Welcome back to MTF & DTF, a sex, love, and dating column in which Sessi Kuwabara Blanchard chronicles the amorous goings-on that most fascinate her (particularly, her own).
In some nooks of the internet, I’m Valerie. She made her debut four months before I graduated college, when I started camming, selling risqué 10-second video clips, and meeting up with guys for paid sex. Valerie was born from a fairly common woe among those about to swipe a diploma: All my job applications had been swallowed into Human Resources purgatory. Plus, I was nervous that my transness was scaring away employers, even though my qualifications were all there. On cam or with a john, that wasn’t a problem. As a woman with a college education, stable housing, and other advantages, I had social and economic privilege that have been systematically hoarded away from others, particularly Black and brown trans women. Still, it was in sex work that I found a reliable source of income.
Anyone who has ever spent time around the girls doesn’t need a survey to confirm the near-ubiquity of sex work for us, but the largest national trans-specific survey ever conducted did find that one in eight trans women have done sex work as a source of income, and one in five have done it for food or a place to sleep. Understanding that sex work is the mode of survival for so many women, I was blindsided by the intimacy I found in it, too—sexual, romantic, and all the other kinds endemic to being vulnerable with another person.
I’d just ended a multi-year monogamous relationship which was initiated on the eve of my transition. I was never able to get over the fear that my boyfriend still saw me the way he originally had: as a boy. I longed for—even fetishized—the gaze and affection of straight men, which my ex couldn’t offer me. After we broke up, I was overwhelmed. I had never dated while trans, and Valerie was the wing girl I didn’t know how to ask for. Sex work seemed like the easiest way into dating straight men because it was the pretense under which guys were approaching me.
Just take this moment from last autumn: It was a Monday, early enough that flaky mucus was still lodged in my tear ducts. En route to my gift-shop cashier gig, I was comfy in a depression-by-Hanes sweatshirt, high-waisted postmenopausal jeans, and men’s size 12 sneakers. While I waited on my liter of Dunkin Donuts coffee, a guy approached me.
“Hey, baby, wanna get out of here? How much?”
These men chat me up anywhere and everywhere: the sidewalk; the subway stop; the gift shop job. I have learned to do the emotional calculation, as they walk up to me, that most are not potential dates, but potential johns. And yet. Every time a guy starts talking to me, the encounter hums with the possibility that he is flirting for free; that the only thing he is down to pay for is dinner.
In my actual love life, sex work also plays a role. I swiped right on Josh, as we’ll refer to him for his privacy, last March while visiting my hometown, where he was born, raised, and still lived. Josh was cute, funny, and taller than me—a rarity. We vibed, cracking jokes about all our incongruencies and similarities: His sister is a feminist; I’m supposed to be one. He fantasizes about playing in the NBA; strangers ask if I shoot for the WNBA. He had been homecoming king at his high school; so had I.
Still, I was getting sweaty—my invitation to waste an afternoon at TJ Maxx hadn’t quite landed. Josh had never met, much less fucked, a trans woman, so I wagered that the opportunity to live out a shemale fantasy would seal the deal and invited him onto my cam show, scheduled for later that night at my parent’s house. (I know: Shame on me.)
Josh troubleshot the glitching web camera. He made the bed. He even complimented my Target bralette. Chivalry is not dead! Things got hot and heavy on-screen—a sensible butt slap here, a generous groping of my B-cups there. But leave it to neoliberal corporate risk management to kill the vibe. Chaturbate facial recognition software booted us for not verifying Josh’s age, and the action died.
We had been having a pleasant time together—it’s not every day that two ex-homecoming kings can hook up and have it not be gay. “So, do you want to keep hanging out? Maybe watch Shrek 2?” I asked.
He gulped. “Hmm. Maybe. Well…I think I should go.” He did, then proceeded to block my number.
My theory: When the sexy-trans-camgirl bubble burst, so did his interest. Or maybe the idea of a sex work–involved scenario safeguarded his ego from the hypothetical possibility that he was into a girl like me. “People are somewhat better, historically, at fetish-fucking trans folx than dating them,” the former feminist philosophy academic Fiona Maeve Geist, who co-authored a Transgender Studies Quarterly article about the conflation of the categories “trans women” and “sex workers,” wrote to me.
As Diana Tourjée has reported for VICE, straight guys often stumble across their trans desire by way of porn, looking for babes, but coming for cock. The uncertainty of the attraction— Am I a fag?—makes it a desire best left to DMs or DL encounters for many guys. In a way, the state-imposed illicit, hush-hush character of sex work is perfect for accommodating boners plagued by shame. Disappointingly, it makes sense, in a way, that guys enthralled, or neutrally submissive to, the norms of patriarchy would look for intimacy with us in sex work, too.
“I’m going to state why most transgender girls prostitute. It’s not because they really want to, it was just a means of support,” reported a San Francisco trans woman of color participating in an early-2000s study on the community’s attitudes towards selling sex. “It was easier going out than dealing with society, it was easier than going out looking for a job and getting fired, and I was my own boss.”
Beyond a means to survive, sex work has also become a cultural and social norm for trans women. “I was 13 years old when I put my first dress on,” recounted another participant. “The first thing that came to my mind was working the streets, ‘cause the rest of the girls were out there working the streets, so I started working the streets.”
Combing through this research, I have yet to see a rigorous undertaking of something Geist reminded me of: “Trans women don’t really talk about sexual isolation. They talk about emotional isolation.” Sex work done by trans women is generalized as a survival mechanism–which it often is. But the idea of finding sexual and romantic intimacy in the sex trade, when it is a necessary part of life for so many people, has been obscured by sociological and public health research. So how do trans women actually feel about their johns?
I spoke to many women for this story, and, like me, the ones I was able to interview at length were stably housed. Though some of us are nonwhite, the women quoted here are not Black or brown. That proves limiting when Black women have the highest rate (42 percent) of income-based sex work in comparison to other trans women, and half of Indigenous women report doing street-based sex work, which is considered to be the riskiest type. Three Black women I corresponded with declined my request for an interview, citing their busy and precarious lives. Seventy-seven percent of transgender women who have done sex work have experienced intimate partner violence, and all violence against transgender people disproportionately affects Black women. Intimacy of any kind for transgender sex workers is conditional, and for some more so than others.
“Guys that pay me–I end up catching feelings,” Noelle (not her real name), a 20something trans woman who relied on sex work to survive while houseless in New York City, sighed over the phone. “I’m not sure how much [of that intimacy] is shared, or is projected,” Noelle said. “That’s something I have to check myself on. If I don’t have a good sense of boundaries–which I don’t–sex work isn’t great for me.”
“Sex work is like Yellowstone," Noelle said. "It’s great: There’s hotsprings, there are bears. But, if you’re missing a compass, maybe you shouldn’t be in a wildlife park.”
Noelle believes trans girls doing sex work should account for their emotional safety, too: Boundaries can protect some women’s emotional vulnerabilities and make it easier to delineate romantic intimacy and the work itself.
It can be harder to maintain boundaries if you really like a guy. A 25-year-old Queens woman whose clients call her Chloe told me on the phone that she has found a glimmer of this in her work. Recently, a total Upper West Side daddy-type named AJ “talked like a real New Yorker,” Chloe said, and “I was into him immediately.” Chloe enjoyed her time with AJ. “It felt like a boyfriend-y thing. We were watching TV. He had his arm around me.” She also broke a personal boundary and topped him, her first time ever doing that with a guy. For her, like me, topping was riddled with vulnerability, but his kindness made it sweet. As she headed home, she thought, Oh, this is kind of nice. Things went downhill the next time she saw him, though, when he wanted her to top him again, and she was overcome by dysphoria.
Am I wrong to think that intimacy is possible in sex work? The girls I interviewed have yet to find it, at least in a way that continued to feel good in a sustained way, in the context of sex work. After talking with johns, it’s clear that some do want intimacy from girls, sex-working or not. While being in the same living space as his girlfriend when she was seeing clients, one I spoke to, whom I'll call Wesley, said, “Over 50 percent of the time, [the session] was conversational. I’m sure the guys were intrigued. Maybe about dating her.”
Wesley and I agreed that some trans women have a hard time trusting that men are genuinely into them as humans, and not solely sex objects, which is also reflected Tourjée’s article about transamorous men referenced earlier. “I know that some trans women see it as an accomplishment if a guy they are with has never been with a trans woman,” Wesley says. “Since trans women come across so many chasers, they feel like they’ve already figured you out.”
I broke up with my boyfriend because I thought I’d figured him out. He was gay, and could therefore never fully see me as a woman, my logic went. But the affirmation I lusted after was never pure enough, a way of thinking Wesley bemoans: “If I’m trying to get to know a trans woman, I’m penalized for having been with a trans woman.”
I’m not saying that sex-working women have low self-esteem, or something. I’m saying that the situation of sex work—whether for survival or not—provides artificial terms to work through an already uneasy pursuit. Sex work was a way to pick up cash, while also being with men—God, I love men—who otherwise wouldn’t stick around. That’s the tension. Sex work, whether or not I am doing it, is embedded in how I think about my sexuality and how I even can think about being close with men. That doesn’t mean that catching a crush—or falling in love—is utterly circumscribed by selling sex. But it is a vehicle I travel in to get where I need to go.
I don’t think that’s such a bad thing, an understanding I arrived at while watching Tangerine, a 2015 drama capturing a day in the life of two sex-working trans Angelenos, Alexandra and Sin-Dee Rella. Amidst the chaos of Sin-Dee hunting down a cheating lover, Alexandra steals a moment of relief with Razmik, a married taxi driver who is one of her favorite regular johns.
“I’ve got some money for you,” Razmik reassures an exhausted Alexandra, who has just been stiffed by another client. In Razmik’s cab, they pull into a drive-through car wash, where he pays to perform fellatio on her. The transaction seems run-of-the-mill, if embellished by friendly affection. But the film flipped my expectations when, instead of seeing the moment when he pays her, Alexandra hands Razmik a Christmas gift, a tangerine-shaped car air freshener.
I treasure Alexandra and Razmik’s relationship because it eludes categorization, neither clearly transactional nor romantic. Alexandra gets money and a listening ear, while Razmik finds respite from the stress of providing for his family and his unhappy marriage. (Both, arguably, get sexual pleasure.) The air freshener signifies the unexpected intimacy in often alienating circumstances.
My point with all of this is not to dilute the vital conversation around sex work among those struggling to consistently feed themselves or find a couch to crash on. Rather, the fight to decriminalize and legitimize sex work as labor—strenuous, demanding, and undercompensated, to be exact—requires that we recognize it, as a central part of many women's experiences, is so many other things, too; a context in which women are surviving—and living.