As a trans woman 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.
In the interest of completeness:
Yes, there are trans women sex workers out there with aftermarket lady parts, and we still face the same transmisogyny. Instead of dealing with transmisogyny in our faces, we turn every trick knowing that, if he finds out about our medical histories, there’s a good chance we’ll be murdered. We dilate right before any booking to just be extra sure. We squirm and deflect when clients want to go down on us and poke and prod at down there, trusting the surgical result and hoping he’s not familiar with the tell-tale signs of cyborg pussy. We have to worry about gossip, because hobbyists and the disgusting hookers who suck up to them are more than happy to spread rumors that might just get us killed. We can’t speak, because more awareness means a greater probability of being found out, and of course, we’re liable to get tarred and feathered by activists for being seen as ‘cis’.
Of course, then again, there’s nothing like laughing your head off in a Starbucks at 2am after spending a long evening with a client involving a conversation where he babbled about how, “Sometimes, you really can’t tell!” in reference to Thai trans women workers. I’m looking forward to outing myself upon retirement so every single past client is forced to have a nice little sexuality crisis.
I know drawing attention to your work is probably the last thing you want to do, but I’d love to read a Tits and Sass piece specifically about your experience. I run into a lot of trans women civilians who have a lot of clueless ideas about post-op trans sex work and don’t imagine that it might involve any of the things you mentioned, and I think an explanation of what it is really like might be a useful resource to have out there for a whole bunch of reasons.
Men are scum. Period. End of story. They are just scum, and chickenshits.
All of this and more, sister. Coming at it from the other direction, where I can be the top they want, I just can’t begin describing the ways it fucks with my ability to be a decent partner to those i truly love outside the job, how much it takes out of me, and how impossible it is to chase a “chasers” constantly moving fantasy goalposts just to live. It’s like a Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Moneyshot or some shit, where you can’t know your position relative to the intensity of their own shame or the unpredictable functionality of our own body in any given day or even hour.
I think I want to quote “Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Moneyshot” for the rest of time because that it is just the best description of that phenomenon I have ever read in my life.
This was very interesting to read and I very much appreciate your perspective. As non-binary person though I am just wondering why you spoke about your non-binary coworkers the way you did. It makes it sound as though they aren’t trans too? Or were you going for something else there, like just separating out the different categories (non-binary vs. binary trans woman)? No hostility, I am just honestly curious. A lot of stuff makes it sound like we’re not trans but I am trans as anyone so I am never quite sure what is meant!
I mentioned “non-binary” once in this essay: in regard to AFAB non-binary workers who can and do work as women, and so experience basically none of anything I wrote about this essay. (I didn’t mention this here because it wasn’t the point I was making, but they are also not barred from most other forms of sex work, as we are.) Their conflation of their experience (because there are a LOT of them in sex worker spaces) with this experience is one of the reasons I wrote this essay, because reactions just like this marginalise us and I needed cis people all the aspects of working as a trans sex worker that have absolutely nothing to do with identity politics on our end.
AMAB non-binary workers (who are likely to work as “trans” and experience all of this) are an absolutely different story and consist of a significant number of the brothel workers I’ve worked with over the years.
I appreciate the reply, thank you.
I am an AFAB enby femme and I am engaged to a binary trans femme woman. Yes, we’re both trans, but our experiences of femininity and the ways we are read and treated by others (cis and trans alike) are very very different. The author’s separation of those experiences of sex work is important. It’s not divisive to talk about diverse experiences of oppression, or to acknowledge that the ways others choose to read us have significant impacts on our safety and sometimes our lives.
Than you so much for sharing, Sarah!
I feel so many of these problems… as a Trans woman, but also as someone who was homeless not even two months ago, it has been impossible for me to break into sex work. The few times I’ve met clients, it tended to be spur of the moment, and I had some form of stable housing to bring people home to (usually someone else’s house when they aren’t around). I have never had someone who would “wait” for me. I’ve had guys that I could talk to for hours straight, but when it comes time to get on the bus, they inevitably disappear during the trip. Reading that this is your experience as well… tbh, the first thing I thought was “What if you ride public transit? What if it takes more than 30 minutes to get there?” And of course I know the answer to that – I stayed homeless.
Thank you! – and god, you have all of my sympathies.
I think you make a really important point that ties in with everything I said heavily. I am just coming out of the other side of an extended period of things being really, really dire financially, and while keeping an incall-suitable roof over my head has been the cause of intense stress for a really long time, it’s something I have managed to do so far. I basically knew then that I’d be especially screwed if I lost it, but it’s another thing to hear you articulate exactly how this can play out in that situation. That’s another perspective I’d be really interested to hear in longer form.
Jesus I’m fucking glad to be out of that. I’ve had a roof I can have people over to, and already have had people over, so I’m working fucking miracles compared to where I was.
Honestly I wasn’t willing to call myself a sex worker until I read this, because of internalize bullshit transmisogyny and classism. And once I did I immediately understood that it is the time I’ve put into this that matters, and that the money I’ve made is a reflection of the general size of the pool that’s available to us.
I wish I had the spoons to write anything, work on my poetry or an essay, something. I don’t :/ And until society or my friends get their shit together and support me so I can do stuff like that, I won’t. Life.
Jesus. So much every word of this. As a trans woman who also often finds herself in the kink niche, it often feels like trying to get blood out of a black hole.
Especially when so few have let themselves experience any sort of involvement with the public kink community.
Couple that with not being physically able to recieve anal, and the bits issues you talked about, and holy fuck are people confused.
Thank you so fucking much for writing this and helping me not feel so alone. So often I feel like there is (at least in my own personal experience) a stigma where we don’t really talk about these things with each other as trans sex workers. Perhaps that is due to the illegality of sex work here in the US.
Anywho, you fucking rock.
Thank you! I just wanted to say: I think that last point applies everywhere, actually: trans brothel work was a wonderful exception to this (and god I miss those girls because of it) but I basically never get to talk about this stuff with other trans workers any other time. I don’t know why there aren’t but I would really really love to see some digital spaces for that kind of thing exist. I kinda wrote this because I wanted to be able to articulate to the cis workers around me these aspects of my working life, but it’s so much better to do it with people who live it.
Thank you. This is really important. And was likely hard to write – so thank you so much for your courage of sharing so much with readers.
And for me, this post highlights a difference between levels of engagement as allies: Between passively absorbing information where available and actively seeking understanding and ways to make a difference. One of my take-away is that the latter has been missing, with some very tangible consequences for trans sex workers.
Thanks to everyone who has responded! I really appreciate the feedback (and would love any more, too).
Thanks so much for writing this Sarah!
I was a full-service escort in the states for a few years and it’s fascinating to see where my experiences collide with your and where they diverge. It’s a reminder that, despite the public seeing trans escorts as a singular type, there’s as much variety as any other class of sex workers. And I couldn’t agree more that we’re in need of much more communication and solidarity among us. I was surprised how few of us were active in online discussions.
Thanks for sharing your story!
[…] The tedium of trans sex work. […]
[…] them. They are erasing the fact that trans women working as sex workers face much more coercive and mentally draining and sometimes violent conditions than CIS women tend to, and that trans women of color face […]
Thanks So Much.
I’m about to start working Full-Time & your article was helpful & made me smile .
Trying to find employment in an establishment seems difficult, I had a really horrible manager tell me quite rudely ‘We don’t employ men’ .
I’ve had an offer of what seems like an ok place , so hopefully it doesn’t fall through in the next week.
The idea of being seen as a fetish is something I’m becoming used to, I feel it’s to be expected, even dating (Does it exist) seems to be about my Genitalla, I asked a guy why he’s so keen on dating an MTF, His reply ‘Well it’s like being with a Real Girl, but without the hassle’, so the chance of serious relationships, or parter, well I think a Buck Angel movie is better company!
As for being a Top, I think I’m all Androcured ! & a search party will be needed , but I’m attempting Cialis & hope it gets me through.
I have wondered about peer support, I’ve had some good advice from a local Sex Worker Support Service , I find the Trans Community generally quite misinformed about Sex Work & some blame Trans Sex Workers for societies opinions etc. anyway I gave up on Trans Support Groups quite early on in my Transition & realise I’m on My own.
I think it would be great if there was a Trans Sex Worker support group .
I’m hoping that Sex Work will be an improvement on past minimum wage jobs with constant discrimination.
Thanks again for your great article, I really appreciate your honesty.
I enjoyed your article. I know little about sex work, or trans issues, so I learned while being entertained and pleased by your writing. You wrote so clearly and descriptively.
(and the Heisenberg Uncertainty Moneyshot is a great band name as well as a fantastic description of what you were writing about!)
[…] Sarah – The Tedium of Trans Sex Work […]
I really loved the article and it resonated strongly with me, I’ve only been on HRT for just under a year and only been doing sw for a few months. I hate it when men expect me to be able to top them even though no where in my ads do I state that I am versatile, I hate the expectation that I should be really attracted to men infact I prefer women. I’ve recently experienced rape and every time I go to work I expect it to happen because I live and work in SA where the clients know its illegal and workers are afraid to go to the cops because they fear arrest.
[…] are many transfeminine people in the industry, with many experiences, including of navigating transmisogyny in the industry. There are many nonbinary people interacting with the industry in lots of different ways. […]
A very interesting and detailed account of what it’s like as a Trans sex worker dealing with clients that haven’t a clue as to the why, they are attracted to or indeed the what to expect when, underpinned by their assumptions of, when getting it together with a Trans worker! Then aside from what the ‘John’ is looking for (whatever that may be) there’s the frustration of no shows “car unexplisitly is not working”, “I’ve been called back to work”, “I’ve just been involved in a car accident”, ” the tire/s on my car just blew out” and of course that’s just the excuses from the nice ones the others (???) then of course the phone dialogues “I want’a …. And then…. And when I cum over you I want’a….” And yes well you know all the fantasies expressed but hardly ever transpire in our presence! Sarah your so right if we haven’t acquired a psychology degree when starting to work it dosent take long to aquire though not recognized as such.
As much as services for Trans sex workers are concerned Australia as for I suspect the majority of countries and states in this world of ours are very thin on the ground! There are pockets though around the place but to be absolutely honest we can be our own worst enemy’s in as much as try to organise a get together of Trans workers! Irrespective of ethnicity set a date and time and a safe comfortable place to meet 0 attendance I have ask myself why? Cattiness? An insecurity? Are worried at meeting their competition?
It’s a bit of a wonder to me perhaps it’s just the prospect of loss of income? The upshot though is without solidarity the expectation of cis worker organizations taking more than just a novel approach to our conserns and needs just won’t happen.
I totally agree that we need some type of National Trans Sex Worker Asscoiation or even just a small get together a for local Girls.
I’m really pleased that there is a Trans Advocate in the city I live & she’s wonderful. but I’m finding it a quite isolating form of employment, while Cis-Gendered W/L are usually pretty cool, there’s issues & experiences specific to Us & peer support, well forget about the Mainstream Transgender/Transsexual Community as it’s quite obvious we’re simply an embarrassment to them.
[…] The Tedium of Trans Sex Work by Sarah In a wryly funny and insightful piece, Sarah tells us about the extra heaping of objectification that comes with being a sex working trans woman: “[Clients] 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.” […]
if I knew when I started when i was 18 it would have a made a major difference ,from having to lick assholes to have to play with there assholes eaten the asshole the degrading that comes from this career.I have seen a lot of things ,i have been thru a lot ,there is a lot clients that make go you do not want sex ,you want to degrading,control to them trying to make me the victim from getting rob to getting blackmail ,the way the pound u like a jake hammer and they thinks its sexy no ,i have made i lot of friends i never went without ,if i need money i could ask my regulars ,But i seen and have experience with this ,now i will be retired ..i even tried to get the girls in my state to get a union to stop this madness that comes from job
[…] (2016) “The Tedium of Trans Sex Work” Tits & […]
[…] (2016) “The Tedium of Trans Sex Work” Tits & […]