My Friend: The PhD Grad and Trans Escort

My research with transgender sex workers recently took an unexpected turn when a trans friend of mine and fellow PhD researcher rang me up out of the blue and said: “Hey do you want to join me in Sydney? I will be spending a week there escorting.”

I was very hesitant.

As an upper-middle-class child with two doctors as parents, I had always thought of sex workers as exploited, often addicted to drugs, and facing violence on a regular basis. Sex work was something one resorted to with no other options left, not something one freely chose to do – especially as a PhD grad.

I was also hesitant as a feminist. Money symbolises and facilitates the many problematic power relations in our society, and the fact that it was almost always women being paid by men to fulfil their sexual fantasies struck me as inherently problematic. Indeed, feminism has a long history of opposition to sex work and the structural inequalities that it makes manifest.

Lastly, I found it profoundly concerning that one of my closest friends would become yet another manifestation of the very phenomenon I was researching: a transgender woman, sought by cisgender, mostly heterosexual men as a specific object of desire – some would say fetish – which centred around the fact that she had a penis.

My research confirmed what my friend had heard from other trans escorts: there is a huge sexual demand for transgender women. Indeed, trans pornography is one of the most sought-after types of porn on the internet; on youporn.com you will find almost as many videos in the ‘trans porn’ category as in ‘lesbian’. Yet, trans people continue to be one of the most marginalised groups in society – they are nearly 11 times more likely to commit suicide in Australia than a member of the general population (35 per cent versus 3.2 per cent to be exact). What’s more, in the last decade, more than one trans or genderqueer person per month has been murdered in the United States alone for their gender expression.

Not surprisingly, I tried to talk my friend out of it, but to no avail. Like many postgraduate students, her graduate scholarship had run out way before she was able to finish her PhD and she needed to find a job to make ends meet. Like many trans people, she also needed money in order to pay for her SRS (sex reassignment surgery), which can cost anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000. There was a lot of money to be made from trans escorting, so she made the informed decision to undertake sex work for a few months in order to pay her bills.

And this is how, a few days later, I found myself in a somewhat mediocre hotel room in Sydney’s Kings Cross reading my gender theory books while my friend was busy on her phone arranging appointments. I sat in on the many phone conversations she had on loudspeaker with potential customers and would listen to their various inquiries – could she kindly wear glasses, no perfume, and high heels; what shape and size was her penis; and did she have time between a client’s two business meetings in the morning?

What I learnt from these conversations was that there was no one customer. Yes, they all sought her out because she was transgender, and yes, they were all men, but that was where the similarities ended. Some only wanted blow jobs, some wanted to penetrate her and displayed zero interest in her genitalia, and some displayed great interest in her genitalia and wanted to give her a blow job or for her to penetrate them. Some wanted to bring their wives or partners along, others wanted to cross-dress, and some only wanted to give her a massage.

“Hi honey, come over already, I’m waiting for you … Nawww thanks darling I can’t wait to see you too …”, she said in a barbie-like voice, which I had never known she was capable of. My friend would often roll her eyes or point the middle finger at the phone whilst saying the sweetest things to customers when convincing them to come over. She also regularly rejected guys, because they would ask for sexual practices she did not do, or because they were creepy, or simply cheapskates. A lot of escorts are in this Whatsapp group where they share numbers and photos of dodgy customers, working together to make sure certain people are avoided. As soon as she hung up, she would look over to me and I would peek over the edge of my book – then our eyes would cross and we would laugh out loud in unison at how outrageous some of interactions were.

It was here for the first time that I began to think about her as empowered in a way that is not often reflected in narratives. It almost seems as if we have been limited to the male narrative, where the agency of the woman goes untold and is unseen because we are not in the room with the sex worker, but rather, on the other end of the phone call where it sounds like a cute barbie begging her customer to come over and grace her with his presence and dick.

Whenever she had a customer ring through the intercom I would take my book and wait in the lobby. As I walked down the stairs I would walk past the customer on his way up; I found my image of the typical customer – just like my image of the typical sex worker ­– was wildly inaccurate. When they tell you about ‘Johns’, you always picture some sort of violent and muscular mob boss covered in tattoos. What they don’t tell you is that most of the guys that seek escorts at 10pm on weeknights actually look much more like your uncle John away from home on a conference.

“Weekends, school holidays and public holidays are bad for business because they have to spend time with the family. Tuesdays are bad too, because they got over the Monday blues … Straight after work, as well as late evenings during the week are the best …”, my friend told me.

It made me stop and think – I used to work as an accountant, participating in the nine-to-five rat race for $29 per hour, and here was my friend who made more in an hour than what I used to make in a day.

On their way out, most of her customers didn’t even look up as they hushed through the hotel lobby and out onto the streets. It reminded me of the seemingly tough trouble-making boys in high school as they stepped out of the headmaster’s office, full of shame after receiving their detentions. I would frequently wait no more than 15 minutes downstairs, even though customers usually paid by the hour, because they almost always orgasmed in less than 10 minutes. There sure was a lot of sexual frustration bottled up in this city, waiting for a quick release. Those few that stayed for the full hour usually just spent the remaining 45 minutes talking to my friend about their worries, which usually revolved around marriage and work. She would easily make between $1,000 – $2,000 a day – in cash of course.

It made me stop and think – I used to work as an accountant, participating in the nine-to-five rat race for $29 per hour, and here was my friend who made more in an hour than what I used to make in a day.

Suddenly I felt like I was the exploited one.

I began to regard the work my friend did as more and more empowering. While I had endured years of being bossed around and spoken down to by sexually frustrated, middle-aged, cisgender men in cramped offices, she would easily extract $300 from the very same guys by whispering into their ears whatever they wanted to hear and making them orgasm in less than 10 minutes. She decided when she wanted to work, how much she wanted to work, what she wanted to charge, and which sexual acts she was willing to perform. Apparently, she even enjoyed sex with some particularly hot customers. And then there was me, who had whispered into my bosses’ ears whatever they wanted to hear for almost half a decade and got $29 an hour for it.

Victimising a diverse group of people shows us more about our own prejudices and privileges than it does about lived experiences.

I seek to tell sex workers’ stories as part of a long feminist tradition of retelling women’s individual stories and acknowledging their views and feelings as legitimate experiences on their own. After getting a glimpse at my friend’s lived experience, I not only understand her choice now, but I also deeply respect it. I respect her boldness to say: “Yes, I know I could work in hospitality, stand on my feet all day, and be yelled at non-stop for less than minimum wage, but instead, I am making the conscious, rational, economic decision to do sex work.”

I respect it, because unlike myself, my friend does not have the privilege of her parents as a financial safety net once the graduate scholarship runs out. Trans people in particular are all too often left without any family support, having to deal with a variety of intersectional disadvantages – from no Medicare funding for hormone therapy and crucial surgeries, to not being able to find a partner willing to look at our bodies. I respect my friend in particular, because as a trans sex worker she is making money with the one thing that holds trans people back in so many other situations: our bodies.

Anthropology teaches us to pay attention to the lived experiences of those whom we write about. When it comes to sex work, many feminist theoreticians have unfortunately neglected the individual stories of sex workers, whose lived experiences did not fit their argument and grand narrative. Many jobs come with risks – whether you work on an oil rig or as a paramedic – and sex work is no different in this respect. Nobody is going to sugar-coat that. However, while we must act to prevent and address exploitation and abuse with sensible and de-stigmatising policy, we also need to acknowledge that a great deal of sex workers – especially in a rich country like Australia – are like you and I. Sex work often involves your uncle John and your suburban housewife Morgana.

Having spent time with my friend I can only reiterate and support what many intersectional, contemporary, sex-positive feminists have already pointed out about sex work: being against sex work is profoundly anti-feminist. After all, feminism is about enabling women to take full control of our own bodies and to use them in whichever way we desire. Victimising a diverse group of people shows us more about our own prejudices and privileges than it does about lived experiences. As for my friend, she is now back to working on her thesis, without the constant financial woes and with enough money to pay for her SRS.