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The Future of Survival Sex Work

More experienced workers are worried about how SISEA could lead to further gentrification in sex work.

An illustrated graphic of Kera. Kera has shoulder length hair, a nose ring and wears spaghetti strap shirt. The graphic has a green tint.
Illustration by Sandra Markarian

Content warning: Police violence, gentrification, sexual assault from police. The nature of our work isn’t violent, but the criminalization of sex work can lead to dangerous and violent situations for workers. The end game is decriminalization. Please practice self-care while reading each worker’s story. Bless. 

Nessa: How long have you been working in sex work?

Kera: 13 years.

N: Wow, what was work like for you back when you first started? 

K: Well when I first started, I was an underage survival sex worker. I was still living as a boy, I was assigned at birth a male. Everything was done in person. I used to hang around a truck stop, I was a lot lizard for a bit. And I used to meet some gentleman off Myspace. Haha. I’m only 30, but I feel so ancient having said that.

Sex work from then till now has been so many different things for me, so let me give you a quick chronological timeline. When I was probably about 19 or 20, I learned about Backpage, I used to work off of the site called Adam4Adam, which was pre-Grindr days, and Manhunt. Again, ’cause I was living as a male. 

Which was pretty easy back in the day for me to do when I was in school, particularly hair school. I was living in Nashville, and also working out of Kroger grocery store. I was doing sex work on the side; if I was hooking up with anybody, I was making sure I was getting money for it. I had such little time — working full time and doing school full time. It’s something that I’ve done on and off, and as I’d gotten older, and as I worked at a hair salon, I met other hustling gays, older gays, gays, and gals… I got introduced to the world of sugaring, working that angle with that sort of thing, taking a few Backpage clients here and there.

It was very… only when I needed money — obviously after I finished hair school, I got my license. With that, I was working at a restaurant, I wasn’t doing sex work full time, but I was doing some content making where I was selling pictures, or selling socks, underwear, and stuff.

Right when I began to transition, the doors just began closing. I was kicked out of a business that I opened with two other people, a salon in Nashville, then I lost my job managing a restaurant. Well, I guess it’s time to dust off the old g-string and tap dance my way back into cars. I was doing massages and stuff out of this communal house I was living in, there was this downstairs room with an exposed brick wall, that I used to decorate with candles, essential oils, mood lighting, all of that stuff — installed a wall unit AC, got a massage table, and started doing that. Within four months of transitioning, I was still clockable, but I was doing good off of Backpage. Then I saw two cops park outside my house, couldn’t keep doing that! Then went down to NOLA, then trapped house around there for a bit. I went to Asheville, North Carolina, godforsaken whatever the fuck there, and made really good money. I didn’t last long there, it was just a month and a half. It was around that time we began doing protest for Jerry Williams.

I began receiving death threats from Proud Boys who found my Backpage ads, so I had to get the fuck out of there. We as white folks were asked by BLM to show up to try to occupy the police headquarters, they sent the SWAT after us… which shows where the priorities are.

I was featured on the news, I tried to hide my face, but the Proud Boys found me. This man sent me a picture of an AR-14 and a picture of my apartment front door. I had to escape by the cover of the night — I lived in a tent in a commune for the next year and a half with no money. 

Then I moved down to New Orleans, I began working out of a shared incall space — that’s the same incall place where I met you. I was working out of a nice space, I was working with a community of other sex workers for the first time. I was in my third year of transition, when you’re going through your second puberty, you steadily lose your mind. 

N: You said the term “survival sex worker,” what is survival sex work? What’s your definition? 

K: I mean compared to most sex workers, I am considered a survival sex worker. These days I try to bring in more income through online media, mostly because I don’t want to deal with people as much as I used to. These days you have to have an online presence, you have to have an OnlyFans, you have to have a Twitter, you have to be posting a lot. It’s a lot different than when you used to put up a $5 ad on Backpage. People would call you and you’d do your thing, [now] people want FaceTime verification, all this other shit. It’s changed. You have to have online social media just to prove you’re legitimately speaking.

N: With online work, sex workers are thrust into the limelight more than ever. It is part of the effects we are seeing from FOSTA-SESTA? 

K: I’m going to sound pretty hypocritical when I say this, but I’m glad there’s online verification with your age… Not the best thing to be doing, looking back at it — a lot of the men I was seeing were predators. A lot of people who did underage sex work, which is technically trafficking, carry a lot of emotional scars from it. Looking back, it was just something that I fell into… I didn’t have many options! Or I would have done something else. My level of consent was I don’t want to stare.

And this was back when I was a femboy. Oh, it wasn’t like how it is now — you go online and it’s a boy dressed as a catmaid in fishnet stockings. Back then it was more dangerous to be an effeminate gay boy. Femmeboys and gender variant people weren’t nearly as celebrated as they are today. Which is why I’m glad that it’s happening. I was almost murdered so many goddamn times, I was running this trap shit out of a truck stop, I wasn’t posting basic selfies on OnlyFans, I’ve been in this shit. Lemme tell ya, it was a much different situation. 

N: what were some of the repercussions that you’ve seen come out of SESTA-FOSTA?

K: Most people I know were pushed off of Backpage. There were a lot more of those sites available. Didn’t Backpage make you age verify?

N: No. 

K: Well with Backpage I feel like it was a situation where it was all in for everybody, there was plenty of money to be made. SESTA-FOSTA forces more people into exclusivity. It forced more people into doing online work and social media marketing of sex work, which has created a strictly secondary online market for sex workers. Like girl, I’m never going to hate how you get your coin, but you are not the same as full-service sex workers. We are not the same. A lot of people have been forced back into civilian jobs.

I’m also disabled. Sex work is something that I can do when I have the energy… I have issues with my health, this is what I can do. The rest of the time I’m working away, in the other time I’m recovering. Eros is one of the few places where I can post… I have a lot of expenses to keep up an appearance, especially as a trans girl, and if I’m posting up ads on Eros, you can’t afford to look dumpy. 

N: Do you want to talk about the gentrification of sex work?

K: I don’t even know where to begin with that statement. It’s such, that’s so loaded. It’s a lot more expensive to be in the game and make money — now more than ever you’re at the mercy of the client. That’s always been a thing, but now more especially.

You don’t have as many places to advertise. If you go to a call thinking, “This guy is giving me a bad feeling, oh, I may have to leave,” that’s not always an option, but it is for people who come in with wealthier, more privileged backgrounds — people who come in with money, with extra resources and access to generational wealth. There are times where I’ve had to pay for younger trans girls’ ads off Eros — like, if you want to make money, this is the route you have to do, no half-assing it. To give them a leg up.

With celebrity influencers who are actively deciding to come into this industry, it’s more of a philosophical decision than a practical decision, if that makes sense, to become a sex worker. They will sit there and use their real names on social media — yeah it’s easier to make it if you come from resources, where your family helps you out… or white privilege, cis passing privilege, or with a good credit score, and starting with no educational debt.

N: Why do we need decriminalization? 

K: Decriminalization is one of the only real options. I have a client that I’ve seen off of Twitter, he’s a regular, and I saw him post a tirade of insisting it should just be legal and it should be regulated, and I’m like oh hell the fuck no. No! No, I don’t want Uncle Sam regulating my fucking taint, it’s not going to happen, they already have too much control over my body in so many areas. When it comes to my body, that is the final frontier, I got to draw a line with that.

In Ann Arbor, the prosecutor here has decided that they will not prosecute consensual sex work. That’s a useless strain on the justice system. This is creating criminals out of people who are not criminals, Detroit is on its way, and with the thing that does, it’s a lot less volatility when people feel safer. People should have access to feel safer when there isn’t a risk of consequence.

Decriminalization means that people would have access to a better quality of life without the risk of their entire lives being ruined and taken apart for getting a fucking blow job. Like for workers — not having their lives being taken apart and exposed to the community because of violent situations around their lives. Alienating them from the places where they live, work, and operate.

Like, some headline will read, “A prostitution ring busted in blah blah blah,” when in reality it’s just two people working out of the same hotel who don’t know each other, and suddenly they’re in a felony conspiracy charge of human trafficking. We don’t need any more people in jail and lives ruined this way, that’s not what they’re participating in. That would open up a lot more resources on the government’s end to find and put a stop to illegal human trafficking, which is sex slavery, and it’s something I do feel passionately about. Decriminalize sex work.