Sex Work and “Human Trafficking” in Canada III: Trans and Sex Work

(I had to break this one into four parts, although it is essentially one article.  This part is directly preceded by Part One: The Ruling and Part Two: Poverty and Opportunity.  Conclusion will follow tomorrow.  This part may seem like a detour, but I wanted to focus on the sex work side of the equation for a moment.)

Straight(ish) Talk About Sex Work

First off, I’m not going to encourage anyone to undertake sex work, nor do I think any less of anyone who does.  Since Alberta delisted health care funding for GRS last year, I’ve been seeing a noticeable shift in the numbers of people looking into this as a career option — most notably younger trans people who might otherwise be looking at finishing school or mapping out a different career path.  Face it: when the choice is $1000 on a good night or $1000 a month at McStarbuMart, sex work can appear to be a far more reasonable map toward surgery.

I was outted as having done sex work on this blog and elsewhere by someone I knew locally a year or two ago, but haven’t really talked much about those experiences, other than to say that it takes a certain kind of strength and resilience to do sex work – I didn’t have it, but I respect those who do.  What follows is mostly basics, and limited by my experiences; YMMV.

I first did street-level work for several months, at around the age of twenty, first in Vancouver, then Edmonton. I wasn’t equipped at that time with the experience or sense of self that I needed to face an underbelly of human nature that I didn’t really want to know.  I’ve never been an outgoing personality.  And sex work is often a case of giving of your own energy so that your clients can recharge, but I’ve never been very good at holding back enough energy for myself (one of the reasons, I think, that drug use becomes so necessary for some, and what should be one of the biggest considerations for anyone considering sex work).  Overall, the experience was not great, and ended up with my looking in the mirror and seeing a dead person staring back at me.

I spent several years coming back from a black, bitter, angry headspace, partly from that (and also from a childhood and youth spent as little preacher in a good Christian upbringing that taught me 24/7 that everything I was at the core of my being was an abomination to God).  It was at the same time that I was straightening out my life that I first looked into gender transition, and when the information on employment prospects that I found indicated likely having to remain in the sex trade if I transitioned, that contributed to a decision to spend another 15 or so years failing at and constantly near suicide over trying to be the man everyone else expected me to be.

Nearly two decades later, most of it spent working at one company, I found myself having to go on stress leave when my arrangements to transition on the job kept getting pushed back repeatedly and almost indefinitely.  After three months, I tried to find out when I could go back to work (as female, since I was well into full-time by then)… after six months, I still couldn’t get an answer, and the stress leave ran out.  I had to scramble and did some escorting to make ends meet in the months before I left Edmonton.  The experience that time was better, although energy was still an issue.  But by then, I was more experienced, better balanced, knew who I was and was comfortable with that, and I’d had more than enough time to process things.  Probably if not for that experience, my attitude toward sex work might have been a lot more negative.

The two experiences were very different.  The first experience was working as male for male clients; the second as transsexual for trans admirers.  The dynamic between gay male dates and straight-ish ones is very different, and a person can tell from the way they’re being treated if someone accepts them as a woman or thinks of them as “really a man.”  This may be due to socialization, but even so, living and loving as female fit, while everything before did not.  Either way, while both types of work are potentially dangerous, the street-level work of before was very vulnerable and grueling.  Meanwhile, escorting afforded a bit more control of my surroundings, ability to screen people, and the opportunity to negotiate what I would and wouldn’t do.

This actually speaks to the law recently struck down in Canada about “communicating for the purposes of prostitution.”  Trans women engaging in street-level work can’t really specialize in clients who are looking for such and have to try to hide the fact that they’re trans as much as possible.  (I know there are trans men who’ve engaged in sex work — I really can’t speak to that experience and am sticking to what I know)  They might gamble that if that becomes an issue, her date will choose to overlook it or pretend they don’t know — for their benefit as much as anyone else’s.  I’ve heard that some women can be open about themselves, mentioning that they’re a “girl with something extra” or something along that line, but the problem with “communicating for the purpose of…” is that often any prearrangement has to be done quickly (because that’s the moment one is particularly vulnerable to arrest), and in a kind of code, which means that things can get easily miscommunicated.  The potential for someone to discover ones trans status and become violent is much higher as a result.  Of the women we remember at the Transgender Day of Remembrance, there is a particularly high number of women at the intersections of trans, poverty, visible minority and sex work, and laws that criminalize communication for sex work undoubtedly add to the tragedies we commemorate annually.  When I did escorting, though, I was able to advertise myself as trans and find people who wanted someone who was trans — this didn’t eliminate the potential for violence, since it wasn’t unusual for a date to be overwhelmed with guilt afterward and sometimes blame me for that, for example, but certainly the danger of trouble was a lot lower.

Working as trans (as in, being out as trans) has its own frustrations.  There will inevitably be some men who refer to you as “really a man” no matter how well you explain it, and likewise with “shemale…” which is sometimes unchangeably part of the fantasy for some clients.  It’s not right, it’s indicative of the mentality of objectification and commodification that you’re facing, but sometimes you end up having to hold your tongue on in order to make that dollar, especially when they’re clearly never going to get it.  The more survival is a part of the equation, the more self-respect becomes negotiable.  Don’t get me wrong — some do get it, or at least try to be respectful… others are clusterfails waiting to happen.

Trans admirers are just as diverse as any other segment of the population, so I want to be clear that I can only generalize about some of them.  Men might be attracted to trans women because they are:

  • gay curious / bi- curious,
  • questioning their own gender identity and looking to you for a clue,
  • bisexual and don’t have a mental block about which parts are attached to which bodies,
  • are “collectors” (i.e. want at least one of every kind of sexual experience),
  • are attracted by taboo / social transgression / “avant garde”,
  • are generally straight but willing to explore bisexuality,
  • are attracted to traits they expect to find (often mistakenly) in trans women but not cis women (sometimes misogynistic ideas about the way we’re socialized), or
  • none of the above.

Most admirers are still going to be worried about how they’re perceived, worried that she might get “read” and therefore reflect on him, etc. in public situations, or those where he feels he might get caught.  Anything that could threaten to out them can result in unpredictable responses, and it will tend to be only those who are most driven or less socially balanced who will venture out of the safety of obscurity. Trans admirers’ fear and guilt responses over their attraction are homophobia, of course, but they’re going to have to work that out when they’re ready.  But as pointed out earlier, controlling your environment and creating a situation that is more private and less threatening can help minimize negative responses, and bring back regulars.

And then there is that “something extra” to consider.  If you’re like I was, you may not be comfortable having anything to do with that something extra, and it may feel like some creepy unearthly appendage that doesn’t belong, not to mention an eternal distraction.  If you advertise for men looking for trans women, rather than tucking and hoping not to have an issue, then you’re going to be expected to use that something extra.  And if you’re on HRT, this will be further complicated by the fact that Spironolactone or (worse) Androcur will reduce or even end all ability to do so.  Not good.  Some girls will use Viagra — I found that to be only marginally helpful, and certainly didn’t help with the mental squick.  Some will also turn to other alternatives — I’m aware of one that’s an imported compound sometimes used by bodybuilders which is androgenizing and does nasty stuff to your system, elevated anxiety, trouble sleeping, irritability etc. You can do some very bad things to your body if you don’t know what you’re playing with.

Anyway, sex work isn’t an easy out, and there are a number of points along the road where one can become vulnerable, especially when you know you can’t turn to the authorities without negative consequences.  It’s emotionally demanding and draining, and having to play to someone else’s expectations all the time can sometimes leave you feeling inconsequential, worthless or even void of identity (although that’s not altogether unlike our experiences prior to transition, but picture that in concentrated form, while having to switch roles almost as fast as you can change your clothes).  There are always risks, in terms of predators, sexual health, and emotional attachments — and if you’re depending on your clients and income for the development of your sense of worth, the latter can be catastrophic.  In terms of violence, it is more than a risk, and can almost be looked at as an inevitability that one will experience violence if working long term (careful screening and experience will reduce the risk, not eliminate it) — although that should by no means be interpreted as saying that anyone willingly choosing to work in the sex trade deserves it if it happens.

And yet, it has its moments.  And I won’t deny that if you can get through the faults and pitfalls and keep everything together, it can be enjoyable work.  Or at least no less so than any other line of work — and moreso than front-line minimum-wage drudgery.  But those are big IFs to consider.

(To be continued tomorrow)

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