Transgender sex work

In many cultures that discriminate against transgender people, sex work has been traditionally one of the few ways trans people, especially trans women, could earn money. Many notable trans people engaged in sex work at some point in their lives.

For some, sex work is empowering and enjoyable work they do not regret.

For others, survival sex is degrading, difficult, and dangerous, one of the few available options for staying alive.


Negative aspects of sex work

Because sex work is illegal in many jurisdictions, that can lead to negative consequences for some transgender people, including:

Interpersonal violence

  • Trans people, especially trans women of color, face high levels of violence. Many of the trans people injured or killed each year are sex workers.

Incarceration

  • In my lifetime there were laws on the books in major American cities prohibiting trans people from gathering in public or even walking down the street. This led to a deep distrust of law enforcement among large parts of the LGBTQ community. Transgender people engaging in survival sex and sex work are more likely to be arrested, fined, and jailed, making it even hard to escape that cycle.

Sexually transmitted infections

  • Transgender people are among the hardest hit by HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections. This is especially true for those engaged in sex in exchange for money, drugs, housing, or food.

Drug use and dependence

  • Transgender people face significant minority stress, which causes some of us to turn to drug and alcohol use. Sex work and drug use often overlap, because sex workers are sometimes paid in drugs or sometimes engage in sex work to support their drug use.

Human trafficking

  • Transgender people, especially transgender migrants, are especially susceptible to human trafficking and sexual exploitation. Transgender people are sometimes lured to other countries with promises of work, personal safety, or romance, only to be forced into sex work.

Media stereotypes

  • The transgender sex worker is one of the most common depictions in media made by non-trans people, because sex workers are among the most visible and easily accessible parts of our community.

Academic exploitation

  • Related to media exploitation is academic exploitation. Several fields of academic have historically presented trans sex workers as pathetic mentally and/or physically diseased who are a problem to be solved.

Criminal record

  • Beyond personal safety and health risks, sex workers often risk getting arrested and having a criminal record that can affect future opportunities, including employment and personal relationships.

Being recorded

  • Sex workers must assume that being photographed or filmed during sex work is permanent. This can affect future opportunities, including employment and personal relationships.

Positive aspects of voluntary sex work

Some people argue that sex work under certain conditions can be beneficial.

Priscilla Alexander (1997) says the most important distinction is between voluntary and involuntary sex work. Some trans people feel they have a choice, but others do not.

Many advocates for the positive aspects are those who can voluntarily engage in sex work on their own terms, which can include:

  • working exclusively online
  • choosing and being able to turn down clients
  • being able to stop sex when they feel unsafe or uncomfortable
  • having ways to confirm the identities of clients
  • not having to work for someone

Advocates of sex work point out that it is a form of entertainment or even therapy that can have good pay and flexible hours. It can be an opportunity for people in transition who do not have skills or time for a more traditional job.

Sex work safety tips

I have a few friends who do sex work and sexualized work (escorting/prostitution, dancing/shows, camming/pornography) to supplement their regular income and to pay for transition. If you have any other option, I strongly urge you to consider avoiding sex work.

The young women I know who do sex work seem to have a variety of motivations. In some cases, it seems they think it’s the only employment option we have. This can fueled by blows to self-esteem like being forced out of school or home, not to mention job discrimination. Lack of qualification for other types of work can also leave some of us with the tough choice of low wage work requiring little skill or the potentially more lucrative and dangerous world of sex work.

Some engage in sex work for validation and acceptance. They find the attention of clients validates their identities. Like the clients, it’s possible confuse a business transaction for an emotional relationship, because sex work involves emotional labor.

I know a couple of sex workers who just do it for kicks, or for playing out a fantasy. That’s fine, but your fantasy may not match up with the fantasy someone else has for you, and that’s when things can take a bad turn.

Many trans sex workers end up doing drugs, since payment is sometimes offered in drugs. This is a very slippery slope– many turn to drugs to escape or self-medicate, but it can quickly spin into a downward spiral of misery. Sex work can age you a lot faster than other jobs.

For some, it is a way to make tax-free money quickly, but it often comes at a high cost.

Showgirls, exotic dancers, etc.

  • Potentially lucrative if you’re attractive enough, but it’s a pretty short career, and you have to be smart and disciplined with your money. You’ll make a lot of tax-free cash fast, and it’s easy to lose track of how most people live.
  • You must set aside a specific amount for major future expenses each week. Also, don’t keep putting all your money back into costumes for your act. There’s a point where that makes bad business sense.
  • Have a plan for what you want to do after this career is over, usually by the time you’re 30. That means it’s a good idea to learn another skill for the job you’ll need after you’re too old to entertain. It’s often a shock to go from dancer with seemingly endless cash to a low-skill low-wage job. Those who don’t prepare for something after their entertainment days are over often get a pretty harsh reality check when their income no longer matches the life they got used to.
  • If you are working at a club where they don’t know you are trans, you must take extra caution to avoid a potentially dangerous situation. Regardless of if they know or not, you need to be really careful with fans. Most of them will be fine, but you might occasionally run into a creepy one. This happens to almost all entertainers at one time or another, so be careful.

Pornography/camming

Some trans people get involved in doing camming, voice, or chat porn.

  • Some people who use these services are very sophisticated at using clues in your conversation to find out where you are. Some are also good at tracing online trails and numbers back to their source, which could provide them with your address or other personal information.
  • Some clients will want to meet in person. Do not do this unless you have read the tips for sex workers below.
  • Doing pornographic scenes in photos and video are also pretty safe, but once you commit to taking sexual photos or videos of yourself, they can easily come back to haunt you long after the original shoot. They will be copied, stolen and used by other pornographers, etc. They’ll basically take on a life of their own that’s totally out of your control.

Escorting/prostitution

The media often makes this kind of work seem glamorous and exciting. While it can be, it often isn’t.

You’ll probably end up with some pretty gross people now and then.

Some clients of trans sex workers are scary. They can have issues about their own sexuality that make them want to use and then violently punish us. It’s their way of dealing with their own self-hatred for their sexual feelings.

The other extremely dangerous situation to avoid is sex work where clients don’t know you are trans. The consequences can be deadly.

General sex work tips:

  • Negotiate price and service up front. Get the money up front. Always.
  • Get on PrEP, a drug that can greatly reduce your chances of contracting HIV.
  • Try to use a condom, especially for anal sex. Use a lot of lube, too.
  • Do not work when you are high or drunk.
  • Wear shoes in which you can run, or that you can slip off easily.
  • Don’t wear anything around your neck. Necklaces, scarves, key chains, etc. can be used to strangle or drag you.
  • Get yourself checked at a health clinic as often as possible. Trans sex workers and the men who seek them out have high rates of HIV infection and other sexually transmitted infections.
  • Screencap conversations and the number or contact info they use (email, username, etc.).
  • Make a note of the time, date, and place you are meeting. If it’s a hotel, note the room number.
  • Work with friends if possible. Send your friend the information above. Have a friend be a witness when you meet someone.
  • Share information with other sex workers. If you have had a bad experience with a client, pass the details on to others. Describe the car, the person’s appearance, their contact information.
  • If things don’t feel right, leave immediately.
  • Trust your instincts and be willing to turn customers down.

Try to solicit in the safest place possible

  • Fairly safe: online
  • Fairly safe: use a service
  • Less safe: LGBTQ bars with friends
  • Least safe: the street

Call yourself or a friend and leave a message with a description, etc.

  • sex
  • height
  • race
  • weight
  • age
  • hair color and style
  • facial hair color and style
  • eye color
  • tattoos
  • clothes: shirt, pants, shoes, coat
  • accessories: hat coat
  • weapon

Get a photo of their car and license plate:

  • location
  • direction of travel
  • license plate
  • color
  • make/model
  • unusual things (dents, bumper stickers, customizations)
  • number of people in car

Getting into a car:

  • Make sure the client is alone. More than one person increases your risks.
  • Check behind the back seat to make sure that no one is hiding.
  • Always check door handles before you get in to make sure they work.
  • Make sure you know how to unlock the door.
  • Avoid vans, pickups, and SUVs, especially with tinted windows.

Going somewhere:

  • Pick your own parking spots and hotels. Unfamiliar places are much less safe.
  • Check address. If client says he’s taking you to one place, but pulls up at another, this may not be all he’s lying about.
  • Unless it’s a regular, avoid bridges and underpasses.
  • Generally speaking, the nicer the hotel, the safer the situation.
  • Don’t enter a room if there are other men there. If others show up after you’re in, leave immediately.
  • When in a car or in a room, keep an eye on the exit at all times and do not let the customer block your access to it.
  • Don’t bring someone to your home. It’s much easier for someone to beat or kill you there and leave than it is to assault you at their place and then have to deal with getting rid of you.

Sex safety:

  • Take charge of the situation. Try to control the whole encounter.
  • You are less vulnerable if you are on top or not underneath someone.
  • Try to negotiate out of vaginal or anal sex, or get your customer off some other way.
  • Charging a lot more for anal sex may discourage cheap clients.
  • If you want to douche, brush your teeth, or use an enema, wait until you are done with work for the day or night to do so. These can make it easier to catch something.
  • It is wiser to give than to get. This goes for bondage, spankings, water sports, oral sex, and rimming.
  • It is never a good idea to allow a client to tie you up or restrain you.
  • Decide for yourself what you will and will not do. Have a price list and time limits, and stick to them.

A final note about your earnings

If you are doing it, you must be very disciplined with your money. Having a lot of cash on hand makes it very easy to spend unwisely. If you are saving up for something, you need to set up a place to save your money. Deposit a specific amount of the money you make into an account you don’t touch. Don’t blow all your money on clothes and luxury items if you want to go straight quickly. You have to think of it like any other job and put aside the money you’ll need for healthcare, school, etc.

Finally, one of the toughest things about this kind of work is that once you start, it gets difficult to stop. You get into a social circle where that is your life, and it doesn’t seem that shocking any more. It’s also hard to go back to school or get regular employment if you’ve been doing sex work for an extended time. You get used to the cash and the hours, and that can make it tough to move on.

You must think long-term about what you want to do with your life. Again, please consider any other options first.

Resources

National Center for Transgender Equality (transequality.org)

  • Meaningful Work: Transgender Experiences in the Sex Trade (PDF) – 2015