Bodily autonomy: confessions of a transsexual sex worker
When Channel 4 screened Ria: Diary of a Teen Transsexual last Tuesday I was prepared for ignorant comments. I didn’t predict though that criticism towards 17 year old Ria would focus so heavily on her sex work. I was invited to meet her as part of the documentary, to show her that there’s light at the end of the transsexual tunnel. When I learned she was turning tricks I rolled my eyes and said “Ooh you little scamp!”. I identified with her (infer away) and hoped she was safe, naturally, but it wasn’t really any of my, well… business.
I was unimpressed with a flurry of comments I saw on Facebook which condemned Ria’s massage parlour job as “morally wrong”. The commenters were otherwise supportive of her transition; a bizarre case of “We don’t mind you letting a doctor reshape your genitals, but you’re not allowed to rent them”. Some defended her with the rather sweet, but utterly condescending I-was-no-angel-at-her-age-we-all-do-stupid-things argument. What about students who fund their university education through sex work? Are they stupid? And why can’t we be angels and promiscuous? And who, precisely, are these perfect people passing judgement on others? It makes me feel like going out on the beat, just so I can report back how deliciously unashamed I am.
We’re all judgemental at times. I once had a friend who enjoyed sticking hooks in his back and hanging from the ceiling; apparently this induces euphoria. I think it’s repulsive. That is not, however, the same as believing it to be wrong, which I don’t. And what exactly does “wrong” mean anyway? It’s a suspiciously slippery concept. All we really have are the consequences of our actions – in my friend’s case, stretched back-skin. That’s no skin off my nose though.
In addition to “wrong” I’m also wary of “why”. Many trans people have low self-esteem from living in a culture that repeatedly tells us we are unattractive, that we are inferior, that we are worth less. Combined with an ambivalent relationship towards one’s body, horrendous employment discrimination and a youthful libido, it’s easy to see why many young trans women turn to prostitution.
It’s true that Ria is only 17, and I don’t dismiss that there are often many down sides to working in the sex industry. However, in cases where it is both consensual and free from abuse, we shouldn’t judge people who have sex for money any more than we should judge those who have gay sex, group sex or phone sex. It’s just human behaviour. I’m far more interested in why people wish to condemn it.
Critics of sex work are of course right to highlight crimes such as trafficking, bullying and rape. Not all sex work involves this though. There are plenty of perfectly rational, reasonable adults who choose to have sex for money. It’s not illegal. It’s not a sign of mental illness. It’s just something some people do, and could do better without patronising well-wishers (with no experience of the issue) popping up to say “You deserve much better than this!” as though sex-work had somehow lowered them into a moral sewer without their knowledge. Sure, let’s have a debate about capitalist currency as applied to living beings. I’m not convinced, though, by those who claim to fear for Ria and the potential “psychological and emotional trauma” she might feel “in years to come” when she realises how she’s “degraded” herself. Do you think blame and shame is the best way to show you care? I’m reminded of Christian bigots who tell gay people “We don’t hate you but we’re worried what you’re doing is unhealthy”.
We hear similar cries of concern from radical feminists, who also object to trans people’s right to genital surgery. Someday columnist and professional concern troll Julie Bindel recently told me how uncomfortable she is about the transsexual “industry”. She doesn’t mind individual trans people identifying in a different gender, but woe betide the doctors who indulge our desires for physical change. I still don’t understand though: if I want a vagina sculpted into my elbow (unlikely, it’s true) what possible difference does it make to anybody?
Ultimately these are matters of bodily autonomy. I can give others permission to touch my body – and frequently do – or not; to feed it exotic chemical substances, and also to instruct surgeons to slice it up and pop it back together in shapes of my choosing. If my body ever develops a serious, painful illness, I also reserve the right to orchestrate its demise. My body is a temple: mine to decorate, mine to defile and mine to destroy. And I’ll invite whoever I bloody well like to worship there. You have this right too. We all do.
We also have the right to charge for entry.
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