As a trans woman who’s spent about three years in the industry doing full-service sex work, I’ve found that my work provides sharp and unrelenting insight into how men sexualize and fetishize trans women. This phenomenon isn’t unique to trans women in sex work, of course. But these attitudes define my experience of the industry in profoundly different ways to those of non-trans women in the industry.
There is not much about trading sex for money that inherently bothers me, and the usual challenges of the industry, such as the income instability, are things that I can deal with. So I find that this often makes me particularly sour about just how much the added impact of transmisogyny changes my whole experience of the industry. Clients who treat me remotely like they would a cis woman are easy as pie. The sad reality is that, sticking this out in the long term, those clients tend to be few and far between, and with my average clients, the day-to-day weirdness and unpleasantness of those bookings drains on me something fierce. I’m lucky in that I’m surrounded by lovely friends in the industry, but almost all of them are cis, and this side of my experience can be quite difficult for them to understand.
Trans women are sexualized in bizarre and frequently contradictory ways. We are so often seen as disgusting, even monstrous, but simultaneously considered desirable in the most shameful and mysterious of ways. As a civilian trans woman, this was just a depressing reality of life that I could avoid where possible. But as a sex worker, it fundamentally defines my experience on a daily basis.
My clients rarely see me for the sorts of reasons they might seek out an escort who wasn’t a trans woman. They want some kind of once-in-a-lifetime bucket list sexual experience, have no idea what that is, and expect that you’ll be able to provide it—because that’s what they think trans women are there for. I know this is also a common complaint among cis fetish workers: clients who show up with a vague fantasy that they’re too scared to communicate, expecting you to magically work out what it is. I know they, at least, know how maddening those bookings are. However, when the fetish property concerned is your mere existence, I cannot under-emphasize how dehumanizing that can get.
A cis friend of mine made this tongue-in-cheek observation: “I think all I need to do is turn up and actually touch a dick and I’ve done an amazing job”. When I think of the psychological workout nearly every single booking I do takes, I find myself wishing “Oh, if only.”
It doesn’t just end with the idea that clients see our bodies as fetish objects, though: half the problem is that the specific fetishes attached to us are nonsensical and contradictory. A particular client could have absorbed any of the hateful stereotypes about us. I get to work out (usually without them saying anything) which ones they want to feature in their “experience.” Trying to figure out how you, personally, can best appeal to the most common of these sure does get tiring.
The best example of this I can give is an absolutely stunning, normally-utterly-cis-passing, conventionally attractive trans woman I worked with in a trans parlor, who would dress down and work in gym clothes because she found if she looked too feminine in intros she wouldn’t get booked. For her clients, she had to deliberately look just “male” enough not to look too cis, so she could best trigger their trans fantasies, while simultaneously not looking “male” enough that they wouldn’t feel like they were gay for being attracted to her.
Meeting these stereotypes gets even harder when many of the most common ones involve an unavoidable collision with biological reality for workers who, like me, are on hormones. I’m a bit of a prude, but it’s necessary to say this: after ten years on hormones, my genitals are far too small to “top” anyone, and if someone wants to do protected oral on me, they’re going to need a dental dam. This is going to eliminate many clients who’ve imagined trans women as a mushing together of big boobs and a gigantic schlong. Like many trans women, while I get physically aroused, it doesn’t happen nearly as easily as it does for the vast majority of cis men. By which I mean that it is going to require some kind of a competent effort to get there.
This confuses the heck out of many men. I have come to be all too familiar with a sexual move I’ve long described as the “broken lightswitch” to capture the way clients interact with my bits; they look terribly confused as to why they’re utterly failing to arouse anything at all. And yet, the expectation that we will both get aroused and cum on command is an intrinsic part of the fantasy for so many clients. It’s important to note that it isn’t just an “authentic pleasure man” motivation. Rather, it’s that they feel entitled to a physical show on command by virtue of having paid us. The crucial difference here being that unlike cis women, it is simply not possible for us to fake that show. When one points out that these fantasies, for many (but obviously not all!) of us are simply not possible, we’re very often treated with contempt—as if we’re physically defective because our bodies work in the way trans bodies with our hormonal makeup do, merely because that doesn’t match their entitled imagining of what they should work like instead.
These sorts of assumptions about our physical bodies then run into their psychological expectations of trans women: it is incredibly common for clients to see us as intrinsically dominant, hypersexual, and kinky in a kind of “mystical sex goddess who can show me sexual acts I’ve never imagined” way—a way that goes well beyond the things one can realistically show them.
My branding is about as vanilla as it comes. I am very much the GFE, girl-next-door type of worker, and being a very nonthreatening introduction to butt play is about as kinky as I come. Yet clients come with the same invariable assumptions. It is just expected that penetrating men is an act we love and sexually exist for, in complete contrast to the reality that while many of us physically can’t, many more wouldn’t want to. The concept of this last point so utterly bewilders more than a few of my callers that they get confused about how I could be trans and not offer that service. They ask if I’m actually cis instead and suggest that they must’ve read my ad wrong. Eventually, they get so befuddled that one of us gets frustrated and hangs up.
Bookings with the clients who do see me are invariably different than those my cis friends do. The overwhelming majority of my clientele are absolutely terrified of their own attraction to me. I am constantly playing a kind of amateur psychologist role to mollify their fears that being into me means they could be gay. I have to do this even though every time I play this role I’m having to acknowledge that I’m being fiercely misgendered: straight men who see me as a woman don’t experience intense internalized homophobia for being into me, and yet nearly every client does so.
My clients rarely just want company the way they might from a cis worker. For the majority of my clients, trying to make conversation is like getting blood out of a stone. No matter how chatty I am, because they’re so mentally fixated on their own internal sexuality crisis, they don’t respond. I can’t take advance bookings, period, because the no-show rate of men chickening out in the meantime is astronomical. A majority of my long-term regulars will only book me if I can see them within the half-hour, because they have to be seen at the exact moment their trans fantasy emerges, or else they’ll chicken out until next month. For them, seeing me is something to be done at the precise moment they get the urge to do something they’re ashamed of with the person they’re least terrified of doing that with. These clients don’t see me for the much more diverse reasons clients see my cis friends—even when they’re the same clients.
I did a decent doubles booking with a thin, cis woman-friend this week, with a regular client of hers, whom I know she’s done things like get blind drunk and sloppy with on multiple occasions at double my rates. The client was fine, the booking was fine—and he messaged her after to the fact to thank her for the “unique experience.” He told her that he’d wanted to try it, wasn’t quite sure what he wanted out of the experience, but had decided that it wasn’t his thing. Hearing this hit a nerve, even though I must have seen three hundred permutations of him. You can work as hard as you possibly can, but a client who comes in with that mentality won’t be back a lot of the time.
I’ve found that the only way of making sex work a long-term, sustainable option that wouldn’t wear on me psychologically was to try to eke out my own niche focusing on what I plausibly can do. As someone who has spent most of her time in the industry working under survival circumstances, that’s an approach that has cost me, but it’s also the only reason I’ve made it this far. I am lucky, at least, in that working in a legalized state in Australia, I can be up-front with clients about what I physically can’t do, so I manage to filter out some of the interactions about how obviously defective I am for not fulfilling their fantasies. I am not the type of person whom acting dominant comes easily to, and so for the sake of my sanity, I’ve had to try to pitch a purely girlfriend experience type of service.
That has gotten me by, but nowhere near as comfortably as if I was capable of playing to the stereotypes. I’m under no illusion that these compromises haven’t hindered my business significantly, and it is a source of permanent frustration that being unable to play to transmisogynist assumptions that are wildly out of whack with reality costs me so much money. It also hits me hard with regular clients in particular, as although I’ve been working long enough to cultivate a stable of regulars who like me anyway, these unfulfillable expectations are exactly what drives the fetish of many of the regular clients I see despite their unashamed and frequent jonesing for trans women.
Don’t get me wrong: I am under no illusions, and cis people should not be either, that this kind of treatment is in any way specific to sex work for trans women. One of the things that inspired me to get into the industry was briefly dating a guy who turned out to just have a trans fetish. After he refused to be seen with me in public, I felt that if men were going to treat me like this, they should at least pay for the experience. And these clients, as annoying as they can be, treat me better because I’m a sex worker, and can provide them with a context where they can dial down the shame of their attraction for an hour and discreetly get their rocks off before going back to the scorn they usually direct towards us. There are few prohibitionists who make me rage more than those who try to appropriate trans experiences as one of their angles to try to discredit cis activists, taking them on for being “too privileged.”
There isn’t much about trans sex work that could ever said to be empowering besides the money. But one experience I’m incredibly glad to have had working in Australia is working in a trans brothel. I’ve never been around so many trans women so like me, around so many sex workers who instinctively understood everything I’ve gone through because they lived it. Working with those girls was so much fun because it’s so much less isolating when you’re doing it with ten other tough, smart, funny, gorgeous trans women in the same boat. But even here in Australia, we have all of three parlors in the entire country that openly take trans women, and none of them are in my state.
Unfortunately, I rarely hear the sorts of experiences I’ve raised here discussed among sex worker activists, unless other trans women bring them up themselves. I know far more, and far more vocal, assigned-female non-binary people who work as women in the sex worker and sex worker activist communities than I do trans women workers, even though we drastically outnumber them. And I can see why: while I personally love my cis sex worker and cis sex worker activist peers and stay involved in the community, it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the huge under-representation of trans women in the sex worker activist community is because we see so little of our interests represented.
This also visibly emerges in what sex worker-focused organizations and advocacy groups offer trans workers in particular. To use the example of Australia: to my knowledge, we have four individual paid trans peer support workers for a whole continent of 23 million people. When I started in the industry, I think there might have been only one of those workers. There is very little in the way of resources, programs, or anything much at all dedicated to us that isn’t driven by those specific people, or by a handful of great trans activists who’ve dedicated years, largely without compensation, to ensuring that our voices get heard at least somewhere in sex work debates. I feel like we’re too often treated as a footnote even by sex worker peers who fundamentally mean well.
I personally deal with all of the ways in which trans sex work can be uniquely challenging by keeping a ranty blog on Tumblr, but I still constantly wish that there was more in the way of community support and understanding of us as a specific demographic within the community with specific needs. Trans sex workers need more acknowledgment and understanding in the broader sex work community for all the ways in which our work poses unique challenges, what that means for trans sex workers, and how people can help change these dynamics, both socially and institutionally.