Pokémon, Sugar Daddies, and ABBA: The Cost of Transitioning
(Content warning: Gender dysphoria and references to physical and sexual violence.
Note: This is written from the perspective of a trans woman, and the content is often reflective of that. This is not an attempt to invalidate trans men or non-binary individuals.)
(Photo sourced from here. Only trans girls will know why I chose this picture.)
I was recently called a whore at the train station, and the first thing I thought was, ‘At least they gendered me correctly.’ Then: ‘They were almost right, too.’
Just over three months ago, I found myself on seeking.com; I imagine in much the same way drug dealers find themselves in gaol or gamblers find themselves in debt. For those of you who don’t know, seeking.com is a little like seek.com, but for people who want a career that has a little more, er, history.
There are numerous reasons trans girls end up in sex work. In 2009, a study* from the National Centre for Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force found that low levels of employment coupled with hostile workplace cultures often lead trans people to see sex work as their only viable option (cited in Nadal, Davidoff, & Fujii-Doe 2014, p. 173). Furthermore, focus groups conducted in 1999 and 2000 concluded that incentives to remain in sex work were strongest amongst those ‘who needed to finance hormone therapy and transgender related surgeries’ (Sausa, Keatley, & Operario 2007, p. 774). Therein lay my motivation.
I uploaded a photo where I looked like I might’ve had two X chromosomes (or at least one and a half) and constructed a tasteful profile, making sure to use the words ‘transgender’ and ‘desperate’ at least three times. From the way my phone started buzzing afterwards, I could tell it had worked. I checked my notifications the way one checks their car after a crash.
‘How about $350 for the night?’
‘Pre op or post op?’
And my favourite: ‘I would love to know a Trans. Never had one,’ which made me sound like some sort of rare Pokémon.
For every message I received, I imagined its author wringing their hands and salivating, but this was probably unfair. Truthfully, everyone who messaged didn’t seem all that different to me: bored and lonely. Still, the thought of meeting with any of them gave me worse acid reflux than bathtub whiskey.
I scheduled three appointments for the days after lotto was drawn. I figured if god loved me like my mum told me, he’d make sure I wouldn’t have to go through with this. I’d receive my fifty million and either delete my profile or update it from sugar baby to sugar mama.
That Sunday morning, I opened my emails with an optimism I hadn’t felt since I stopped believing in Santa. Then, I sighed. ‘Hi Ariel, Unfortunately your ticket did not win this time. The dividends for this draw are available on the draw results page.’ It seemed sitting between me and post-transition life were enough sexually curious elderly men to fill every retirement home from Sydney to Perth.
It’s important to note what I need for my transition should not be conflated with the needs of any other transgender individual. No two transitions look the same. For some transgender individuals, transitioning may be purely social — involving a change of name, pronouns, and/or physical presentation without any medical interventions such as hormones and/or surgery. For other transgender individuals, medical interventions may be required. Even for transgender individuals who require medical interventions, these medical needs will vary. Some may be comfortable with hormones alone. Some may require sexual reassignment surgery. Some may require other surgeries such as body contouring, implants, and voice surgery. No matter what form one’s transition takes, their identity is valid and should be honoured. It was clear to me from the get-go, however, surgery would necessarily be involved in my transition. I did not arrive to this conclusion after consideration; the surgeries I wanted were merely a response to the demands of gender dysphoria.
Whilst hormones and appointments with endocrinologists, gender therapists, and psychiatrists have attracted rebates, the surgical aspect of my transition has been wholly out of pocket. Unfortunately, most gender-related surgeries are considered cosmetic and not ‘medically necessary’ — even though anyone who’s experienced gender dysphoria would beg to differ. The consequence of this is trans folk are all too often reduced to money-making opportunities. It’s not uncommon for the surgical aspect of a transition to approach — or even exceed — $100 000. That’s not even including costs such as laser and electrolysis, which can also cost thousands. Electrolysis costs me $2 a minute, and I’ve had around eighty hours. I’m lucky. Some girls require three hundred hours. You do the math.
As a uni student who considers one dollar for extra guacamole a luxury, mounting a defence against the capitalist structures governing transition-related services has been one of the most daunting aspects of transitioning. I was blessed with a mother who was willing to loan me the money I needed for the most pressing surgeries: facial feminisation, breast augmentation, liposculpture, and sexual reassignment. If it weren’t for this loan, I dread to think where I’d be now, and my gratitude to Mum will reverberate throughout the remainder of my life. Nevertheless, repaying this money (a stunning $70 000) whilst saving the $50 000 I need for hip augmentation, vocal feminisation, and additional jaw surgery feels about as doable as I look without makeup (hint: not very, like, not at all).
I deleted my account on seeking.com after cancelling any appointments I'd tentatively scheduled. I do not consider myself above sex work, and I would never want to add to the stigma sex workers contend with. The fact remains sex workers are particularly vulnerable to physical and sexual violence, with approximately 40% to 70% experiencing some form of violence over a one-year period (Shannon & Csete 2010, p. 573). A (perhaps naïve) part of me wanted, and still wants, to believe I might be one of the lucky ones who finds money through less risky means. As a white middle-class trans woman in the middle of a post-graduate degree, I completely acknowledge my privilege makes this suspension of disbelief so much easier.
In a refreshingly candid video titled Have I Had THE Surgery?, Nikita Dragun laments the desperate conditions that lead trans people to sex work. She estimates 70%, ‘if not more’, trans girls in LA around her age ‘are working girls or have a sugar daddy or have someone that pays them for sex […]’ (2018). She then insists, ‘I have never accepted compensation […] from anyone for any of my surgeries,’ before saying, ‘Social media is my sugar daddy’ (Dragun 2018). Her message, however, is clear. In her words: ‘I feel so disgusted inside [due to] the fact that other trans people and other people like me don’t have that opportunity and aren’t always so fortunate and have to resort to sex work’ (Dragun 2018). If I manage to find the money I need without sex work, I too want it to be known this should not be endorsed as proof other trans girls shouldn’t have to resort to sex work, as Blaire White seems to imply in her video, I WAS PUSHED TO DO SEX WORK (By The Trans Community) (2017).
In the absence of an overhaul of the healthcare system by The Powers That Be, the best advice I can offer to curb this trend is to support charities that attempt to provide trans folk with the financial resources they need (Point of Pride and The Jim Collins Foundation are a good place to start). Beyond this, for Twitter users, searching the hashtag #transcrowdfund allows you to provide funds directly to those in need. As a trans content creator, I also encourage people to support trans content creators. Check out this Twitter thread for an extensive list.
I’m currently sitting in my lounge room, wearing an oversized Cher shirt and the remnants of this morning’s makeup after a glimpse of myself in a public bathroom sent me running home in tears. (If that sounds a bit melodramatic, it’s because it was. We obviously haven’t met.) Perhaps inspired by my shirt, Cher’s cover of ABBA’s ‘The Winner Takes It All’ has reverberated throughout my apartment (and probably the entire block if we’re being honest here). I’m reminded of myself at age ten, singing ABBA’s original in the backyard pool, pretending to drown in a deeply artistic attempt to capture the tragedy of ‘[t]he loser standing small / beside the victory’ (ABBA 1980). No matter where I am in my transition, it is this woman-child sense of whimsy — the through line of my life — that allows me to persevere. It is the recognition that saying I’m transitioning is just another way of saying I’m cultivating a hospitable environment for everything about myself that I love. Even when my body finally feels like home, I know that child will still be there, singing ABBA in the backyard pool.
* The study’s sample included 6 450 transgender individuals within Puerto Rico and the United States. It found that unemployment rates within this sample were double the US national average; 47% had been ‘fired, denied employment, or denied a promotion’; and 97% had experienced harassment whilst at work (The National Centre Transgender Equality and the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force cited in Nadal, Davidoff, & Fujii-Doe 2014, p. 173).
ABBA 1980, ‘The Winner Takes It All’, Super Trouper [CD], 0042280002329, Polydor
Dragun, N 2018, Have I Had THE Surgery?, online video, 22 July, Nikita Dragun, viewed 21 November 2018, <https://youtu.be/Z6MrfUh0DOs>
Nadal, KL; Davidoff, KC; & Fujii-Doe, W 2014, ‘Transgender Women and the Sex Work Industry: Roots in Systemic, Institutional, and Interpersonal Discrimination’, Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, vol. 15, no. 2, pp. 169 - 183
Sausa, LA; Keatley, J, & Operario, D 2007, ‘Perceived Risks and Benefits of Sex Work among Transgender Women of Color in San Francisco’, Archives of Sexual Behaviour, vol. 36, no. 6, pp. 768 - 777
Shannon, K & Csete, J 2010, ‘Violence, Condom Negotiation, and HIV/STI Risk among Sex Workers’, JAMA: The Journal of the American Medical Association, vol. 304, no. 5, pp. 573 - 574
White, B 2017, I WAS PUSHED TO DO SEX WORK (By The Trans Community), online video, 26 November, Blaire White, viewed 21 November 2018, <https://youtu.be/r9l9tc9BuCk>