The family is just around the corner, sitting down for dinner at a table set with three steaming plates of spaghetti and meatballs. There’s a basket of toasted bread and a canister of pre-packaged parmesan cheese. The Fiestaware water glasses have bright-red rims. These prosaic details seem meaningful considering what’s coming next.
A young woman on the screen delicately unfolds a napkin as her step-father addresses her tattooed step-brother, who has just returned home after a months-long vacation. “Deena and I have been together for the last ten years,” he says of his wife, who is conspicuously absent from the table. “We were happy, at least on the surface—but you know how it is.”
The camera pans down to show the young woman placing the napkin on her step-father’s lap and slowly tracing her hand against his crotch. She doesn’t do it with a hokey, winking effect, but rather while staring intently into her step-brother’s eyes. In the hallway, Mills—clad in sneakers and a Red Sox baseball cap—covers her face and shakes her head. When her hands fall away, she’s smiling.
The step-brother explodes at his step-sister. “Are you fucking kidding me? Stop that! Sit the fuck down.”
“Behave yourself,” says the dad, coldly. “Things have changed. Deena and I, after long consideration, decided to separate.”
“Why, because maybe you’re fucking her daughter?”
“We are in love,” says the dad, reverently.
The scene escalates until the step-brother is left sitting alone at the dinner table—the abandoned plates of spaghetti still steaming. The camera lingers in close-up for several uncomfortable beats, showing his wide, blinking eyes and twitching upper lip. Then Mills yells, “Cut!” She takes off her headphones, emerges from the hidden-away perch in the hallway, and says with amusement, and to no one in particular: “Porn with a side of guilt.”
Mills is the 37-year-old creator of Pure Taboo, a subscription porn site and production studio that specializes in just what it sounds like. There are creepy doctors, corrupt cops, and perverted teachers, but the site’s real specialty is faux incest or “fauxcest”—fictionalized films that depict sex between non-blood relatives. The studio launched last year, following Mills’s success with Girlsway, a popular lesbian-themed porn site, but its quality and twisted storylines have already made it a whispered-about standout in the industry. At this year’s AVN Awards, the so-called Oscars of porn, Pure Taboo took home five awards—including best drama and movie of the year for a film titled Half His Age: A Teenage Tragedy.
But it’s Mills who is developing a reputation—not just as an industry force, but also for making some of the darkest content available in today’s mainstream adult business. As such, she represents a challenge to frequent assumptions about women porn directors. Her films are far from the gauzy, soft-focus cliche that many quite wrongly attach to women-directed porn. Instead of being a nuanced corrective to those assumptions, she’s more like a truckload of dynamite.
And she’s enjoying the explosion. “People don’t know what to do with me,” she told me with a bit of a gleam in her eye. Porn industry insiders and viewers alike can’t make sense of her: a woman, and a lesbian, no less, rising fast within a still largely male-dominated industry by making films that arouse men—who comprise roughly 90 percent of Pure Taboo’s subscribers—and sometimes disturb them. Often her films do both.
Fauxcest isn’t anything new. In fact, as Mills points out, incest themes are found in some of the classic porn films of the ’70s and ’80s. It has, however, been on the rise in recent years—a phenomenon for which the range of proffered explanations typically range from things like “it pushes boundaries” to, well, Game of Thrones. As a quick browse of the most-viewed videos on any tube site will show, fauxcest is typically shot in a schlocky, fluffy, comical manner—a busty step-mom helping her step-son with homework or a step-daughter in pigtails spanked by her step-dad for failing school.
Mills is doing something that is frowned upon even within an industry that revels in taboos: taking fauxcest seriously.
But Mills is doing something that is frowned upon even within an industry that revels in taboos: taking fauxcest seriously. She approaches it with a realism and degree of emotional gravity that she says goes against accepted wisdom about how to handle such a third-rail topic. Her films still fetishize fauxcest, to be sure, but the cutesy, giggly exterior is largely absent. Many of her movies have the crisp visuals, dramatic soundtrack, and narrative pacing of a Netflix drama—like Ozark with fauxcestuous sex.
When I visited her set, she had all of the performers—Steve Holmes, Small Hands, and Jill Kassidy—sit down around the big stone fireplace in the living room for what she called “porn theater.” Mills read off the three-page script, which was really more like a rough sketch of the film, and dramatically delivered keys lines like, “Whether you like it or not, this is our family now!” She frequently paused to informally elaborate on each character’s motivations, saying things like, “it’s the betrayal that’s really getting to you” and “you’re almost in competition for her affection.”
This “porn theater,” which she does ahead of all of her shoots, “gives everyone the ammo that they need to then launch into what is effectively a method acting workshop for the next number of hours,” explains Mills, who likes to let actors improvise their lines for a sense of realism.
Shooting began around 4 p.m. and it wasn’t until after 8 p.m. that any sex happened. The sex scene—between the step-daughter, step-dad, and step-brother—wrapped in under two hours. For the most part, Mills just let the performers do their thing without many cuts, interruptions, or off-camera instructions. (This included Holmes’ character having sex with Kassidy while roaring, “Who’s your daddy?”) It was the emotional lead-up—all of the twisted dynamics between the family members leading up to the bizarre familial threesome—that she really wanted to get right.
“Maybe I’m breaking every rule by saying this,” she said, “but as a porn film director, the sex part of it is the thing I am least interested or vested in.”
In the era of #MeToo, many of Pure Taboo’s storylines feel uncomfortably familiar. While a few of the site’s films focus on men who are “baited” or “tempted” by women, it’s often the women who are—in the language of the video descriptions—“punished,” “reluctant,” “lured,” “tricked,” “convinced,” “taught lessons,” “corrupted,” “seduced,” “manipulated,” “desperate,” “harassed,” “exploited,” “taken advantage of,” “talked into,” and “cornered.” Which is to say that the site eroticizes some of the very themes around men’s power that are currently sparking such rightful and widespread outrage. That is true within Pure Taboo’s fauxcest storylines—which Mills says accounts for roughly half of the site’s films—as well as its other taboo content.
Occasionally Pure Taboo’s stories overlap with real-life headlines—as with Clinical Trial, a film in which a doctor performs “humiliating tests” on an athlete. The film appeared on the site this past summer, just half a year after the conclusion of the trial of Larry Nassar, the USA Gymnastics doctor who sexually abused patients. Last week, on the same day that Brett Kavanaugh and Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Committee—and as many of us flashed back to Anita Hill’s 1991 testimony about workplace sexual harassment—Pure Taboo published Office Harassment, in which a “secretary faces repeated sexual harassment from her boss.”
It’s not unlike watching a gun-heavy action film in the era of mass shootings.
Of course, within the world of porn, the tropes of abusive doctors and bosses are not at all limited to Pure Taboo. But these headline-echoing examples serve as reminders that, while the site’s stories dwell in the realm of fantasy, they also have painful counterparts in the real world. It’s not unlike watching a gun-heavy action film in the era of mass shootings.
While Mills makes a point of having characters consent to sex during the scene, it’s often under some form of duress. “She’s not necessarily having sex for pleasure,” said Mills of the women characters in these scenarios, “she’s having sex to serve some other purpose.” In The Psychiatrist, a 19-year-old girl is impregnated by her father, abandons said baby in the woods, and then agrees to have sex with a psychiatrist who promises to help her case. Then there is The Electra Complex, in which a therapist manipulates a step-daughter into thinking that she wants to have sex with her step-dad.
The site’s recent spoof of Annie goes further still, walking right up to the line and dancing at its very edge. It tells the story of a man who runs an orphanage and has found a way to coerce said orphans into sexual servitude—once they turn 18. There’s also mockery and sexual harassment directed at a disabled woman.
When a feminist porn director like Erika Lust calls for more women to get behind the camera in order to change the content of porn, this certainly is not what she is picturing. But Mills says she has a different political focus and mission: she wants to give performers a chance to flex their acting skills. “I’m not going to subscribe to assuming we have to put something out at a lower quality because it’s got this label attached to it,” she said. “I want to challenge what we can do within adult.”
She’s also had women porn performers write Pure Taboo films based off of their own emotionally fraught experiences—including a film about abuse written by Lena Paul, and a film about body-shaming written by Angela White. Mills says she is hoping to carve out space for performers to do work that is taken seriously—and that, she says, “lets me sleep at night.”
Sometimes men complain that her stories make them feel bad about their fantasies, and her attitude is pretty much: Then maybe you should reconsider them.
Mills says her dark and dramatic approach doesn’t always go over well with viewers who are more accustomed to fauxcest of the gum-popping and hair-twirling variety. “It ruffles a lot of male feathers,” she said during a break between scenes, “because the package isn’t pretty.” She continued, “Is it okay if we gloss it up and put pigtails on it—then it’s cool? But if we actually tackle this story, then it’s not?” Sometimes, she says, men complain that her stories make them feel bad about their fantasies, and her attitude is pretty much: Then maybe you should reconsider them. “It is a critique of a lot of the fantasies that they have,” she said.
It is questionable how far that critique really goes. Mills’s films are meant to titillate—and she wouldn’t be experiencing this degree of commercial success if they didn’t. Pure Taboo might in its dramatic realism stoke viewers’ guilt, shame, and self-disgust around taboo fantasies—but that can also provide an added sexual thrill. When first talking over the dramatic dinner scene with Small Hands, Mills explained where it was supposed to leave his character: “Pummeled emotionally—and ready to fuck.” Then she made a joke about “men jerking off and crying.” Sometimes pleasure comes mixed with pain.
As soon as the “porn theater” session had wrapped, Holmes turned to Mills with a genuine smile. “You’re such a pervert, I love you,” he said. Small Hands—who, in his work for Pure Taboo, specializes in a brooding stare of utter devastation—chimed in with a friendly tone, “You wrote this one?” And Holmes laughed, knowingly: “Of course, who else could?”
That is an actual question: Who else could? It’s one Holmes answered moments later when he caught Mills talking about her dark approach to taboos. “You can do it because you’re a woman,” he said, matter of factly.
“I would come up with the same script and I would be crucified,” he said with his sophisticated German lilt. “They would think I’m imposing my perversion.”
On the one hand, says Mills, her gender makes the content of her films more shocking—because no one expects this from a woman. “On the other hand,” she admits, “I’m able to squeak through and do it.” It feels less threatening coming from a woman—even though Mills said outright in response to Holmes, “But, really, I’m imposing my perversion.”
Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist who studies the adult industry, says “it could be that the squeamish public is less squeamish about content that explores taboo themes if a woman creates it versus a man.” But she argues that Mills’s creation of Pure Taboo also has to be looked at within the context of the greatly diminishing threat of obscenity charges, which under George W. Bush hit fauxcest producers. While much of the industry might be “hanging on to old fears, Mills may not be,” she says.
As Mills tells it, she’s less concerned with the possibility of an obscenity prosecution than she is with staying in the good graces of credit card payment processors, which allow adult sites like Pure Taboo to charge for memberships. That means following a set of guidelines requiring that fauxcest storylines feature sex only between non-blood relatives. On Mills’s sets, performers are allowed to occasionally drop the “step” charade and come right out with it (“Fuck me, brother,” for example). With some regularity, though, they have to pepper in the prefix.
At one point, while walking her performers through the dialogue for an upcoming scene, Mills emphasized “step-sister,” then snapped her fingers with a smile and said, “Compliance!”
But, back to that sly “my perversion” remark, which got lost in the back-and-forth. Later, I asked Mills to what degree she was personally drawn to this content as opposed to meeting viewers’ demand for it. “It’s a good question,” she said with a pause. “I am very interested in the psychology behind sexual desires in general—not necessarily from a place of personal sexual gratification as from a place as a writer.” Sex, she says, drives us all—and “fucks us all up.” That, says Mills, is just good “source material.”
Mills, who grew up in Ontario, has good source material from her own life. Her father came out as gay when she was eight years old—and then her parents divorced as a result. She and her siblings lived primarily with her dad, an academic who began to shift his focus to sexuality studies, curating art exhibits to raise AIDS awareness and opening the first queer resource center at a Canadian university. “All of that influenced a lot of how I saw sexuality, certainly how I discussed sexuality,” she said. “My father was very, very open about it. He believed in no censorship, sometimes to a fault.”
Soon, her dad became a public figure speaking out on these issues—as she puts it, “he was always in the press”—and his identity as an out gay dad was key to that.
“A lot of my childhood, especially my adolescence, was being used as an example by my dad,” she said. “I certainly felt to a great degree that I was being used as a puppet for presenting an ideal scenario that wasn’t quite as it was. I found it to be very invasive and disingenuous, not always factual.” Mills added, “His primary goal in life was the message and not necessarily the family itself.”
Mills was held up as part of a model of a healthy, happy family. Now she makes films about unhealthy, dysfunctional families. In many of those stories, a father’s sexuality is what tears the family apart.
Unlike the endings in her films—which often tell stories where “nobody wins,” as she puts it—Mills is now on great terms with both of her parents. Her father “just loves” her career—although, she says he went a little “cross-eyed” when she told him about the fauxcest. Her mom is “very proud of me,” she says, and often tries to get Mills to send along trailers of her films. She even records the AVN Awards on Showtime so that she can see Mills’s acceptance speeches.
On set, it’s those disturbing moments of family breakdown—when a dad looks his son in the face and tells him that he’s in love with his step-daughter—that make her laugh, pump her fist, or cover her face with amused discomfort. After that dramatic dinner scene—once the spaghetti and meatballs had cooled off and the scene was wrapped—she told the cast in a moment of sincere praise: “It’s a great dysfunctional family.”