I was enjoying a follow-up date with a super hot, kind, successful, and progressive guy last fall when the subject of sex work came up. His attitude seemed open and advanced, as he told me he had no problem with the fact that his transexual ex-girlfriend had been a sex worker. The only reason they had broken up, he said, was because she moved across the country for an office promotion. He’d already known about her work history by the time they began dating seriously. They were still good friends.
I was impressed with Greg’s lack of prejudice against trans women and sex work. How sophisticated he was!
But later, things took a confusing turn. We were walking past a nightclub one evening and some TS girls were outside smoking. It wasn’t clear whether or not they were working but it looked like a possibility. Greg mentioned how sad it made him that transgendered women had such low self-esteem that they offered themselves up for exploitation.
“I thought your ex was an adult film star, and a prostitute,” I said, wondering if I’d been hearing things. “You said it didn’t bother you.”
“It doesn’t,” Greg said. “Anna had turned from her past. She wanted better things for herself, and she was sorry for what she had done. That’s different than glorifying it.”
“So let me get this straight. You would not be supportive of Anna, if she wasn’t sorry. Even if it was in the past, even if she had still moved on but didn’t regret it?”
He looked puzzled. “If a person repents,” he said, “you support their change and don’t let the past get in the way.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Except that I could. And I was fuming! It was as if a trans woman is supposed to be ashamed of her sexuality, ashamed of her choices and options, and ashamed of providing men like Greg with the experiences they wanted.
I didn’t see Greg again. But later I grew more sympathetic. His attitude reflected his own sense of guilt and shame. It’s not just men, either. I have argued until I was blue in the face with an activist friend. She campaigns against decriminalizing and legalizing sex work. I feel she is infringing on the independent agency of women and transgendered persons. She feels she is giving a voice to the exploited, and she has been exploited herself.
Some self-examination made me aware that my own responses are not so enlightened either. I support all sex workers. But it’s also true that once I found out a man I was sleeping with had supported himself through college by making gay porn films. I couldn’t help my messy emotions. I kept wondering if he was really gay, and felt sorry for him for having to do things he didn’t want to. I would probably feel differently about this now, but I was young and sexually insecure at the time.
Our own complex reactions and judgements about sexuality are curiously mixed into our own desires and also, a natural idealism that vulnerable people must be protected from exploitation. It gets complicated when we then equate transgendered people or women with being vulnerable instead of self-directed, and more complicated still when we equate desire with exploitation. Perhaps none of the players in this story are right, and none are wrong. We are all just looking for ways to figure it out and get along.
The best policy might be don’t ask, don’t tell. In a way, whether it’s your first date or your’e married to her, your girlfriend’s past is none of your business. But maybe she wants to tell you, or you find out and aren’t sure how to react. The best place to start is simple, with honesty and open dialogue.