Reworking the Erotic Landscape

How trans sex workers navigate, educate, activate and otherwise work the system

In the last 10 years, we have seen a surge of media representation placing transfemme characters into three-dimensional roles. Many have been primary characters in stories, narratives and social media depictions, and the representation within pornography and erotic labor (read, sex work) has increased in circulation alongside other professions prior to that.

Meanwhile, many of the current conversations I’ve observed centered among cisgender individuals and transgender dating, romance and sex have been a constant back-and-forth embedded in aspects of preference: There are hordes of cisgender men interested in transwomen, and transphobic violence can arise from interactions based on transphobia, racism and homophobia. Still, trans pornography is increasingly one of the most-traversed categories sought by consumers, so we know there are many who find pleasure and romantic interest in our bodies.

It’s a known reality that, for many trans and cis people, the hyper-sexualization of trans bodies within pornography is one of the primary representations experienced commonly, but if this is the case, we should look closer at this first contact with trans identities and how performers can and do merge creative, artistic and activist methods with sex work.

I see the rise pornography as conduits of self realization of transness, as well as a platform for activism and education. In my own artistic practice, for example, I have come to focus on the experiential ways sex workers utilize their art to sculpt erotic spaces into expressive areas of social change. For decades, many transfemmes and transwomen experienced their lives through the lens of sex work. Our identities have been crafted into objects of fetishization and reduced to experimentations, but with the increase of individually owned businesses, online spaces such as Twitter, Onlyfans, Tik-Tok and other platforms that help to create, promote and sell content, transgender individuals have begun to shift sexual depictions to queer, and there has always been a history of relationships among trans/nonbinary and queer people within these platforms.

Language in pornography is a powerful force. It operates as a system to traverse an algorithmic landscape of free video sites, Onlyfans promotions, pay video sites and the social constraints we place on ourselves. The words that operated as slurs (tranny, shemale, ladyboy, traps, hermaphrodite) are now increasingly reclaimed by the very people these words impact negatively. The online tagging system is increasingly placed in the hands of more and more trans people, so when you type “transgirl” into a search engine, it will present different forms of videos than “tranny” will, and the concept grows each day.

Of course, sites like PornHub aren’t beacons of inclusion, and pornography should not be perceived as an identity-based educational device, but what does that kind of ground zero exposure do for us as we redefine our bodies and usage of them? It’s important now to see that we are powerful, beautiful and gaining positions of authority and leadership across professions—now we can see erotic laborers beginning to own this form of employment.

Surprises under skirts.

Would you still?

Could I pull you?

Neon lights scattered across my bedroom with soft colors fill the room.

In my bio it reads, “Don’t say shemale, pay me, enjoy what i have to say, and again let’s not hear the word tranny. I will ban you if you use this language.” It lays out my interests, my kinks, how I would toy with you or maybe submit to a fantasy. There is a joining of two activities at once for me. This control of my space is allowing me to utilize a toolset of education and authority onto my own body. It also made an impact on how I’ve chosen to take control of my body through many moments within my transition.

The vast history of transwomen within sex work is dense. Many are currently sex workers or find themselves very much adjacent to that world and dealing with the continued fetishization of our bodies. As such, it has been a stereotype and a dirty assumption that transwomen are often sex workers, among other things. Within new generations of tgirl performers, the space we have been assigned within our identity is changing in a complicated dance of favors and pitfalls; the taboo treatment of sex workers parallels transwomen/femmes closely as it has been tied to our identities based on its necessity for survival and safety. So what do we do?

We change the language and we create autonomy and authority in these hyper-sexual spaces. When it comes to Onlyfans, Chaturbate, escort ads and other areas, transfemmes have boosted a sense of self to reclaim our bodies. We make money, own our bodies and change the business of erotic labor as cisgender folks continue to be exposed to us and as trans communities continue to blossom into a deeper display of eroticism. If sex work is ground zero for many of us to understand ourselves—or for cisgender people to see us—let’s rework that world into our favor.

We are so much more than a reduced sexual object. We are sexual beings to have complete agency in the authority of our bodies’ desires.

Ava Wanbli is a Chicago-based new media performance artist and sex worker. She uses video, performance, 3D scanning, sculpture, and game engines to reconstruct dynamics of spectacle and intimacy through eroticized mediation of the body. In ritualized actions, Ava addresses consumption and the process of becoming through virtual body proxies and environments.

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