Working as a Trans Boy: An Extract from My Body, My Business: New Zealand Sex Workers in an Era of Change
In Caren Wilton’s new book My Body, My Business: New Zealand Sex Workers in an Era of Change, the women, men and transgender workers of New Zealand’s sex industry speak for themselves.
Eleven former and current New Zealand sex workers tell their stories. Based on oral history interviews, these first-hand accounts are framed by a thoughtful preface and an introduction by Wilton about the history of sex work in Aotearoa. In her preface, Wilton recognises the efforts of activists and the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective to campaign for the 2003 law change that saw Aotearoa become the first country in the world to decriminalise sex work. Wilton also pays homage to other oral historians writing in Aotearoa. This book is itself is a compelling testament to the power of oral history and its ability to enable under-heard voices to be surfaced.
I was born in a housebus in the early 1980s. On Dad’s side I’m Ngāpuhi, and on Mum’s side Ngāti Maniapoto, in the King Country. We travelled around lots when I was little, and we moved from South Auckland to the West Coast of the South Island when I was about two or three, so I grew up there. Mostly we lived in the Southern Alps, with only a few neighbours.
I was always out at school. I remember when I was about three, kissing the TV when pretty girls would come on. When I was about 13 I said to my friends, ‘So, I think I’m fluid – like, bisexual.’ But I never felt bad about not being heterosexual. My parents had quite a disregard for authority, and I think I just picked up that who I was was OK, and if other people had a problem with it, that was their problem. I was out, but no one else was, and when I did hook up with girls it was really secret. A lot of the people who I crushed on or dated were feminine boys. Some were also into boys, and some liked to wear women’s clothes in private. So I was always like, ‘Oh yeah, sometimes I feel like I’m a boy.’ They were like, ‘That’s cool, that makes sense.’ I never thought, oh, I’m transgender. I don’t think I knew that that was a thing that existed. I’ve always known people who didn’t fit into gender norms, but they just weren’t talking about it as being trans. For example, my dad – he’s a guy as far as I know, but he’s always worn women’s shirts and sometimes skirts as his ordinary clothes. I didn’t realise a person could be recognised as a different gender to what they had been assigned as, but I knew you could wear what you wanted and be however you wanted to be.
I remember times when I was little when I’d say, ‘I’m a boy,’ and Mum would be like, ‘You’re not a boy.’ It was less of an issue whether I was called a boy or a girl and more of an issue of how I experienced myself. I was always really high-fashion when I was little – I liked dressing up and having beautiful hair. I liked femininity, but I didn’t feel like I was a girl. Everyone would be like ‘You’re a girl’, and most of the time I was like, oh yeah, I guess. You can’t change that. Everyone says you’re a girl, so you just are one, even if you don’t want to be one.
In fourth form I almost never went to school, and I left halfway through the year. One of my older sisters had moved to a nearby town, so she said that I could move in with her and her friend. So I moved in with them and I got a job in a factory. That was just after I turned 15. Then I met a guy who was lots older than me, and I moved in with him. We got a housebus, and we lived in the forest for a while. Later we moved to Nelson. He was 28 and I was 15. We had no money. I remember once we stole a huge pumpkin, and lived on pumpkin soup for two weeks. I was used to stealing food, but this was a new town and I had no social support. It was really shit, it was really hard.
There was a house where some of his friends were squatting – an awful fucking dive. We lived there for a little while. I was trying to get on the independent youth benefit, and it was really, really difficult. I tried to get a food box from the food bank, and they were like, ‘You need to have an address.’ They wouldn’t give me a food box, and WINZ wouldn’t give me money for food because I had to be on a benefit to get money from them. It was really, really, really hard to survive. It was cold – all those things that are a problem when you’re homeless. We didn’t have a kitchen. We had to wash our dishes in the bathtub. There were none of the things that make it easy to make yourself presentable. I didn’t have clothes, so I couldn’t get work.
Sometimes I went to Christchurch to stay with one of my sisters. I was like, ‘Oh, maybe I should go and get a job in a massage parlour.’ I think I was 16, so this was before sex work was decriminalised. I went to Felicity’s – they had an ad in the paper that was something like ‘Massage, ladies wanted.’ I thought, oh yeah, I could do that. I had walked past the neon lights on Lichfield Street, and I knew it wasn’t just massage. I went in there, and I was like, wow, it’s like another world in here. It’s the middle of the day, and down these stairs there’s a big dark room with a pool table. There were ladies dressed in red evening gowns. It was like a soap opera, like Days of Our Lives or something. I was scruffy, jeans falling off my hips and a beanie. I sat down with the receptionist and she said, ‘Cool. Do you know that you have to be 18 to work here?’ I said, ‘Yep.’ She said, ‘How old are you?’ and I said, ‘Eighteen.’ But when I went to bars I would say that I was 23. When they asked if I had ID, I’d laugh, and I’d say, ‘Honey, I’m 23.’ Then they’d say, ‘What’s your date of birth?’ and I’d give them the date of birth that meant I was 23. She was like, ‘Cool.’ She gave me a piece of paper – I wasn’t really planning on a piece of paper. I can’t count. She said, ‘Write down what size you are and your date of birth.’ I didn’t want to look like I was counting, so I wrote down what I thought would be right. She looked at it, and she was like, ‘You’re not 18, are you?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ ‘How old are you?’ ‘Sixteen.’ ‘You need to be 18 to work here, or you need to be able to lie about being 18.’ So I didn’t get that job.
Later, back in Nelson, I moved into a house with some friends. I was on the dole, and it was nice just to have a chilled-out life, have a bit of stability and live in a house with people who I liked. Not have a boyfriend and not have any drama – just have enough money to live in a place and eat. I was just hanging out – I got really into yoga and meditation. I was doing weaving – I was doing heaps of gardening. I got into organics. That was cool.
Then I got pregnant, and started living in a housetruck. When my baby was born, I had just turned 20, and most of my friends had moved to Wellington to go to university. My neighbours were cool, and they had children, but they were 15 or 20 years older than me, and married, and owned their houses. I got depressed a lot – I don’t know how people who live away from their whānau can have babies and not get depressed, because it’s so isolating.
I decided to move to Whanganui, because I wanted to live in a commune, and it was cheap to buy land. I found this cool property that was owned by some anarchists who had a little community. I didn’t know what anarchism was – everyone I knew who was like ‘Yeah, anarchy!’ got drunk at 10 in the morning and had fights with the cops. At the time, I half believed what the media said about ‘radicals’. These people were like, ‘No! Well, yeah, maybe. But it’s also about building communities, organising together to meet everyone’s needs,’ and all this cool radical nice stuff that people do for each other. And they were really cool. I loved how they did their social relationships – active listening and taking turns speaking, not making assumptions. Later, when I had moved to Wellington, I read this book of feminist essays. The book was talking about patriarchy and oppressive systems, and I was like, ‘Oh, right! It’s not just in my social scene that the guys talk over the top of women, or it’s not just coincidence that the boys are outside playing hacky sack while the women are cleaning up after dinner. Oh my gods, there are other people who think like me, and they’re called feminists. I have to find feminists.’ Then I was like, ‘I’m done with guys.’
About a year later I joined an anarchist collective. I was also involved in Anarchist Black Cross, the prisoner support group. And I went to an anarchafeminist conference, and met heaps of really cool women. I became heavily involved in radical left political activism, especially women’s rights, queer rights and sexual-violence survivor support. The anarchist community had its problems, but for me it was revolutionary – I learned that organising collectively meant it was possible to change the unfair circumstances people were living in.
When my son started school I had to find work that I could do between 9am and 3pm, but there wasn’t a lot out there, and all parents want those jobs, so that’s how I started doing sex work. I thought, if it makes me feel bad, then I’ll stop doing it and find another way. I looked on the internet for how much places were charging, and I thought I’d find the place that charges the most and go and work there. So I did that.
I had this girlfriend, and she took me to this movie, Boy I Am. It’s about trans guys, and she was like, ‘You have to come to this movie with me.’ We watched it and I was like, ‘Oh, right, I didn’t know that existed.’ She was like, ‘Huh? Huh?’ I was like, ‘Interesting.’ I wasn’t like, ‘Oh, that’s me!’ Yeah, I get it, I feel kind of like that. Cool. But there was no big moment. And then one day I was at work, and the client went and got in the shower, and I was sitting on this big wooden bed in front of this big gilded mirror, on the white sheets. I was wearing really high heels and stockings and lacy lingerie, and hair extensions and makeup. I looked at myself in the mirror, and I was just like, oh my god, that is not me. I had this moment – whoa, that’s how the world sees me, and that’s not who I am, and I’m not all right with that. That was my moment of, I think I’m done with trying to be a girl.
I didn’t want to get hairy, I didn’t want to get masculine, I just wanted to have a dick.
I had a few months of intensively thinking about that stuff and having talks with people before I decided to transition. I was lucky because I already knew lots of trans people, mostly trans women. I had one really good friend who was a trans guy, and we’d talked quite a bit. I understood the basics. I also understood that a lot of trans guys wanted to be really masculine. People I knew were like, ‘Yes! I’m getting hairy! Yay, I look like a guy.’ I was like, ‘That’s great for them, but it’s not where I’m at. I like being feminine, I just feel like I’m a feminine boy.’ I didn’t want to get hairy, I didn’t want to get masculine, I just wanted to have a dick.
When I started to physically transition, I was fairly involved in trans communities and I had stopped dating cisgender people. I sort of didn’t want to take hormones, but to be allowed to get surgery I had to take hormones. I talked to surgeons overseas and they said, you can’t get a penis unless you have hormones and top surgery first. But I don’t want to be a masculine man, I’m not a man or a woman.
Western frameworks for gender are so far behind they think they’re first. I’m a non-binary takatāpui transsexual, and I like being feminine, and I want a dick, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t. You don’t have to be a guy to have a dick – half of my closest friends and lovers are women who have a dick, and some of my friends are guys who don’t. There needs to be a shift in the way we categorise people and their body parts as gendered. Unfortunately at the moment, though, our health-care system is a mess in terms of trans health-care, and if a trans person says something that providers don’t understand, then it’s very hard to get the medical care they need.
Western frameworks for gender are so far behind
When I went to the endocrinologist, I guess you know what gives you your A-plus for getting hormones. So I shaved off all my pink hair, and I wore a rugby jersey and a binder. And I’d heard that a lot of trans guys had gone in there and that particular endo had said, ‘No, you’re such a pretty girl, why would you want to become a boy? You’ll get hairy and bald, and end up being an ugly old man.’ He would try and discourage them, then put them on pills that don’t do very much. So I butched up and went in there, and said the A-plus answers. I said [deep voice], ‘Yep, I always felt like a boy. I always liked girls. I always knew I should be a boy, I just want my body to reflect how I feel on the inside.’ So I ticked all the boxes. It was really easy – I didn’t get any of the ‘you’re a pretty girl’ business.
I was really lucky, I got onto a pretty decent dose of T – testosterone – pretty quickly. So my body started changing really quickly, especially my smell. I kept thinking there were boys in my room. Oh, it’s me. OK. I didn’t really like smelling like a boy, and I didn’t like getting hairy. And I’ve always been able to deal with heaps of people’s emotional stuff, but when I was on a lot of T I couldn’t deal with as much. I couldn’t just read people any more. It was really, really hard. That was the thing that I wasn’t expecting. But I did get new junk! Hormones often make dicks more like clits over time, and clits more like dicks. It’s all the same thing really.
I hadn’t realised how much hormones affect you. Like getting turned on at the drop of a hat. I had just thought this was socialisation, that men are taught that you can look at a body part of any woman, it doesn’t matter who she is, whether you’re attracted to her, you can see a random sexualised body part and get an erection. But that’s actually hormones. A lot of things that I thought of as being just about socialisation – it’s not just about socialisation. I mean, how you choose to respond to that is a whole different question, but yeah, hormones. Wild times.
So I started working as a trans boy. It was interesting, because my clients didn’t know what to expect. Most of them hadn’t ever been with someone who was transmasculine before. Some of them had been with trans girls, some hadn’t been with anyone who was trans. I started advertising in the paper and online, and clients would come see me, and they wouldn’t really know what to expect. Sometimes they’d be like, ‘Oh, awesome, you’re quite boyish,’ or sometimes,
‘Awesome, quite girly.’ There was one guy I’d talked to on the phone, and when he came round, he was like, ‘Oh, I really liked your boy voice better.’ And I was like [deep voice], ‘Ah, right,’ because my voice changes a lot. Some of them usually saw trans women and were like, ‘You’re like a trans woman, and that’s what I’m into, but also you’ve got a vagina, so that’s different.’ And others were like, ‘I usually see boys, and you’re kind of like a boy, but you’ve got a vagina, so that’s different.’ Others were like, ‘I usually see girls, but I’ve always been a bit curious about seeing a guy. But I’m not gay!’ I was like, ‘Mmm hmm, that’s cool, you be whatever you want.’
Before doing sex work I was always overdrawn. I was good at getting my bills paid, but that often meant that I wasn’t able to buy good food that I wanted to eat. We regularly went dumpster-diving. Some of my friends would go and they would drop food off to all the single parents. Or I would pay for some things and my flatmate could dumpster-dive – you can get lots of vegetables and bread out of dumpsters but you can’t get soymilk and you can’t get sugar. So, a big dance around how to get your basic needs met, and the overdraft was never paid off, and I couldn’t afford to buy a fridge or a washing machine, so I had to rent them, which was cheap by the month, but you rent a washing machine for three years and you’ve bought a dozen washing machines. Then when I started doing sex work I could pay back my overdraft. And I’d had that overdraft since I was 18. I’d had this thousand-dollar debt sitting there, and then I could pay that off. And I could have more food in the pantry than I would eat in a week.
Doing sex work for me ... just made me feel a lot more calm, and like I had more say over my day-to-day life
I grew up poor, and as an adult, completely without foundation most of the time, I worry about food. So for me, having cupboards with food, with canned goods and dried goods, makes me feel stable and not frantic. When you don’t have your needs met, you can feel really frantic and chaotic, because you’re always trying to get something that you need that you don’t have – especially when that’s something real basic like housing and food. So doing sex work for me, besides being able to pay my overdraft and have food, or buy new blankets, or have clothes that don’t have rips in them or didn’t come from the free box outside the op shop – besides how that materially is really amazing, also psychologically it’s amazing. It just made me feel a lot more calm, and like I had more say over my day-to-day life. I think it’s real big stuff.
This is an abridged extract from the chapter ‘Stevie’ in My Body, My Business: NZ Sex Workers in an Era of Change, by Caren Wilton (published by OUP), available in bookstores from 1 November.