Rachel* is a trans sex worker living and working in Dublin. She talks to Ruth Seavers about the misconceptions surrounding sex work and the wider economic and political debate over how she earns a living.
This article was originally published in the December 2016 Sex Issue of GCN, which is available to read online here.
*Name has been changed to protect the identity of the trans sex worker who was interviewed
A year and a half ago Rachel, then in her mid 20s, needed a job. Having always been very sexually adventurous, sex work was something she had thought about before and was open to. Deciding to pursue sex work was “quite simple,” she says.
“I posted an ad online and just waited for the phone to ring. I was nervous before my first client, not fearful though, it was more nervous excitement. I never felt at any point, ‘what the fuck am I doing?’ And I’ve never been unsure of my decision to become a sex worker.”
Rachel’s online ad contains a short description, photos and a list of services. Clients can call or text to arrange an appointment, before which she makes sure they’re clear about her rules and price. For Rachel, sex can be intimate without necessarily creating emotional or romantic attachment, something she knows a lot of people might have trouble relating to.
Not A Victim
“I know it would not be the right decision for the vast, vast majority of people,” she says. “I know there are certain things about me and my attitude towards sex, intimacy and my body that mean I don’t struggle with the issues surrounding sex work that many women would.”
Sex workers are often presented as victims who lack real choice or understanding of their lives and decisions. A ubiquitous belief is that there must be an underlying reason to explain why they do the work they do – early non-consensual sexual encounters or a troubled childhood, for example. But Rachel rejects this.
“If people are looking for something in my upbringing to try to explain why I’m a sex worker, they won’t find it,” she says. “I’m from a very boring middle class background.”
A year and a half after putting her first ad up, sex work is Rachel’s main source of income. Soft-spoken and exceptionally polite, she likes the freedom of being her own boss and choosing when she works. Because she doesn’t work for an agency or from a brothel, she is effectively an independent worker. She tries to see between three and five clients a day.
“After five I don’t have the energy to do any more,” she says. “Not physically, just mentally. Like any service industry job, working hard to ensure someone else is happy and enjoys themselves can be tiring after a while.”
The fact Rachel is trans plays into her job hugely. A lot of her clients are looking to try sex with a trans person, and this has its downsides, she says.
“For a lot of my clients their first exposure to trans people is through porn, which is very fetishising when it comes to trans women in particular, so they are familiar with transphobic language and words like ‘tranny’ and ‘shemale’. They’re very ugly words and I can’t stand them.”
Keep reading to find out about trans sex worker statistics and the legalities surrounding sex work in Ireland.
It’s difficult to find statistics on LGBT sex workers in any corner of the globe, let alone Ireland, but available information indicates higher levels of abuse, violence, rape and even murder because of belonging in both the LGBT and sex working communities
A recent survey of indoor Irish sex workers found around half of the trans sex workers surveyed reported transphobic crimes and according to the Trans Murder Monitoring Project from Transgender Europe, between 2008 and 2014 65 percent of reported cases of murdered trans people with a known occupation were sex workers.
According to Kate McGrew of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland (SWAI): “SWAI recognises that sex work is often an option in a hostile world for trans individuals. We must therefore do whatever we can to fight for the cultural perspective and the good laws necessary to help them live and work in safety and with dignity.”
Exchanging money for sexual services is not illegal in Ireland, however, soliciting, organising and living off the earnings of prostitution are under the Criminal Law, Sexual Offences Act, which is the same law that decriminalised homosexuality in 1993.
International health, feminist and human rights organisations, including the World Health Organisation and Amnesty International, have all called for the decriminalisation of sex work, so the industry can be regulated under labour rather than criminal law, the same as for any other profession.
“That distinction is the important thing,” Rachel says. “This would allow sex workers to go to the labour court to defend their rights and employment conditions.”
Keep reading to find out about about TENI’s support for trans sex workers.
In February of this year, Trans Equality Network Ireland (TENI) passed a resolution to support trans sex workers, stating that as an organisation they “will work to end the violence and human rights violations experienced by this segment of our community.”
“In Ireland there are many trans people who engage in sex work for a variety of reasons,” says Director of TENI, Broden Giambrone. “This community is particularly isolated, invisible and underrepresented, and Rachel’s story reflects that experience. It is absolutely crucial that we actively seek to protect the rights of sex workers.
“To do this we must understand that sex work is different from trafficking or sex slavery and that our laws need to reflect that. TENI has taken a human rights approach to this issue and most importantly, we have listened to the voices of sex workers. As an organisation we support decriminalisation and we stand with individuals like Rachel in her battle for equality in Ireland.”
Like the LGBT community, sex workers have a longstanding history of both calling for inclusion, autonomy and the freedom to sexual expression. They fight to break down the stigmatisation, discrimination and social marginalisation they face as communities.
The Stonewall riots of 1969 were actually forefronted by female trans sex workers of colour – an event widely considered to be the catalyst for the gay liberation movement to follow – a liberation that is still in process all over the world. But 47 years on, while other members of the LGBT community continue to bask in the growing light of acknowledgement from Irish society, LGBT sex workers are still left in the shadows.
Talking to Rachel, it’s clear that we need to acknowledge the complexity of the sex trade, and to recognise that sex work is an independent choice and livelihood for many. Before our meeting ended I asked her if she felt in any way coerced into this job, or if she could do a more ‘traditional’ job, would she? Without missing a beat, Rachel said no.
“Sure, I could get a job working in a shop, but this work gives me the opportunity to make more money working less hours, leaving me with more free time. It suits me; it’s as simple as that.”
© 2016 GCN (Gay Community News). All rights reserved.