I’m here to tell you that trans sex workers are in fact unrecognized therapists for some of the most powerful people in the world.
By xoài phạm
I was in a beautiful room at the W Hotel drinking a glass of wine with a tall, white man who was sporting a navy blue suit and a neatly trimmed beard. He looked at me with soft brown eyes. Outside, families of tourists roamed the Manhattan sidewalks, the streets painted with yellow cabs.
We sipped on wine and gently flirted. He was shyer than most of them. Things got intimate, and before I knew it, I had fallen asleep in his arms. When I awoke, I found him gazing at me, his chin nestled on my belly. I apologized for dozing off. Thankfully, he found it adorable. I felt safe and warm, a feeling unfamiliar to me as a gender-nonconforming person.
It was 2016. I was young, broke, and desperate for both intimacy and income. I was working in a sex shop because there were few spaces I could work without being harassed. While there were still customers who would make sexual comments, I at least had trans co-workers to turn to. Many trans people are shut out of employment opportunities through outright discrimination or hostile environments that leave us with limited options for income.
When a friend offered to mentor me in securing money by providing companionship to men, I wasn’t opposed. And I was surprised to learn that the sex industry isn’t what it seems. We have polar opposite representations of sex work in the media. We are either living glamorous lives or enduring the most suffering. While those representations are not inaccurate, there is a whole spectrum of experiences left out.
I found as a trans sex worker that some of my clients treated me better than most people had. That they affirmed my gender expression and made me feel valued because of my trans identity, rather than in spite of my trans identity. At this point in my transition, it felt like I was at war with the world. Every block I walked down felt like an opportunity for someone to harass me. Every time I sat on the subway, I felt heavy stares and people recording me without my permission—likely to laugh about me on social media.
What I needed was some peace. A moment of stillness. I didn’t expect to find it in bedrooms with strangers.
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While the world told me there was something sick about me, these men made me feel beautiful, desirable and sought after. I know this is not the experience of every trans sex worker. I know that many of our clients are awful people. But as with any group of people, there are awful clients and wonderful clients. I want people to see both sex workers and our clients as complex human beings.
I had one client who ultimately fell in love with me, leading him to have to cut off our relationship because I didn’t love him back. I had another who liked to show off the high-tech features of his Tesla and pictures of his two gorgeous children.
Like me, these men had families, communities, dreams, hopes, and fears. Like me, they took the risk of being vulnerable and seeking out intimacy.
I realized that we have more in common than I thought. Here I was, a brown-skinned child of Vietnamese refugees, wearing purple lipstick and a resting bitch face. And them: jovial middle-aged white men making at least six figures, running private equity firms and lucrative agencies. I saw in their eyes that they just longed for love, compassion, and sweetness. They had something that they needed me to take care of, just as I needed them for financial support.
My transness was something they craved because it reflected them, even though they weren’t trans. I showed them a more expanded version of humanity, not limited by gender norms, that they longed for. I gave them a taste of the freedom they’d have in a world that honored the vastness of the human experience. I represented the courage that they wish they had. I gave them the pleasure of feeling ease and the safety to desire whatever they wanted without shame.
Our connection defined by safety and tenderness is something I consider futuristic. It’s how I hope our relationships feel in the future, ideally without the need for secrecy. The fact that white men had to hide their desire for me and could only have experiences of self-discovery behind closed doors is a sign that white supremacy and patriarchy hurts them, too—even while they benefit immensely from those systems of domination.
Part of what trans people offer the world is a glimpse of what humanity would look like without the prescribed definitions of man/woman/human. In fact, trans people have always been that for the world, because we’ve existed since the beginning of humanity before the word “trans” even existed.
When people keep trans people in the margins of society and consider sex workers a menace to their neighborhoods, they’re not just hurting us—they’re hurting themselves, too. They’re reinforcing a world of harm.
In order to decriminalize sex work—which is the solution that sex workers have called for to reduce violence from both governments and civilians—we have to also shift cultural understandings of both transness and sex work. Changing policies is important only when we can trust that they will be enforced. The reason why so many trans sex workers are arrested just for “walking while trans” is because our culture believes that trans people do not belong, that we are a stain.
I’m here to tell you that trans sex workers are in fact unrecognized therapists for some of the most powerful people in the world. That we provide the space for human beings to release trauma and transform through intimacy. Our existence challenges the world to move forward into a world that honors each of our complexities. And whether or not our magic helps heal people, we deserve every opportunity to blossom with safety and joy. It’s time our stories are told so we can bring that sense of freedom outside private bedrooms so all of us have the opportunity to understand ourselves and each other.
xoài phạm is a Vietnamese trans person who has a complicated relationship with womanhood. She’s currently the digital media queen at Transgender Law Center. She comes from a long legacy of warriors, healers, fishers and swimmers. Her family arrived in California as refugees after the United States destroyed Southeast Asian land and communities. She is a writer, thinker, and collaborative educator on issues of gender, imperialism, sex work, and intimacy. Above all, she enjoys eating fruits on the beach with her loved ones.