Eric/a grappled with the idea of sex work for over a year before their first paid sexual encounter.
Since the summer after their sophomore year, they were consumed by a mental calculus of risk. Eric/a weighed the risk of detection by the authorities, the university and fellow students. They considered the potential for sexual assault and sexually transmitted diseases.
But the fears were superseded by Eric/a’s belief that sex work provided a means to finally, truly, be themselves as a transgender individual. Eric/a, a Georgetown University senior whose real name has been withheld for anonymity and replaced with a preferred moniker signifying their gender fluidity, said the extra income furnished their ability to purchase makeup and clothes that represented their identity.
“It was something I was wrestling with, ‘Should I do this? Should I not do this?’ Because if I do, then I will be able to, in a sense, move forward and realize and explore parts of my identity,” Eric/a said. “Doing sex work was basically having that extra money, having that extra bumper, to live the life I wanted to live.”
Propelled by this hope, Eric/a opened an account last summer on SeekingArrangement.com at the recommendation of a fellow Georgetown student. Describing itself as “the world’s largest sugar dating site,” the platform aims to match up young people with older, wealthier partners who help financially subsidize their sugar babies’ lives in exchange for companionship.
Since then, Eric/a has had multiple sexual encounters, sometimes as many as eight or nine times with the same client, for fees as large as $200 per session.
At first, most of these encounters qualified as sugaring, a practice which relies on gifts or allowances from clients in exchange for sex. But after finding the payoff of sugaring to be too meager and at times uneven, Eric/a switched to escorting, which relies strictly on monetary transactions for sex.
Now, while juggling midterms and club commitments, Eric/a sets up profiles online and schedules dates with clients. They are not alone – Eric/a knows of similar arrangements among their peers who have taken up sugaring to offset tuition costs. All the while, these students risk apprehension by law enforcement, which penalizes prostitution with fines of up to $500 or a maximum of 90-day imprisonment for first-time offenders.
However, this could soon change amid efforts by advocates to decriminalize sex work in D.C.
A proposed bill introduced Oct. 5 by D.C. Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large), with the help of the Sex Workers Advocate Coalition and D.C. Councilmember Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), proposed repealing a number of laws that criminalize consenting adults for exchanging sex for money. The bill now resides in committee, awaiting a hearing by the D.C. Council before next spring.
Johanna Margeson, a member of Georgetown’s Women’s Law and Public Policy Fellowship Program and legal fellow at HIPS, an organization that promotes the rights and dignity of sex workers, said the bill was designed to protect some of the District’s most marginalized communities who cannot seek help from authorities without being criminalized themselves.
According to data collected by HIPS, trans women are ten times more likely to engage in sex work than cisgender women. Of those trans sex workers operating in D.C., 85 percent are black or Latinx and 37 percent are homeless.
“At HIPS, we predominantly work with transgender women of color, and we see they face a lot of issues with prosecution and poor interactions with the police,” Margeson said. “But that’s just one part of the problem. A lot of our clients say they have bad dates, where they are injured or abused or experience second-hand trauma. But they can’t go to the hospital, and they can’t go to the police, because they face criminalization themselves.”
Over 80 percent of street-based sex workers reported experiencing violence in their encounters, according to HIPS.
With regard to criminalization, Eric/a said issues of consent are even more fraught for sex workers, who have no means of ensuring clients abide by agreements.
As someone who has experience with both sugaring, which relies on sex in exchange for gifts or allowances, and escorting, which relies strictly on monetary transactions for sex, Eric/a said they have encountered instances which tested the limits of consent.
One client claimed he did not want to pay Eric/a for sex because he felt it would be like “exploiting” them. Another pressured Eric/a to engage in sexual practices like bondage, which made them feel uncomfortable for safety reasons.
“It’s difficult, because if I’m expecting something from an encounter, then that is part of consent, and if you’re not paying up, then technically you are violating my consent,” Eric/a said. “But that’s another problem, what constitutes consent? If you’re in this place and you have to act like you’re enjoying it, is it really consensual? It’s really morally gray.”
One aspect in which Eric/a has encountered little difficulty is with practicing safe sex, a fact that they credit to the affluence and sexual education of most of their clients.
However, sex workers who engage in high-risk sexual behaviors – such as not using a condom or other forms of contraception – are more susceptible to sexually transmitted infections.
Sean Bland (LAW ’13), who works as a senior associate at Georgetown University Law Center’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law and specializes in domestic HIV policy issues, said data show decriminalization efforts helped a greater number of those with HIV/AIDS access care, as well as lowered the number of new infections.
“We know in a variety of states, that the really disruptive effect of going in and out of the criminal justice system, even for very short stays, like getting picked off the street and spending the weekend in jail, has a big impact on those living with HIV to adhere to their medication,” said Bland, who also served as a nonadvocacy legal expert for the Sex Workers Advocate Coalition that helped author D.C.’s decriminalization bill.
Eric/a acknowledges that, even as a trans sex worker, their status as a male-passing Georgetown student of comfortable financial means affords them certain privileges over street-based sex workers operating in D.C.
In particular, Eric/a finds that they themselves have much more agency over their choices as a sex worker than do many other trans people in the city.
“For a lot of people, especially trans people, sex work is related to things like employment discrimination, housing discrimination, not having basic needs met, having no choice but to do sex work,” Eric/a said. “But for me, and a lot of trans women and trans feminine people, sex work is also the way in which you build your body, a way in which you feel comfortable in your body and your sexuality and femininity. That is obviously very problematic, in terms of notions of gender and heteronormativity, but we live in a world where those things are very prevalent and feel like reality.”
The stigmatization and lack of visibility of sex workers has compelled Eric/a to share their story anonymously, through an exclusive interview with The Hoya and a blog post on the website of H*yas For Choice, a student organization on campus dedicated to sexual and reproductive health advocacy that supports decriminalization efforts.
H*yas For Choice President Annie Mason (COL ’18), who participated in a study abroad program in Denmark last spring that studied prostitution and the sex trade, said her organization wishes to demonstrate that sex work is a reality occurring within the Georgetown community.
“Very rarely do sex workers get an opportunity to speak for themselves and share their own experiences, and often times on a college campus, we talk about these issues in a theoretical way and assume it’s something that’s occurring outside our campus,” Mason said. “Sharing this story lets people know that it’s not a theoretical issue, and it’s not something that happening in some community elsewhere. It’s something that is happening right here in Georgetown and something we should care about.”
Eric/a contends that although the plight of sex workers should be inextricable from egalitarian movements, often feminist and queer circles purposefully exclude the narratives of sex workers from their advocacy. They claim mainstream movements and organizations, including Planned Parenthood and the Women’s March last winter, sometimes scrub away any mention of empowering women in sex work.
“This is the exact reason it’s very important for people involved in sex work to share their story, because you never hear stories from us,” Eric/a said. “You always hear stories about, ‘prostitution is such a bad thing, and here is why we should stop it,’ but I don’t think that these people who say this have ever engaged in sex work before. They don’t understand what it’s like.”