Mercedes Allen

Straight(ish?) Talk About Trans + Sex Work

Filed By Mercedes Allen | November 20, 2010 2:00 PM | comments

Filed in: The Movement, Transgender & Intersex
Tags: sex work, TDOR, Transgender Day of Remembrance

This reprises the trans-specific portion of "Sex Work and 'Human Trafficking' in Canada" at my site, DBM, which was both a response to the Ontario ruling that overturned sex work laws this past Fall and to inform a growing group of younger trans people in Alberta interested in the subject. You can see Part One, Part Two, the original in-context Part Three and Part Four there. This also includes part of the previously-posted Safe Dating, The Silent Alarm and Signs of Predation.

The reason I'm reposting this today is that many of the people we remember at the Transgender Day of Remembrance found themselves at various crossroads of discrimination, such as where transphobia meets racial prejudice, or where trans marginalization meets poverty. Sex workers are particularly vulnerable in our community and disproportionally represented during TDoR, so it seems to me that the subjects of working safely and going in with eyes wide open are the elephants in the living room that no one wants to talk about.

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 DBM 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; your mileage may vary.

My Experiences

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 at that time. 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 me 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 the decision to abandon transition and 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 crashed emotionally, and found myself having to go on stress leave when my arrangements to transition on the job kept getting pushed back repeatedly and practically indefinitely (the day I left work, in fact was the last day I ever presented as male). After three months, I tried to find out when I could go back to work (as female)... 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 partly 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.

Communication For The Purpose Of...

This actually speaks to the law recently struck down in Canada about "communicating for the purposes of prostitution." Until then, prostitution was actually legal in Canada -- you just couldn't negotiate the deal.

Trans women engaging in street-level work usually can't specialize in clients who are looking for trans women, 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 they're found out, 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 clients do get it, or at least try to be respectful... others are clusterfails waiting to happen.

That Curious Species, The Admirer

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. It's worth discussing them, because anyone engaging in sex work and in control of their surroundings might (relatively speaking) be safer in specializing. 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 admirers can result in volatile responses, and it will tend to be only those who are most driven or less socially balanced (not so good), or else very self-secure (which is excellent, if they're not accompanied by other negative issues) who will venture out of the safety of obscurity on any kind of a regular basis. Trans admirers' fear and guilt responses over their attraction are homophobia, of course, but you can only challenge them so far on it, and then they're going to have to work that out themselves, 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.

Working, The Squick, and Coping Tablets

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 hormone replacement therapy, 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.

The Silent Alarm

Blind dating is never risk-free, especially when a trans aspect can be subject to negative reactions, or when poverty exacerbates the possibility of being potential prey. When meeting a person for the first time, you will be completely unaware of any history of confusion, instability or biases they may have. First impressions are never enough, and the greater the risk, the more secure the safety net is needed. One habit that can minimize the risk is known as the "silent alarm" (sometimes also called the "safecall"). There are several variations of this procedure... you can settle on what is most comfortable for you.

Control your surroundings as much as you can. If you have a friend who can act as a safe call and even better can (without being seen by your clients) provide transportation to and from your calls, that's golden. Agree on locations in advance, and have that information in your friend's hands -- if there's a change in plans, communicate it immediately, and be wary.

A "silent alarm" is a situation in which you tell your friend (who you must trust absolutely) where you are going, and when you expect to be back; you also give him or her any information that you may have about the person you will be seeing and the place you will be going. You arrange with that friend to call at a prearranged time, no matter what the events of the evening bring. If you don't check in, your friend is to call the local authorities immediately, with any information they have. It's also a good idea to prearrange with this friend to have a code word or phrase that you might include during your phone conversation, in the event that you are forced to make the call under duress, and need to indicate that you need help, without arousing suspicion from a person threatening you. If your friend is chauffeuring you, it can be adapted.

Helpful points:

  • If you have your date's phone number, try to have a reason to call that number first, to verify that it is correct.
  • Inform your friend beforehand what your plans for the evening are: time, place, etc. If anything changes, let them know during a check-in call.
  • Don't use your date's phone or cell, in order to help avoid the call being traced later, thereby potentially putting your friend in danger. Cell phones add a certain element of potential danger to your friends, so depending on the level of risk, you may want to consider this.
  • The "silent alarm" is most useful as a deterrent. If your date knows that you need to check in with a friend, they'll know that if they harm you, this will alert someone else. The point is that he (or she) knows that there will be some accountability if anything goes bad.

If your friend needs to call police, they should stick to referring to the encounter as a date. They should not disclose any information that might bias the dispatcher at the other end of the phone (i.e. trans status or if any money is being exchanged or porn being produced).

If something goes seriously bad, vigilanteism is generally not preferred to police intervention. That person is not to intervene or be seen unless circumstances leave no other option to ensure personal safety. That person's first role if something does happen should be to act as an advocate in whatever aftermath may occur only -- not to interfere with the police on the scene, but to observe (a camera recorder of some kind may even be warranted) and hold them accountable for their actions; also to follow you to anywhere you may be taken, and help obtain your release if charged for any offence.

You will also want to be aware that your friend might be vulnerable to laws that target "pimps."

Not the Easy Road

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.


While I don't encourage people to go into sex work, I do believe that anyone who does should have the info and resources they need to do so safely, and awareness of the risks and state of criminalization.

Advocacy Organizations:

Issues Discussion:

Safety Considerations:

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What I find frustrating is that few if any sex worker advocacy organizations seem to lift their little finger when it comes to trans women in sex work. It's almost as if they think those women are in it totally because they're into sex and getting attention rather than being marginalized in communities, near unemployability and other economic coercions they'd apply to cis-women sexworkers in a second. Where are these advocates when it comes to young trans women who are often pushed into sexwork just for survival (much less for transition).

Moreover, where are any of the people talking about sex slavery when it comes to trans women? There are clearly young trans women from the Philippines and Indonesia (3 Indonesian transgirls were recently freed from sexwork in Moscow where they'd been taken against their will)? It's as if they can't believe these issues impact trans women in sexwork the same way they do with cis-women and, in fact, even in a more complex way because of the trans sexworkers' frequent estrangement from mainstream society.

Most of my experiences with sex work advocate orgs (sometimes different from the responses of individuals) is that they can often be happy to get involved and help, but just don't have a lot of understanding or familiarity with trans issues.

So there is some potential for building bridges, but be both need to want to.

The potential for bridge building is always there but I wouldn't try driving over that bridge for a looong time. Why does the mountain have to come to Mohammed? Shouldn't organizations like those be actively searching out situations where any/all sex workers need advocacy? Honestly, I don't think it's an accident they're pleading ignorance of trans issues, and I choose to believe they just don't want to deal with that population. Just as I've noticed a large number of the sexworker advocacy orgs are white-dominated.

I have to mention that this discussion is so very operative-centric.

Not every girl is squicked by atypical genetalia. And as a result, many of us don't have difficulty, after the removal of excess testosterone, getting blood to continue to flow there. Current surveying, with the discrimination against pre and non-operative trans women in public spaces and places where ones genetalia are unavoidably revealed, the intransigent refusal of many governments to refuse to recognize trans identities without genital surgery, and those possibilities of transphobic violence through unwanted outing being heightened for those who are not-currently-post-operative, with all that discrimination, still 20% of American trans women explicitly don't want surgery, and 20% of American trans women have had it.

But then, been through all this before. While all squares are rectangles, not all rectangles are squares, and the rest of us rectangles get pretty ticked off on a rectangle discussion that centres without even acknowledgement, around equilateralism.

You know, I qualified that many times that that was my experience and YMMV ("your mileage may vary"), i.e. "If you're like I was...." Not everyone is like I was, but some are, and will need to be aware of this aspect.

I was able to cerebrally accept having a penis, but not able to overcome the instinctive discomfort that was beyond my conscious control. That was my experience, and I'm not going to apologize to folks on either side of that equation. I don't expect everyone to conform to my experience. Stop expecting me to conform to yours.

Great article, Mercedes. Even better, it will live on via Google and your insightful & helpful advice will continue to help others.

Thanks for sharing this. I don't have much experience with either transpeople or sex workers, but think that awareness about both and the issues they face need to be raised. Peace.

Drugs & stress. Besides the obvious (passing etc), there's the need to get money for rent, food and drugs. Make up you can always steal. Stress of cops, bad tricks and homophobes hunting for TGs to bash. Pressure on the ego as other gurls get tricks and you don't.
How many kids can take all that without help from drugs? And if you're too hi or lo, you get careless and get into dangerous situations.

I had upscale clients yet I often worked the street because I pumped up my sexuality, instincts and speed of monitoring his emotions to instantly come up with ways to keep controlling his emotions and keep it positive.

I got very high being in that state of my mind and emotions. Speeding, working quickly and intensely. It also appeals to my macho part of me.

I. S. Hu