Trans Dynamics: Sabine Isca on Feminism, Economics, and Bigotry

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Trans Ethics: What were you doing before you got into camming?

Sabine Isca: I was unemployed, after losing a job due to anxiety & depression.

TE: Was your anxiety and depression due to you being transgender?

SI: Yes it was, I hit a really bad low when I realised I had to transition or it would just keep getting worse.

TE: Did you come out at your previous job?

SI: Yeah, I believed I’d be fine because of the equality act and anti-discrimination policy. Unfortunately, the company complied 100% with their legal requirements, but that didn’t extend to any kind of flexibility with regard to attendance, and I was fired for being off sick too often.

TE: That couldn’t have been helpful to your self esteem.

SI: It wasn’t great for my self esteem. I also had my long term relationship end and had to move out shortly before that, so I was in a pretty low place, with little support.

TE: Finances can put stress on even the healthiest relationships. Did your relationship end because of money, or because you’re trans?

SI: The relationship ended while I still had a job. It was because I was trans. She specifically stated that it was simply because I was going to be a woman and she wasn’t a lesbian… but I think there was an element of repulsion. Plus her feeling like she’d been lied to for 7 years of “wasted time”.

TE: That couldn’t have been easy for either of you. Given that you lost a seven year relationship due to being trans, how do you respond to people who say that being trans is a passing fad?

SI: I’d respond with the most incredulous face you’ve ever seen pulled, I think. Such people are completely ignorant of trans people existing all through history, and the mountains of evidence in the form of lives and stories of trans people who show that it’s no fad. People wouldn’t deal with what we do, go through what we do, for a fad.

TE: Why do you think society has such an aversion to trans women?

SI: I think it’s to do with male privilege, both in terms of them not being unable to understand why someone would transition to the lower social status of women, and in terms of women being seen as only of value in as much as they’re desired by men. So we’re either an unattractive joke to them if we don’t pass, or if we do, we’re doing it to deceive men into sex.

TE: How long were you unemployed before you got into camming?

SI: I think I went about 5 or 6 months with no work before I decided to try camming out. I tried it, I liked it, and I also decided to try some escorting.

TE: Was there a particular person who got you interested in camming, or was it your own idea?

SI: Well, the idea had been floating around my head for a long time, because I thought it was basically what trans women did, and I felt like I shouldn’t do it for that reason. It was seeing trans women like Niki [Flux], who seemed incredibly sorted and confident. Also encountering some amazing kick-ass feminist sex workers on twitter… that helped me realise it didn’t have to be a disempowering thing. It was as valid a way to earn my money as anything else was, if it happened to work for me personally. So I decided to give it a try and see if I liked it. And I did.

TE: How did you come to the conclusion that sex-work is pretty much “what trans women do”?

SI: I think partly because the media basically portray us that way a lot of the time, and because so many trans women do end up in sex work because other avenues are often closed off to us, or made much harder for us to access. Also, if I’m wholly honest, partly because when I was scrabbling around trying to understand who I was, both in gender identity and in sexuality. That did involve, to a small degree, looking at porn featuring trans women.

TE: You mentioned you have done some escorting as well. I assume your clients are aware you’re trans before you meet them.

SI: Naturally. It’s my selling point. Plus I think it’d expose me to violence to have that only revealed when meeting clients.

TE: So obviously, you aren’t trying to “trick men into having sex” with you, as society in general may think. If you met a really nice guy outside of sex work, at what point would you tell him of your trans status?

SI: As soon as I was aware he was interested in me romantically or sexually. I’d want to make sure he definitely knew I was trans. On dating profiles I actually put it as the first thing on there, so no one can claim I’m not being upfront about it. Same applies to women and non-binary people too. Although I’m most often into men, I am bisexual. It’s also a good way to screen out some of the worse people.

TE: How do you feel about other trans women who call themselves “traps” (meaning they like to trick men into having sex with them)?

SI: It’s their prerogative to choose how they identify themselves and how to conduct themselves, if tricking men is something they do as part of being a ‘trap’. I think it does mean we all get tarred with that brush a little, but that’s really more a problem with cis folk tarring all trans women with the same brush than it is with the behavior/identification of those trans women,in my opinion.

TE: You mentioned that some avenues of employment are closed to trans women. Would you expand on that?

SI: Certainly finding work is difficult for a lot of people at the moment. But I do get the feeling that many employers would often pick a cis person for a job over us, in the same way as they would often pick a man over a woman, a white person over a person of colour, or a abled person over a disabled person. Also there’s the hurdle of us feeling like some workplaces would simply be hostile environments, even if we were able to get a job there. Jobs dealing with the general public especially, like retail, seem like they’d be an issue. Even if your employer is ok with you being trans, and your workmates are also ok with it, the public are always an unknown [factor]. Working in schools, nurseries, other jobs where you work with children are also likely to be a problem because of the way some particularly bigoted people perceive trans women as sexual predators/offenders. Lest we forget, Lucy Meadows was hounded to death (she committed suicide) by the media because she was a trans woman and a teacher.

TE: It’s a sad truth in this world that bigotry exists. As a Trans Woman of Color, could you tell us about some of the prejudice you’ve experienced?

SI: One of the problems with having intersecting identities like that is you don’t just get bigotry from outside both identities, but from within them too. So I don’t just experience transphobia from white people but from people of colour too. I don’t just experience racism from cis people, but from trans people too. Last year when there was an atrocity in Pakistan, I encountered a white trans woman on twitter who demanded I vocally denounce the atrocity, as if I bore some collective responsibility for it because of my heritage (my mother’s side of the family emigrated to the UK from Pakistan in the 60s).

Another problem is that trans people can often be erased when the struggles of people of colour are being discussed, and people of colour can often be erased from when the struggles of trans people are being discussed. This is one of the reasons why I feel an intersectional approach is so vital. It can be crushing to feel like the specific problems that you experience as a trans woman of colour are ignored both by the trans rights movement and by the anti-racism movement.

TE: In the U.S. there has been four trans women murdered already in 2015, all of whom were Trans Women of Color. Would you speculate on why there’s been no outcry from minority groups other than trans women?

SI: I don’t think that’s particularly true, I’ve seen an increasing amount of solidarity and elevating of black trans women’s voices –and it almost always seems to be black trans women who are killed– among black feminists and womanists on twitter. In fact, I’m often hearing about these murders from them first. I do think there is a problem in that these black women are not always listened to, and the mainstream media seemingly has even less interest in reporting murders of black trans women accurately, or at all, than it does other marginalised people.

TE: How does it make you feel when the media misgenders a trans woman? Do you think it’s intentional?

SI: It’s kind of a mixture of despair and disappointment, only with a total lack of surprise, these days. It happens so often. I do think it’s intentional, and it feels to me like it’s done –like with dead-naming– specifically to invalidate our identities in the mind of the viewer/reader.

TE: I’ve only seen the word “womanist” pop up recently. Would you be so kind as to explain the difference between being a feminist and being a womanist?

SI: I’m not exactly an expert on this, but as far as I’m aware, womanism came about because the white-led feminist movement largely ignored the differing problems faced by black women.

TE: Would you define yourself as an “intersectional feminist”?

SI: I would define myself primarily as an anarchist feminist, but one who strives to apply an intersectional analysis. I’m not always entirely successful.

TE: From your unique perspective, what are the major problems with mainstream feminism?

SI: I think the [largest problem] is the tendency to focus on the issues seen as most important by the loudest voices in mainstream feminism: largely successful, white, middle class, cisgender, heterosexual, and employed in the media.

There’s also a rather disturbing tendency to silence marginalised women like women of colour, trans women, or sex workers, who might have a different idea about what’s the most important thing to focus on, or indeed may even be highlighting harm caused to marginalised women by the course that’s been decided by ideology. For example, the solutions proposed by most mainstream feminists to the issues surrounding sex work or misogynist abuse are often very carceral (involving the law and/or imprisonment), which obviously is not something that an anarchist feminist, a sex worker who experiences police as a threat, or a woman of colour who is a prison abolitionist, for a few examples, would support.

TE: What reasons have you heard from feminists as to why sex work should be criminal, rather than embraced as a form of female empowerment?

SI: It’s important to highlight that whether a person sees their sex work as empowering or not, should not really be the issue – it’s work. And whether we like our work or not it’s our livelihood. The “sex work is empowering” ‘happy hooker’ trope has become a bit of a straw man that people use against us. Whether a worker enjoys their work or not should not affect the fact that workers need rights. People working in retail or in McJobs might hate their jobs and want to leave them, but that’s no argument that they shouldn’t have rights while doing that work.

Too often I see the argument that all sex work is rape, which is patently rubbish. Also I see people argue that it’s demeaning, or places women as subservient to men’s sexual wants, and thus should be illegal in order to discourage women going into it.

Obviously trafficking needs to be stopped completely. “End demand” (i.e. criminalising buying of sex) doesn’t do this. In fact it pushes sex work underground where women are less safe, and more likely to be in contact with criminal gangs.

I personally feel that what we need to do is work on the ‘push factors’ like poverty and unemployment/underemployment faced by women. This economic coercion means women who don’t want to do sex work are doing sex work, and that needs to stop. The stigma faced by sex workers makes it much harder to exit if we decide we no longer want to do sex work, and sex work being criminal only increases the amount of stigma.

I feel ending economic coercion, and implementing decriminalisation and de-stigmatization of sex work will ensure that those who don’t want to do sex work aren’t doing sex work, while those who do can do it in a much safer environment. The UN, Amnesty [International] (pretty much every organisation that works with current sex workers that I’ve seen talking about it), and most importantly we, the current sex workers, agree with this harm reduction approach.

Only those people who wish to see sex work ended for ideological reasons (i.e. carceral feminists or religious groups), or people who’ve not listened to current sex workers and who think they’re doing us a favour by supporting criminalisation, seem to favour criminalisation. Even those who believe sex work is inherently wrong and dangerous, can still see that the harm reduction approach is going to save lives, prevent rape, and keep criminal gangs out of sex work.

TE: How would you define “ethical sex work”?

SI: I think sex work that ensures everyone in sex work is consenting, of legal and responsible age, is not economically coerced or coerced into acts they do not want to engage in is very important.

Also I think porn needs to be more representative of different body types, genders, colours, etc., and to be more responsible in how it portrays sexuality – with consent clearly given before BDSM portrayal for example, and people being humanised, not being objectified for their gender, race, or body type (which I do believe is something we can do). I think this will help ensure sex work is not so gendered. At the moment it is largely about women performing for the male gaze and that’s a big problem).

There are a lot of ethical problems and a lot of misogyny in sex work as it stands. But I don’t believe that to be endemic to sex work, and I do believe that sex work will still continue to exist in some form after solving these ethical and gender issues.

TE: That’s an excellent definition.

SI: Thanks.

TE: Being both a sex worker and a Trans Woman of Color –given the social and economic factors you defined– do you see yourself doing something other than sex work in the future?

SI: I don’t know. I think it would be nice to have the options available to me, and not to have past sex work as some kind of skeleton in my closet, but something that was just work that I’ve done. As it stands, my options are rather limited, and sex work is the option I like most out of those.

It’s worth mentioning that one of the things that limits me is the fact that a transphobic feminist has made at least two web pages slandering me and outing me as a sex worker to any potential employer who cares to google me while looking through applications. So that makes exiting sex work rather difficult. It’s a good [thing] I enjoy sex work really, or I’d be rather screwed.

TE: If you had one or two sentences to say to everyone in the world –one concise thought– what would it be?

SI: We could all do with putting ourselves in the shoes of less well-off people a lot more often.
Also, in the words of Bill S. Preston Esq. and Ted Theodore Logan: “Be excellent to each other!”

Follow Sabine Isca on Twitter.

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