“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
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My boyfriend has recently started doing sex work and I have a few concerns. At first it made me uncomfortable, but I reminded myself that he’s his own person and I want to support him in all his endeavours. But recently, new fears have been creeping in.
My partner is a trans man of colour, and I worry for his safety every time he engages a client. As a trans person myself, I know trans people are at a high risk of violence. I’m so scared he will be hurt, or that we will be doxxed.
It wasn’t so bad when he was just messaging people online and video chatting, but now he’s selling physical objects which could be traced to our home if someone dug deep enough. I know he’s doing what he enjoys, but it scares me horribly. Are my fears valid, or is this just my anxiety talking? Is there anything I can do to protect him? I just want him to be happy and healthy.
A Concerned Partner
I find it deeply admirable that you are so committed to supporting your partner in his sex work experience despite the worries that you’ve expressed here. The moment we start to expand our comfort zones and engage in personal growth so that we can show up more strongly for the people in our lives is the moment we start to put love into practice.
That said, it also sounds like you’re having trouble with figuring out where and how to set boundaries and manage your own needs and feelings. Where do we draw the line between doing personal growth for the people we love and losing our own integrity? How do we encourage our loved ones to express themselves fully while also keeping them safe? These are questions that many people in long-term relationships find themselves returning to. I think this is particularly true for queer/trans people and sex workers because queerphobia and whorephobia make our lives and love risky to begin with.
My first suggestion to you, Concerned, is to lean into curiosity and find out more about the kinds of online sex work that your boyfriend does and how he feels about it. In a moment that feels right, I would suggest you have a gentle, open conversation with your boyfriend—one that is focused not on you protecting him from his job, but on you learning more about his experience, being honest and owning your fears and potential biases. When you approach from that angle, you’re less likely to come off as being controlling or patronizing. Some guiding directions for this conversation might be to ask him: What does he enjoy or find good about his work? What is he already doing or thinking about in terms of risk management and safety? What support might he want from you? How can you work as a team to address both his autonomy and your need for safety?
As for those practical safety concerns: If I’m understanding your letter correctly, your boyfriend is currently engaged in online sex work (video chat and messaging), with some additional activities that revolve around selling erotic items. This is a fairly standard business setup for online sex workers, and it actually comes with a few significant safety advantages relative to in-person sex work, particularly during the COVID-19 era: When working solely online, there’s no risk of STI or novel coronavirus transmission, and the likelihood of physical violence is minimal (yes, even for trans people of colour). To put things in perspective, it’s much more likely that your partner would experience physical violence in an underpaid, public-facing “normie” job such as fast food service than as a sex worker who engages with clients solely online.
The risks of online sex work are more in the realm of the psychological: It’s true that harassment, doxing and attempts at blackmail are potential dangers, as they are of any online work that involves personal exposure or vulnerability. I haven’t personally heard of many incidents where this resulted in serious harm, but it can happen, and there isn’t a lot of research in this area yet.
There are ways, though, that you and your partner can practice harm reduction. Implementing online security protocols is a great idea, as is ensuring any personal or identifying objects such as photos are out of sight when your partner is on screen with clients. And while it’s hard to comment on your concern about your partner selling erotic items without having a clearer sense of what and how he’s doing that work, it is possible to sell and ship packages with relative anonymity.
It may be helpful to remember that people who buy sexual products and services are not a special category of violent individuals. For the most part, they are just regular people buying stuff that they like. Harassment and exploitation of online sex workers happens because, well, it’s the internet and people’s worse impulses come out there. But this behaviour can also occur because the stigma of sex work can lead clients to believe that sex workers shouldn’t be treated with respect and dignity, and that attitude—coupled with societal whorephobia—makes it harder for sex workers to find help when they need it.
This is why, more than anything else, connecting to a community of online sex workers is the best way to get a sense of how folks in the field are practicing safety and self-defence. Sex work Twitter is a great place to start: The sex worker community there is vibrant and full of brilliance, and there are many people who can offer advice on protecting your partner. The greatest risks in sex work (and most jobs) lie in the stigmatization and isolation of erotic labour.
Connection to a strong and loving support network is one of the most important safety factors that a sex worker (or really anyone who works in a service role or public-facing job) can have. How can you and your partner work together to create that network? How can you honour your partner’s independence while making sure he continues to receive your support?
It feels important to mention that you might need support as well, Concerned. It’s clear from your letter that you are feeling worry—or perhaps anxiety—about your partner’s work, and it’s okay to acknowledge your feelings. You might also want to spend some time puzzling out how fear for your partner’s safety, fears for your own safety and the stigma of sex work all fit together in your thoughts and emotions.
Growing up, no one is given a social script about how to date a sex worker, which is why I love referring folks to Ho Lover, a short zine by writer Sunny that does just that. There’s also this more recent article by Melissa Petro and this blog post by Christian Vega on the same topic.
You might even want to make a couple lists: One for the support that your boyfriend needs, and one for the support that you need. Would it help to have friends you can talk to about this? Would it help to speak to a supportive, sex work-positive counselor? I would suggest spending some time focusing on your own list and building up your own personal resources and supports, Concerned. You might be surprised how much your feelings about your partner’s work change by doing just that—without him changing or doing anything.
In your letter, you mention that the world is dangerous for trans people, Concerned. I think this is true, but it’s important to remember how that danger works: By putting us in vulnerable positions, by cutting us off from resources, by making us feel alone. Defending ourselves and thriving in our lives comes from taking back our agency and accessing deep connection to our loved ones and our communities. Loving relationships and strong communities have the power to protect and strengthen us. That starts with you caring for yourself, and then by simply being there for your boyfriend—to celebrate when things are good as well as to support when they get rough.
It can be as simple as that, Concerned. Allow yourself your feelings and your process, give yourself as much care as you give your boyfriend and ask him to help you work through it, just as you help him. Let yourself be the partner that you want to be.
In the latest “Ask Kai: Quick Tips for the Apocalypse,” our video series offering relationship advice for those in a hurry, Kai Cheng Thom delves into the oft-misunderstood world of asexuality.