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Real Time with Bill Maher
Interviewing Tracee Ellis Ross
On My Book Redefining Realness
At 16 years old, I began trading sex for money. The money I earned I used to pay for the vital medical care my family couldn’t afford. This essay is not a confession. Neither is my book Redefining Realness. I do not believe that having engaged in the sex trades or being a former sex worker is a confessional matter.
I do not believe using your body — often marginalized people’s only asset, especially in poor, low-income, communities of color — to care after yourself is shameful. What I find shameful is a culture that exiles, stigmatizes and criminalizes those engaged in underground economies like sex work as a means to move past struggle to survival.
I was 15 the first time I visited Merchant Street, what some would call “the stroll” for trans women involved in street-based sex work. At the time, I had just begun medically transitioning and it was where younger girls, like my friends and myself, would go to hang out, flirt and fool around with guys and socialize with older trans women, the legends of our community.
The majority of the women I idolized engaged in the sex trades at some time or another – some dabbled in video cam work and pornography, others chose street-based work and dancing at strip clubs (an option reserved for those most often perceived as cis). These women were the first trans women I met, and I quickly correlated trans womanhood and sex work.
I perceived the sex trades as a rite of passage, something a trans girl had to do in order to make the money necessary to support herself. I had also learned (from media, our laws and pop culture) that sex work is shameful and degrading.
Sex work is heavily stigmatized, whether one goes into it by choice, coercion or circumstance. Sex workers are often dismissed, causing even the most liberal folk, to dehumanize, devalue and demean women who are engaged in the sex trades. This pervasive dehumanization of women in the sex trades leads many to ignore the silencing, brutality, policing, criminalization and violence sex workers face, even blaming them for being utterly damaged, promiscuous, and unworthy.
So because I learned that sex work is shameful, and I correlated trans womanhood and sex work, I was taught that trans womanhood is shameful. This belief system served as the base of my understanding of self as a trans girl, and I couldn’t separate it from my own body image issues, my sense of self, my internalized shame about being trans, brown, poor, young, woman.
Though I yearned to be among women like myself, I also judged them for doing work that I swore at 15 I could never do. The work and those women didn’t fit my pedestal perched Clair Huxtable portrait of womanhood.
Yet my economic hurdles were real and urgent, and I couldn’t deny that witnessing the women of Merchant Street take their lives into their own hands, empowered me. Watching these women every weekend gathered in sisterhood and community, I learned firsthand about body autonomy, about resilience and agency, about learning to do for yourself in a world that is hostile about your existence.
These women taught me that nothing was wrong with me or my body and that if I wanted they would show me the way, and it was this underground railroad of resources created by low-income, marginalized women, that enabled me when I was 16 to jump in a car with my first regular and choose a pathway to my survival and liberation.
Watch the complete six-part Redefining Realness conversation series now!
Fifty percent of black, 34% of Latin@, and 16% of Asian trans people have made a living in underground economies, including sex work, compared to 11% of white trans people, according to Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.
A leading factor that makes young trans women of color, like myself, more likely to engage in survival sex work is economic hardship. Family rejection and hostile, unwelcoming school environments can push a trans girl to leave these spaces, and anti-trans bias coupled with racism and misogyny and a lack of education heightens joblessness.
When you’re 16 years old, dreaming of being yourself and you come from a family that is already struggling economically (not to mention dealing with accepting your identity) and you’re faced with the high cost of gender affirmative healthcare, the hurdles are high and overwhelming, and sex work becomes the most appealing, viable, efficient option. At least it was for me.
Multilayered systemic oppressions are stacked up against trans women from low-income and/or communities of color so the sex trade becomes a road well traveled, helping trans women alleviate financial woes while also making many of us feel desired as women (through an objectifying male gaze), women who are taught that we are undesirable and illegitimate.
There’s no denying that sex work is dangerous work. Engaging in the sex trades increases a person’s risk for criminalization, acquiring HIV or other STIs, sexual abuse and violence. It can also, for myself at least, complicate and conflate your image of self, of love, of sex, of value, not to mention the stigma that is internalized about the work you do, work that often leads others to define you and your character.
My hope is that being open about my experience as a teenage sex worker helps further conversations about how we can better serve folk engaged in sex work as a means of survival, and particularly vital to my community, how we can develop programs that create more appealing and viable options for young trans women, so sex work isn’t their only option for support and survival. We need programs that help trans girls and women find affirming, affordable healthcare and housing options, that shepherd them towards completing their education and that instills in them a sense of possibility.
For many years I thought being trans, that being brown, that being a former sex worker, that being a different kind of woman made me less than and undeserving of being heard. So I silenced those parts of myself that I felt would lead me to further marginalization. I hope now to stand more fully in my truth, and that my decision to be authentic about my experiences gives young women like me, who feel they may not have and didn’t have other choices, the strength to step more fully into who they are.
This essay and my memoir are pivotal steps in my continual process of revealing myself to myself, to those I love and to the world. I believe that sharing our experiences – specifically the ones that we’re told to keep silent, secret and shameful – are the ones that gives us greater access to power.
I am choosing now to step further into my power.
Interested in hearing more voices of folks advocating alongside those engaged in the sex trades? I recommend:
Watch my six-part Redefining Realness conversation series, order your copy of Redefining Realness, and join the conversation using hashtag #RedefiningRealness.
The Complete Six-part Series