Opinion
6 min

Straight men loving trans women

Toronto's sex-work industry is thriving, especially for trans sex workers

Sunshine, a trans sex worker in Calgary.

“I’ve been with every type of man: lawyers, doctors, managers, investment bankers. Even politicians.”

Dina’s lips curl into a mischievous smile. 

Even politicians? This could be a career-making scoop, a salacious political sex scandal. Headline: “City Councillor Caught with Transsexual Prostitute.”

“I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed,” she says. “No sex scandals from me. Discretion is very important in my business.”

Dina is an escort. And she is beautiful.

She’s sitting in a west-end coffee shop on a chilly afternoon, and even bundled beneath her bulky coat, Dina turns heads.

Tall and statuesque with skin like butterscotch, it’s not hard to spot her admirers.

There’s a college student stealing glances over his shoulder while typing away on his laptop. And a middle-aged man whose eyes flicker back and forth between Dina and his iPhone.

Like many other women whose beauty attracts men’s attention, Dina treats their hungry eyes with benevolent indifference.

***

Although there are no hard numbers, experts say Canada’s sex-work industry annually brings in hundreds of millions of dollars — and a significant amount of the country’s sex workers are not of the heteronormative variety.

The trans sex trade is thriving across Canada, and in Toronto. Knowing where to look — sites like eros.com, for example, or the back pages of Now magazine — makes it incredibly easy to find dozens of “T-girl” sex workers.

According to many in the trade, a substantial number of men from across the GTA are searching for T-girl companionship; some escorts claim to receive more than 100 calls per week from potential clients.

Much like the city itself, the trans sex work community is a diverse one; the T-girls involved in it are from a variety of ethnic and cultural backgrounds.

And like successful entrepreneurs in any industry, they’ve gone to great lengths to advertise their services. Many have developed interactive websites, and a few trans sex workers in Toronto can be followed on Twitter.

All of this is meant to further entice men who are curious but might need that little extra push before feeling comfortable enough to meet a trans sex worker.

According to some experts, these men may be more common than one might think.

***

In their book A Billion Wicked Thoughts: What the Internet Tells Us About Sexual Relationships, neuroscientists Ogi Ogas and Sai Gaddam explore sexual attraction toward trans women.

They note that “shemale” porn has “exploded in popularity” over the past decade and that it’s consumed overwhelmingly by self-identifying straight men.

Men are aroused by visual cues, according to the authors, and many trans women possess two cues that men find particularly stimulating: traditional femininity and, often, the penis.

Much “shemale” porn features women with large breasts, curvy figures and feminine facial features. And trouser snakes.

The authors write that penises — particularly large penises — are popular visual cues.

“If you look at other primates, the penis is a prominent and versatile social tool used . . . to indicate aggression, to mark territory, to indicate sexual interest.

“That is a very specific hard-wired cue for men to trigger arousal,” Ogas writes.

It seems that straight men’s brains are hardwired to be attracted to trans women with big dicks.

But sometimes what is normal and healthy sexual behaviour from a scientific perspective isn’t helpful in soothing the insecurities held by the non-neuroscientists among us.

***

Huge numbers of males are terrified by what their interest in T-girl internet porn might mean in terms of their sexuality; Google searches for questions “I like shemale porn am I gay?” produce millions of hits.

Exasperation practically oozes from Sunshine when she considers this type of straight male anxiety.

Sunshine is a sex worker based in Calgary, and like many of her colleagues, she’s a knockout.

Does Sunshine think that a guy who wants to hook up with a trans sex worker is gay? Puh-lease.

“Of course he’s not. He is trying to relax into his skin and be honest. What’s wrong with wanting to get fucked? Nothing. If he tasted it, would he turn gay and turn his back on women? Highly unlikely. He just wants to broaden his horizons. He suspects there’s pleasure in the cock, too. Damn, he knows there is — he’s got one. What’s wrong with that?”

Nothing, according to Dr Ruthie. Ruth Neustifter is an expert in human sexuality at the University of Guelph.

Terms like straight, gay and bisexual are inadequate to describe something as complex as sexual attraction, Neustifter says.

And to those T-girl porn lovers out there fretting about orientation, she says they shouldn’t worry about it. “Being attracted to trans porn does not correlate with any particular sexual orientation.

“We as a society, and perhaps as a species, tend to find taboos exciting. Add a little taboo to something that we already like and it becomes even hotter for people.”

Neustifter explains that sexual fantasy and real-life sexual desire often occupy two separate realms, and many people are most comfortable in keeping them apart.

Fantasies offer us a “window into sex acts or potential sex partners that we wouldn’t have access to in our own lives . . . It doesn’t mean we would necessarily choose these partners in a real-life setting.”

Unless, of course, we do.

***

It’s 10pm on a Thursday evening and the music is throbbing inside Club120.

The Church Street bar is hosting one of its Ladyplus parties, a night in which T-girls and their admirers meet to drink, socialize and, perhaps, get to know each other more intimately in the private rooms at the back of the club.

On this cold night, more than a dozen scantily dressed T-girls roam the cavernous club. Some lean against the bar and sip vodka tonics, while others dance in small circles with friends, provocatively swaying their hips to the beat.

A curvaceous Asian T-girl in heels and a short black dress saunters over to a man in a suit sitting in a booth near the dancefloor.

She slides in beside him, and they begin to chat warmly. Her hand flitters over his knee. After a few minutes, she leads him across the dancefloor and up a flight of stairs toward the small, Spartan private rooms.

The gentleman in the suit isn’t the only guest spending some one-on-one time in the back. As the clock drifts past midnight and the club gets busier, the trickle of men heading for the private rooms turns into a flood.

“All of the guys here are heterosexual, but with a twist. I don’t know what that twist is,” says a septuagenarian Dutchman named Marc.

Marc is sitting by himself and nursing a rum and Coke.

What brings him to this transgender Shangri La?

“My wife’s in Cuba . . . and I’ve come to explore the seedy side of life.”

Marc insists that his wife doesn’t mind, though. She has her own fantasies.

“She wants to be with two guys.”

***

Sex work is unlike most other professions.

All sex workers grapple with laws that stigmatize the occupation and block measures that might protect sex workers operating under dangerous conditions.

“Sex work is not illegal in Canada — it never has been — but the law prevents sex workers from accessing basic safety,” says Chanelle Gallant, communications coordinator at Maggie’s, a Toronto sex worker advocacy organization.

Things that make conditions safer — working with other sex professionals out of a house or hiring a bodyguard, for example — are made impossible by Canadian law, Gallant says.

Dee, a trans escort and activist, says that trans women in the industry are even more stigmatized because of their gender.

“Being transsexual is not an easy road. You definitely live a subset of the life you could have had had you remained male. The opportunities are probably cut in half. Doors close for employment opportunities, relationship opportunities; doors close for many things. And while escorting may seem like the financial solution, it’s a double-edged sword.

“You’re not only dealing with trans and being trans, you’re also dealing with being an escort.”

***

It’s a bright Wednesday afternoon and Dina is on her way to meet a client. She doesn’t do business from her home; she rents an apartment above a storefront on Dundas West, far from her place in the east end.

Dina is a student and she was supposed to spend the day studying, but she received a text from one of her regulars asking her to meet up.

When she arrives outside the apartment, she walks down a wide alleyway and enters the building through a door at the back.

It’s a busy afternoon and the sidewalk is bustling. Dozens of people walk by briskly before a young man stops in front of the building, looks up, and slides his cellphone from his jacket pocket.

After a quick, 15-second call, he puts his phone back in his pocket, pushes the glass door open, and climbs up a flight of stairs.