“You have to show face in your ads,” said my friend, a veteran trans sex worker, when I told her I was thinking about getting back into the business as a trans girl a few years after my transition. “I don’t know any successful trans women who don’t show face. The clients want to know that you’re passable. Oh, and you have to do anal.”
My heart sank, just a little. Don’t get me wrong – sex work is real work, and I’m proud of my professional identity as a sex worker – but I like my privacy. I also like equality. And what my friend had just said confirmed what I already knew – that both are in short supply when it comes to trans women in the industry.
As all sex workers know, ours is a vocation that inhabits a forbidden zone in most societies – all of us, from escorts to porn stars to street-based survival sex workers experience varying levels of marginalization and discrimination. What many cisgender sex workers may not know, however, is that their trans colleagues experience unique barriers to social, economic, and physical safety that are often missed or erased in sex worker narratives and activism.
Trans people are disproportionately represented in the sex industry. A recent survey of trans people and inequality in the United States finds that 13 percent of trans people reported some form of participation in sex work, with trans feminine individuals (those who are assigned male at birth and transition to a more feminine identity) being twice as likely to enter sex work as trans masculine individuals (those who are assigned female at birth and transition to a more masculine identity).
This is linked to the fact that one in four trans people has lost a job due to transphobia, and three out of four experience some kind of workplace discrimination. With such limited access to the traditional job market, it’s no wonder that many trans women decide – or feel forced – to take advantage of the fact that, stigma aside, there is a huge demand for trans women in porn and escorting (don’t look so surprised…we’re sexy girls!).
In fact, every trans woman I know has either been a sex worker, is a sex worker, or knows another trans woman who is – awareness and knowledge of the industry is woven deeply into our history and culture. The famous trans woman activists Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were foremothers of both the queer and sex worker rights movements in the 1960s, and that legacy has been passed on through the generations.
Yet even in sex work, trans women struggle with the impacts of transphobia, which can be devastating when layered on top of the legal and safety challenges faced by all sex workers. Trans women’s bodies are heavily fetishized, and attraction to us is often seen as “kink” or sexual deviance. As a result, the majority of our clients are ashamed and afraid to see us, and to be seen with us. This means that they are much less likely than the average client to provide vital (or any) screening information – something that many cisgender commercial sex work take for granted as a necessary safety practice.
When I was planning my triumphant return to the industry as a proud trans sex worker – my previous career as a gay boy had been sporadic and not all that successful – a surprising number of my cis sex worker friends breezily told me that “anyone can be a successful sex worker if you work hard and find your niche.” Other, more grounded acquaintances warned me of the importance of having strong boundaries.
The truth is, though, that the market for trans women’s sexual labor is its own heavily fetishized niche, which and makes it incredibly difficult to have boundaries at all. As mentioned at the start of this piece, it is generally assumed by clients that trans women will show our faces in advertising – I’m the only one I know who uses even partial facial obstruction – and that we will provide high-risk services such as unprotected sex and high impact play, even when explicitly stated otherwise.
Worst of all, clients of trans sex workers will sometimes act out their internalized shame in the form of physical and psychological violence. Trans women of colour – especially Black and Latina trans women –are at the highest risk in the industry for violence and murder, especially with the passing of FOSTA/SESTA and the resulting decrease in cheap online advertising platforms.
Tragically, trans women are also less likely to seek out sex worker-specific community supports and medical services when they are available, because we are too familiar with experiencing transphobia in medical and social service settings. Conversely, transgender community supports are often sex-negative and/or whorephobic. As a trans sex worker, I often feel like only one part of me can exist at a time in any given space.
At the heart of the inequality that impacts trans women in the sex industry is the notion that trans people are subhuman – that our services, bodies, boundaries, safety are worth less than that of our clients or of cis sex workers. It’s common parlance for the sex industry to refer to us by the degrading terms “shemale” and “tranny,” and while some might argue that this is just an outdated holdover from porn, I believe that it reflects our general status in the caste system of the sex work hierarchy. Survival sex work and 100-dollar-an-hour escorting are full of trans women. “Elite” sex work – the kind that advertises on expensive platforms with professional photos and makes real money – has very few.
I’ve always felt that sensuality and the art of giving people pleasure are a special calling, a gift that truly benefits the world. I’ve been lucky to be able to follow that calling as a sex worker, and to meet some wonderful people doing it. Yet in a world that both despises sex workers and reviles trans women, it can be easy to lose sight of that.
I want to live – and work, and play, and touch, and be touched – in a world that loves every part of me.