What My Finances Look Like As A Trans Sex Worker Of Color
At 18, I started my first semester of university. Before I turned 19, I started doing sex work to help me pay for school. The decision wasn’t easy, but I knew I needed the money. What I didn’t realize was how this move to join the sex work industry would continue to impact the way I understand and approach my financial decisions five years later.
From my experience, finances for sex workers can be a lot more complex than for civilians (referring, in this case, to those who don’t do sex work). Taxes are more complicated, getting approved for loans is more complicated, and finding stable housing is more complicated. And the biggest cause of these struggles is the stigma associated with sex work — it has historically been delegitimized as a valid form of labor and income generation. People think that sex workers all have pimps, and that we make thousands per trick as we tear through cities having uninhibited and unprotected sex with married men or strangers we find in back alleys. These erroneous notions lead to cultural and institutional misunderstandings of sex work and the people who do it. I know that I can’t speak for everyone, but here’s what my finances are like as a transmasculine sex worker of color.
When it comes to my basic living expenses, I’m lucky enough to live at home with my parents, who don’t charge me rent. Instead, I give them $200 a month to help cover costs like food. We don’t live close to the city, which means I’m far from both school and the office of my non-sex-work job. I don’t drive, let alone own a car or even having a driver’s license. Every morning, I take an almost 2-hour commute downtown, and then I repeat it every evening. Not living in the city means I’m saving thousands on rent per year, but I do end up paying for a train pass that costs me almost $100 more a month than my friends who just need a bus pass for the city.
All of this is to say that, while I know I’m fortunate enough to not have a lot of the major expenses that many other young 24-year-olds have, I have my own unique financial challenges. When I was saving up to get top surgery (a surgery to “masculinize” my chest through a double mastectomy), I not only needed to save up enough money to potentially pay for the surgery in full if my government denied my request to cover it — I also needed to save up enough money to stop working for a few months. Saving up in the year prior to my surgery was a nightmare, I was working full time, sometimes even 60-hour weeks, closing up at the bar I worked at 3 AM on a school night. I couldn’t go part-time to school because it would only make my school fees more expensive, since part-time students need to pay more per credit than full-time students in the long run. I had to stick to my full-time course-load and still try to get the best grades possible to keep me eligible for scholarships and bursaries.
Sex work has ended up playing a big role in helping me meet my savings goals even though I don’t work a lot, and even though I probably haven’t been charging nearly enough. Had I been able to speak to others who do the same kind of sex work as me, I would have realized a lot sooner that I had been severely undervaluing myself. This was a hard pill to swallow and left me thinking that I had missed opportunities for literally thousands more in income. Before the pandemic, I would go online and respond to ads, then post a few of my own to get the ball rolling. Nothing too sophisticated compared to the systems I saw others online using where they clearly had the perfect ad writing skills with enviable SEO comprehension, professional photos, their own websites, and 5-star reviews. Compared to them, my methods for getting clients feel archaic and limited. As a student, I’ll sneak off right before or after classes and I sometimes need to take any jobs I can get. Unfortunately, this means that sometimes I need to accept clients who don’t feel safe.
As a trans person of color, I also know that I’m at a higher risk of exploitation and violence. In some ways, I think my position as a student has provided me with a certain level of security. Clients can tell I’m clearly a student, thanks to the enormous backpack I always carry with me that holds all my books and notes. They know that people will notice if I’m not in class — I can’t go missing so easily. I constantly find myself accepting clients I don’t feel safe with, who set off red flags, and who make me uncomfortable with their requests. It’s not easy for me to find clients because of both my race and gender, so I end up saying “yes” to any client who is willing to pay me. Even the prices I charge are impacted by my identity. Demand for transmasculine people of color in sex work isn’t as established compared to the spaces traditionally occupied by white cisgender women, for example. This means that I can’t charge as much as others both amongst fellow trans but white sex workers, nor spaces with non-white but cisgender sex workers.
Now with the COVID-19 pandemic, my finances have been even more complicated. The summer is typically the busiest time of the year for me, and I rely immensely on the tourists that come to my outwardly progressive city. But I’ve been forced to stop working as an in-person sex worker and have now moved completely online where competition is fierce and the platforms are becoming unreliable (thanks, Bella Thorne). I wanted to ask for government assistance, but I’m too scared to because if I get audited or the government looks into my income in any way to assess how much money I could be eligible for, they could potentially see all of the income I’ve made illegally. I have estimated that I’m losing about 75% of the income I could have expected had there been no lockdown. With school starting back again, things will continue to remain online, and this means that my opportunities to do sex work in person will continue to be extremely limited.
My story shouldn’t be used to erase the realities of those who engage in survival sex work, nor should it be a romanticization of sex work and the ways it can be wrongly portrayed as an independent worker’s paradise. The reality is that there is a high risk of violence, and the consequences of violence can be heightened when sex workers are trans, non-white, disabled, and/or migrants. And being vulnerable in the public sphere only exacerbates the ways that vulnerability is experienced when we are forced to step into the shadows. It is my hope that sex work will become both legal and decriminalized, and that this major systematic change can help improve the financial lives of sex workers. Ultimately, this would help improve the quality of life for sex workers like myself, particularly those at the intersections of multiple oppressions and marginalization.
Jacob Yang is a trans and queer student and sex worker based out of Canada. Jacob decided to try his hand at freelance writing when the pandemic began, and he realized that his situation was quite unique compared to all of his friends and was probably something many would be interested in hearing more about. When he’s not writing papers for school or working, Jacob likes to speed solve Rubix cubes, though his best times are nothing to throw a party for.
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