Transgender individuals are three times more likely to be unemployed due to discrimination in the mainstream job market. As a result, many transgender women look to sex work as a source of income.
However, in addition to being stigmatized for that work, trans women who sell sex are subject to intensified violence, transphobia and institutional discrimination on the basis of their gender and the nature of their work.
The Canadian government has tried to address this discrimination by passing Bill C-16, which strengthens protections for the transgender community. However, recent research by the Trans PULSE Project, which focuses on members of the trans community in Ontario, shows trans individuals earn less than $15,000 annually and one-in-five report being unemployed or are on disability.
Jelena Vermilion, an Ontario-based transgender sex worker, has firsthand experience with this unfortunate reality.
“I definitely experienced barriers to obtaining and maintaining secular employment because of my trans identity and because of my lived experience,” says Vermilion.
At the beginning of her transition, when she was 17, Vermilion worked at a local grocery store. She continually faced harassment from her manager, a factor she says may have contributed to her termination.
“There was some sort of complaint filed against me and I was fired. While I can’t necessarily say that I have any explicit proof that it was transphobia, I definitely feel as though the complaint my manager read out to me was completely fabricated,” Vermilion explains.
In the following months, Vermilion says she struggled to find another source of income, in part because of her gender identity. With each passing day, Vermilion’s mental health declined.
Things took a turn for the worse after she had a run-in with the police as a result of a domestic dispute. After serving her sentence in a male prison, Vermilion had no home to return to.
Eventually, in 2013, she turned to sex work as a means of survival.
“At first, I worked alongside someone that I knew from the homeless shelter I was in. She helped me with the learning curves in terms of what acronyms and websites are used,” Vermilion explains.
“After that, I started working independently and eventually turned it into a business. In the beginning, it was a means of survival but as I became more financially stable, I was able to gain empowerment from it.”
Vermilion, who has now been a full-service sex worker for seven years, says she finds empowerment in her work because her business is "something that I have control over."
“I may have been relegated to a wage labour job where a lot of labour exploitation takes place. Sex work, in comparison, was such a better choice for me.”
Deconstructing the discrimination
Despite this empowerment, Vermilion also experiences the deep-rooted stigma that is associated with sex work in Canadian society. She believes there is a dominant narrative that states that sex workers are victims, that sex workers are all street-based and that no one would choose this line of work.
“People feel emboldened to talk about sex workers negatively. Society has been fooled into believing that the oppression of sex workers doesn’t exist anymore or that it is less prevalent,” Vermilion explains.
“People consider sex workers as vectors of disease, which isn’t the truth. In reality, sex workers are generally more educated about the risks of contracting a sexually transmitted or blood-borne infection and they’re more interested in using protection and other prophylactics.”
Additionally, Vermilion believes the stigma associated with sex work is rooted in a patriarchal double-standard.
“The policing of sexuality is definitely a part of [the stigma]. There is a double-standard power dynamic where men are allowed and expected to have a lot of sex but women are shamed and considered less-than for having the same amount of sex,” she says.
“Sex workers are the epitome of an independent woman who can provide for herself and that represents a threat to the patriarchy. But we don’t look at these power dynamics and we just blame the sex worker and consider them a victim as opposed to seeing people being resilient to capitalism.”
As a trans sex worker, Vermilion believes she is portrayed as a victim to an even greater extent.
“Transgender women face an additional stigma within the sex industry because of those power dynamics. While sex workers are generally not high risk, transgender sex workers are considered at a higher vulnerability because of those intersecting factors of oppression.”
Navigating non-normative desire
On the other hand, growing bodies of academic research demonstrate the increasing demand for trans women within the sex industry.
In the book Selling Sex: Experience, Advocacy, and Research on Sex Work in Canada, Tor Fletcher explains that men hire trans sex workers because they are curious about what it would be like to have sex with a woman who has a penis. Fletcher argues that having sex with a trans woman feels safer for many clients because their non-normative desires aren’t questioned.
Vermilion sees this as a positive part of her job.
“I get to facilitate space for men who are impacted emotionally by the society we live in that says, ‘Men who desire trans women are gay.’ There are men who have desires that they feel guilty and shameful for and they seek me out to safely explore those desires. I feel so honoured to be able to facilitate that space,” she explains.
At the same time, however, Vermilion recognizes that transgender women are often relegated to sex work because they are fetishized and they represent transgressive pleasure for heterosexual men. Yet, she sees this as something she can capitalize on.
“It’s one of the ways that we can actually pay our rent and keep ourselves fed. It’s affirming in that we can have sex with men for money because it affirms our gender. We are beautiful and desirable and it affirms our womanhood. It feels powerful to have power over a man with my body.”
The pervasive pressure
However, in his thesis Playing Two People: Exploring Trans Women’s Experiences in Sex Work, sociology and anthropology graduate student Leon Laidlaw explains that within this growing demand for trans bodies, trans women have experienced immense pressure to express conventional femininity. Transphobic responses can arise when a trans woman is unexpectedly discovered as ‘male-bodied,’ resulting in frequent safety concerns, including physical and sexual assault.
A 2006 study conducted in San Francisco shows that the risk of harassment and physical violence is heightened for transgender sex workers when compared to cisgender men and women sex workers. Over half of trans sex workers report domestic violence and 36 per cent report sex work-related violence. Even though Vermilion has experienced bad clients who have made her feel uncomfortable, she cannot recall a time where she ever felt unsafe.
“Personally, I have experienced very little violence because I am excellent at asserting my boundaries, communicating and being a bitch when I need to be,” she explains.
Tackling the transphobia
Instead, Vermilion says the transphobia and discrimination outside the sex industry is a bigger problem for her, specifically within the healthcare industry. For example, she remembers a time when she called her doctor’s office to renew her prescription for pre-exposure prophylaxis — a drug she takes to prevent acquiring HIV.
“Over the phone, I was told by the secretary that I wasn’t special because I’m trans and that I needed to call the pharmacy like every other patient. I felt completely alienated as a patient by her discrimination and stigma.”
Vermilion is not alone in facing this type of institutional discrimination.
Harmful experiences of transphobia have been documented in a wide range of health services, including doctor’s offices and mental health institutions. In his thesis, Laidlaw explains that approximately 25 per cent of trans people have been denied medical service because of their gender identity and some trans Ontarians have even been refused examinations when accessing emergency health care.
As a result, trans people are starting to avoid medical centres, including those offering HIV testing, for fear of discrimination. For example, 45 per cent of trans people who took part in the Trans Pulse Canada Project say they’ve had one or more unmet health care needs in the past year.
Additionally, a 2011 study conducted by Frances Shaver, Jacqueline Lewis and Eleanor Maticka-Tyndale documents health providers denying trans sex workers injectable hormones because they assumed they would use the needles to inject illicit substances. Some of the study’s participants being treated for HIV were also forced to discontinue hormone replacement therapy by their doctors, who did not want to manage the effects of both medications.
Vermilion sees these statistics as incredibly concerning. She explains that trans sex workers, in addition to racialized, immigrant and undocumented sex workers, have “specific healthcare needs that are specific to their population, as compared to the overall population” because of the increased oppression they face.
A mirage of misconception
Despite this reality, trans sex workers face continual institutional discrimination — something Vermilion believes is rooted in people’s general misconceptions about being a sex worker.
“People’s biggest misconception about the sex industry is that people never choose it. There is a large trope that no one grows up wanting to be a sex worker. But I don’t think there is anything wrong with sucking dick for money,” says Vermilion.
“Another big misconception is that sex work is the same as sex trafficking. There is labour exploitation in almost every labour industry. Yes, sometimes sex workers have bad clients. Yes, sometimes sex work can be hard. But we should be able to have grievances about our work without being infantilized and being told that we shouldn't make that choice.”
Hailey Heartless, a Vancouver-based fetish service provider, agrees.
“There’s a massive conflation with sex work and commercial sexual exploitation. It’s an issue that is so foreign to so many people that they don’t have to educate themselves so they go on with these incorrect narratives,” Heartless explains.
“A lot of people like to push it away because they’ve heard of people who have been involved with commercial sexual exploitation and they think that sex work can’t happen without this happening.”
A pathway of progress
However, Heartless believes that sex workers across the country are overcoming this stigma.
“We are coming up to a point now where [sex work] is less of a social or legal issue and more workers are organizing themselves. We’re never going to get equality or fight for our rights if we are treated like a social issue instead of equal workers.”
Trans advocacy groups, like the Calgary-based Skipping Stone Foundation, are playing a major role in this initiative. Billie Schultz is a group facilitator at Skipping Stone and is dedicated to connecting trans individuals to the low-barrier support they need and deserve.
“If sex workers are experiencing stigma, Skipping Stone is a place where we don’t ask if you’re a sex worker. I don’t ask people for their job history. Whatever they choose to tell me is what I take. I meet them where they are at,” Schultz explains.
“If they are doing sex work, then I try to make them as safe as possible. I help them get access to tests and birth control. And if they are trying to get out of sex work, I also help them with that too.”
As someone who has been in the sex industry for almost a decade, Vermilion sees these various initiatives as a positive thing. Despite what others may think, she sees her sex work as a core part of her identity — one that won’t change with time.
“I think I’ll be doing sex work for as long as I’m having sex.”
- By Sarah Green