The Monday Extract: “Stevie”, who works in the sex industry as a self-described “trans boy”, talks to social historian Caren Wilton. Photographs by Madeleine Slavick.
I was born in a housebus in the early 1980s. On Dad’s side I’m Ngāpuhi, and on Mum’s side Ngāti Maniapoto, in the King Country. We travelled around lots when I was little, and we moved from South Auckland to the West Coast of the South Island when I was about two or three, so I grew up there. Mostly we lived in the Southern Alps, with only a few neighbours.
My parents were both designers who made leather clothes and shoes to order, and sold them at the markets. But they didn’t have any regular employment when I was little, so we were really poor. I’ve got four older sisters, two little sisters and a little brother. We didn’t have much to do with any of our extended whānau. Both of my parents had sort of cut ties with their families.
There was a lot of stress. I guess that’s always the case when you’re really poor and you don’t have a lot of resources. Also, a really, really white area, and my parents had quite a separate social scene. They had friends from out of town who would come and visit sometimes, who were mostly from the Mongrel Mob in Auckland. They were really cool – I liked them. We had a housebus, and we used to go and stay at friends’ places. We’d stay on the beach, and we’d light fires and get mussels off the rocks. They would drink crates of beer, we had lots of dogs – so it was quite fun, that aspect of it. They partied a lot. We did stuff that was really fun, like gathering food – there was a watercress patch.
I did correspondence school until I was 12. I went to high school briefly, and I was put in the A-stream class. And they rated our IQ, and I was like the second-highest IQ in our year. I would often miss class for most of the week, and then come in on the last day and catch up. I’d still get the same marks as everyone else – so I was like, “What’s the point of coming to school, if I can just come to school a couple of days, and I could be getting stoned and hanging out at the beach with my friends?”
Plus, I was always out at school. I remember when I was about three, kissing the TV when pretty girls would come on. When I was about 13 I said to my friends, “So, I think I’m fluid – like, bisexual.” But I never felt bad about not being heterosexual. My parents had quite a disregard for authority, and I think I just picked up that who I was was OK, and if other people had a problem with it, that was their problem.
I was out, but no one else was, and when I did hook up with girls it was really secret. A lot of the people who I crushed on or dated were feminine boys. Some were also into boys, and some liked to wear women’s clothes in private.
In fourth form I almost never went to school, and I left halfway through the year. Then I met a guy who was lots older than me, and I moved in with him. We got a housebus, and we lived in the forest for a while. Later we moved to Nelson. He was 28 and I was 15. We had no money. I remember once we stole a huge pumpkin, and lived on pumpkin soup for two weeks.
There was a house where some of his friends were squatting – an awful fucking dive. We lived there for a little while. I was trying to get on the independent youth benefit, and it was really, really difficult. I tried to get a food box from the food bank, and they were like, “You need to have an address.” They wouldn’t give me a food box, and WINZ wouldn’t give me money for food because I had to be on a benefit to get money from them. It was really, really, really hard to survive. It was cold – all those things that are a problem when you’re homeless. We didn’t have a kitchen. We had to wash our dishes in the bathtub. There were none of the things that make it easy to make yourself presentable. I didn’t have clothes, so I couldn’t get work.
Sometimes I went to Christchurch to stay with one of my sisters. I was like, “Oh, maybe I should go and get a job in a massage parlour.” I think I was 16. I went to Felicity’s – they had an ad in the paper that was something like “Massage, ladies wanted.” I thought, oh yeah, I could do that. I had walked past the neon lights on Lichfield Street, and I knew it wasn’t just massage. I went in there, and I was like, wow, it’s like another world in here. It’s the middle of the day, and down these stairs there’s a big dark room with a pool table. There were ladies dressed in red evening gowns. It was like a soap opera, like Days of Our Lives or something.
I decided to move to Whanganui, because I wanted to live in a commune, and it was cheap to buy land. I found this cool property that was owned by some anarchists who had a little community. I didn’t know what anarchism was – everyone I knew who was like “Yeah, anarchy!” got drunk at 10 in the morning and had fights with the cops. At the time, I half believed what the media said about “radicals”. These people were like, “No! Well, yeah, maybe. But it’s also about building communities, organising together to meet everyone’s needs,” and all this cool radical nice stuff that people do for each other. And they were really cool. I loved how they did their social relationships – active listening and taking turns speaking, not making assumptions. Later, when I had moved to Wellington, I read this book of feminist essays.
The book was talking about patriarchy and oppressive systems, and I was like, “Oh, right! It’s not just in my social scene that the guys talk over the top of women, or it’s not just coincidence that the boys are outside playing hacky sack while the women are cleaning up after dinner. Oh my gods, there are other people who think like me, and they’re called feminists. I have to find feminists.”
Then I was like, “I’m done with guys.”
About a year later I joined an anarchist collective. I was also involved in Anarchist Black Cross, the prisoner support group. And I went to an anarchafeminist conference, and met heaps of really cool women. I became heavily involved in radical left political activism, especially women’s rights, queer rights and sexual-violence survivor support. The anarchist community had its problems, but for me it was revolutionary – I learned that organising collectively meant it was possible to change the unfair circumstances people were living in.
When my son started school I had to find work that I could do between 9am and 3pm, but there wasn’t a lot out there, and all parents want those jobs, so that’s how I started doing sex work. I thought, if it makes me feel bad, then I’ll stop doing it and find another way. I looked on the internet for how much places were charging, and I thought I’d find the place that charges the most and go and work there. So I did that.
It’s funny, because a lot of sex workers that I meet think the girls who work at those expensive places must be really beautiful, “skinnier than me, prettier than me,” that kind of thing. But I didn’t think that – I was just like, oh yeah, I could do that. I’ve got stretch marks, though. And I didn’t want to shave my legs or my armpits.
I went in and met the manager, and she explained the on-call service – that I would tell them what days I’m available, and they would text me if there were any clients that want to make a booking. I wore something a little bit understated, and some mascara. She was like, “What you’re wearing is fine, and we have clothes and shoes that you can wear when you come in. So if you’re around and get a text you can just pop in.” I said, “I don’t like shaving my legs, do I have to shave my legs?” And she was like, “You probably do. You’ll definitely need to shave your armpits.”
The first client I saw was terrible in that he was “Oh, can you do it without a condom? You get really good tips.” And I was like, “That might not be all that you’re going to get.” He kept asking personal questions – the sort of things people often ask each other in chit-chat. I was very out about everything in my little queer anarchafeminist community, so I wasn’t really used to people asking me questions that I didn’t want to answer. I had to not answer him in a way that was cute and funny so he didn’t get upset. He asked, “What do you do for fun?” and I didn’t want to say, “Party with a bunch of dykes and plot the revolution.” I was like, “Ummm …”
I didn’t stay at that brothel for very long – it wasn’t really me. I decided to try and work independently. I knew this trans girl who was working from an apartment, and she said, “You can come and work at my place for a while.” I was like, “Fuck men, I’m going to work as a lesbian escort! I’m going to get so much money because no one else is doing it.”
And it turns out the reason no one else is doing it is because there’s not much market. I got heaps of calls from guys, and I’m like, “Why are you calling me? Are you a lesbian? No.” There’s not a lot of female clients out there. I was like, oh, this sucks. I thought it would be fun – I’ll have sex with girls, get paid. Not so much.
So after that I went to work in a massage place. I decided I didn’t feel like having sex with guys, so I thought I’d just do massage. I worked there for about a year, and I really liked it. The workers would go in and hang out on the days we were on call. It was just hot oil massage and hand jobs, technically. Sometimes other things. I really liked working that way because the clients didn’t expect anything else. So if they were trying to touch your bum, you could let them or you could be like, “No touching.” For the most part they expected you to say, “No touching.” If they wanted you to be nude, you would charge extra. I really liked that – they had no expectation of more, so if you didn’t feel like doing anything else you would still be able to do the work and get paid.
Plus there was a bit more art to selling it – you’ve done the sensual, exciting massage and you’re doing the hand job. You could at a completely unfair moment be like, ‘Oh, I know it’s totally unfair to ask you this now, but if you want me to give you a blow job it’s X amount extra,’ and they’re going to say yes because they’re halfway to coming and you’re really hot and they’re really turned on. So, if you were good at selling extras you could make twice the money.
When I worked at this other expensive place, this one annoying guy would try and talk politics with me, and I felt like, I will intellectually fucking smash you. Don’t even start with me. He’d be like, “Oh, the new National budget’s just come out, isn’t it amazing?” And I know that the government has cut funding to education, health care, sexual-violence support services. It’s hard to have sex with a National voter! Change the subject! So I’d say, “Politics is so boring”, in a cute voice, and bounce my boobs.
I went and worked in an expensive fantasy salon. It was a dungeon, and they had BDSM bookings, dominatrixy bookings or fetish bookings. I thought that clients would come in asking for all sorts of weird stuff – but then what people asked for was mostly really boring. A lot of them just wanted you to look scary – just wear PVC and do what you always do in a bedroom. They wanted you to be a bit sassy and give them orgasms.
One day I was at work, and the client went and got in the shower, and I was sitting on this big wooden bed in front of this big gilded mirror, on the white sheets. I was wearing really high heels and stockings and lacy lingerie, and hair extensions and makeup. I looked at myself in the mirror, and I was just like, oh my god, that is not me. I had this moment – whoa, that’s how the world sees me, and that’s not who I am, and I’m not all right with that. That was my moment of, I think I’m done with trying to be a girl.
I had a few months of intensively thinking about that stuff and having talks with people before I decided to transition. I was lucky because I already knew lots of trans people, mostly trans women. I had one really good friend who was a trans guy, and we’d talked quite a bit. I understood the basics. I also understood that a lot of trans guys wanted to be really masculine. People I knew were like, “Yes! I’m getting hairy! Yay, I look like a guy.” I was like, “That’s great for them, but it’s not where I’m at. I like being feminine, I just feel like I’m a feminine boy.” I didn’t want to get hairy, I didn’t want to get masculine, I just wanted to have a dick.
When I started to physically transition, I was fairly involved in trans communities and I had stopped dating cisgender people. I sort of didn’t want to take hormones, but to be allowed to get surgery I had to take hormones. I talked to surgeons overseas and they said, you can’t get a penis unless you have hormones and top surgery first. But I don’t want to be a masculine man, I’m not a man or a woman. Western frameworks for gender are so far behind they think they’re first. I’m a non-binary takatāpui transsexual, and I like being feminine, and I want a dick, and I don’t see why I shouldn’t.
You don’t have to be a guy to have a dick – half of my closest friends and lovers are women who have a dick, and some of my friends are guys who don’t. There needs to be a shift in the way we categorise people and their body parts as gendered. Unfortunately at the moment, though, our health-care system is a mess in terms of trans health-care, and if a trans person says something that providers don’t understand, then it’s very hard to get the medical care they need.
When I went to the endocrinologist, I guess you know what gives you your A-plus for getting hormones. So I shaved off all my pink hair, and I wore a rugby jersey and a binder. And I’d heard that a lot of trans guys had gone in there and that particular endo had said, “No, you’re such a pretty girl, why would you want to become a boy? You’ll get hairy and bald, and end up being an ugly old man.”
He would try and discourage them, then put them on pills that don’t do very much. So I butched up and went in there, and said the A-plus answers. I said [deep voice], “Yep, I always felt like a boy. I always liked girls. I always knew I should be a boy, I just want my body to reflect how I feel on the inside.” I ticked all the boxes.
I was really lucky, I got onto a pretty decent dose of T – testosterone – pretty quickly. So my body started changing really quickly, especially my smell. I kept thinking there were boys in my room. Oh, it’s me. OK. I didn’t really like smelling like a boy, and I didn’t like getting hairy. And I’ve always been able to deal with heaps of people’s emotional stuff, but when I was on a lot of T I couldn’t deal with as much. I couldn’t just read people any more. It was really, really hard. That was the thing that I wasn’t expecting. But I did get new junk! Hormones often make dicks more like clits over time, and clits more like dicks. It’s all the same thing really.
I hadn’t realised how much hormones affect you. Like getting turned on at the drop of a hat. I had just thought this was socialisation, that men are taught that you can look at a body part of any woman, it doesn’t matter who she is, whether you’re attracted to her, you can see a random sexualised body part and get an erection. But that’s actually hormones. A lot of things that I thought of as being just about socialisation – it’s not just about socialisation. I mean, how you choose to respond to that is a whole different question, but yeah, hormones. Wild times.
So I started working as a trans boy. It was interesting, because my clients didn’t know what to expect. Most of them hadn’t ever been with someone who was transmasculine before. Some of them had been with trans girls, some hadn’t been with anyone who was trans. I started advertising in the paper and online, and clients would come see me, and they wouldn’t really know what to expect. Sometimes they’d be like, “Oh, awesome, you’re quite boyish,” or sometimes, “Awesome, quite girly.”
I also started doing lots of doubles with trans girls. From a sex-worker perspective, whatever your niche is, you want to upsell. And also, my friends are all broke – everyone’s in a similar basket. So I’m like, “Do you know what would be really hot? Have you ever had sex with a trans woman? You should book me for a double with my friend.”
Out in the world, many people are too chickenshit to admit they’re attracted to trans women, but in the world of sex work it’s a lot more OK to just say what you want. The sex industry is beautifully sex-positive and practical in ways that very few other spaces are.
So I started doing lots of doubles, and that worked really well for me. Probably half the work I do now is doubles with trans girls. It’s nice being able to get other people work, and it’s also a drawcard in that not many people do that. It’s fun working with friends too – you get to have a giggle about the booking afterwards, and it’s not boring, sitting around waiting for the phone to ring.
My work persona is very down to earth – I’m not into over-performance. I think it’s unnecessary to be Super Hooker, and I really don’t need to prove anything. So I like to be like, “The experience you get from me is that I’m casual and genuine and I give amazing head.”
Stevie’s story is taken from My Body, My Business: New Zealand sex workers in an era of change by Caren Wilton, with photographs by Madeleine Slavick ($45, Otago University Press), available at Unity Books.
The Spinoff Review of Books is proudly brought to you by Unity Books.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.