My Work: Sex Work
*Content warning: sexual violence, police violence*
I walked out of the bathroom and put my clothes back on. My arms and body chafed from the ropes he tied me with, and I was bit worried someone would see the marks when I walked outside. I’d never done bondage before, but I was willing to if—
“Here’s a small gift.” He placed the $200 in my hands and hastily walked off. At last, my first payment.
Sex work was nothing new to me, but I had only started doing it until last summer.
For over a year I wrestled with the idea. Where do I go? A bathhouse? K Street? 14th Street? A gay bar? Craigslist? Seeking Arrangement? I knew the strolls, I knew the locations. The real question was “So when then?”
I may do my work as a “man,” but I do it because I am transgender. Transition is expensive. There was no way I could pay for the therapy or medical treatments, but I didn’t even have enough to buy makeup or my next outfit. Sex work guaranteed a quick buck.
But why sex work? Because that’s trans women and femmes of color do. That’s how we make our living and survive in a transmisogynist racist world. That’s how we shape and mold our bodies. That’s how we realize our true selves.
I peered into the cars lining K Street. The light from their phones exposed their hungry faces – but not for “men” like me.
During the act, I hated it when they stared at me. Holding my head in their hands, mouth agape, their eyes would fill with lust – or was it envy? – as their hands slid down my bare back. Always hungry they were, for young flesh like mine.
Returning their gaze, my eyes gleamed back with fascination, wonder, pleasure, innocence. I wonder if they ever saw through my performance.
Though having almost no sexual experience before this point, sex work allowed me the space to grow into my sexuality.
As someone gendered as male and racialized as Asian-American, I was told I was undesirable, unsexy, unloveable. My scrawny boyish body didn’t help much either. How could I ever attract people, let alone get clients to pay for me?
Adding in queerness makes it even more complicated. Not only are white gay males much more overt with their racism (the infamous “No fats, no femmes, no Blacks, no Asians” of Grindr), but fetishization is a huge problem as well. Take the “rice queen”: an older (white) man with a fetish for submissive, small, smooth Asian boys.
Needless to say, all these factors deterred me from ever trying to explore myself sexually. I felt caught between this double-bind of “undesirable” and “fetishized.”
But I had to make money somehow. And whether or not I had the sexual experience, this is what I had to do to get where I wanted to be.
So I went after the rice queens. And I’d be their “submissive Asian boy” if they wanted/paid me to.
“I can't pay you. If I did that, I'd feel like I was exploiting you. Like an escort.”
You’re exploiting me by NOT paying me, I thought, holding in my anger. I’d been seeing him for several weeks now. He had offered an allowance to me, but would start paying only after we established trust. Yet now, a month later, he violated that promise.
That day I decided to stop trying to sugar. It was easier to just be an escort instead – paid by the hour for my time, instead of waiting for “gifts” from a sugar daddy. Sugaring may have a higher payoff, but gosh, it took so much more emotional labor.
Sex work has taught me a lot. I've learned how to own my body and my sexuality. I've learned how to charm and seduce (I mean, truthfully, white men are SUCH easy targets).
If someone wants to fetishize me, then I know how to turn that to my advantage. If someone wants me to submit, then I will do so, but the power still lies with me in the end.
Sex work is empowering, but it is also frightening. I fear violence and rape each time I go out. I fear getting infected if a client refuses to use protection. I fear the police. But those are risks you have to take for engaging in a job that is criminalized – where the criminal act is you selling sex rather than a client assaulting you. There's no one but yourself to protect you.
In the end, sex work is as complex as any other form of labor out there. No two office jobs are ever the same. No two domestic workers’ experiences are the same. No two sex workers’ experiences are the same. To some it may be degrading, to others it may be the best job they've ever had. Some may do it to supplement income, others because it's the only way they can get a bed for the night.
I am lucky to have had a positive experience overall, though I understand the tremendous privileges I hold as well – as a male-passing, light-skinned, stably-housed university student. However, through my academic studies and my activist work in DC, I choose to leverage that privilege and commit myself toward creating a better future for sex workers everywhere.
Sex worker justice is trans justice. It is racial justice. It is economic justice. It is reproductive justice. It shouldn't be a surprise that one of the most marginalized and underserved populations in DC are Black trans street-based sex workers.
The liberation of sex workers is the sexual liberation we need to work toward.
Note: At the request of the author, H*yas for Choice has published this post anonymously to protect their identity. H*yas for Choice supports DC efforts to decriminalize all forms of consensual sex work and affirms the rights of sex workers to institutional protections, health care, and other benefits associated with labor rights. Upholding sex workers' rights is central to the mission of reproductive justice, which is to secure the agency of the most marginalized.