1. In anticipation of the debut of her first book Redefining Realness, Janet Mock has released a six-part video series about her journey as a sex worker and how it relates to pop culture, death, and the power of words.
2. First of all, each video starts with her fanning herself. And we fall in love each time.
3. Mock says she wrote her book to help other women not think that being trans is “bizarre.”
“Through my own story and emotional experience, I hope that it empowers other young girls who know that, first off, that they’re not alone, and it’s not bizarre, and that they’re not the first ones to have been there. That would be the biggest goal for me with Redefining Realness.”
4. It’s important to her that at the beginning of the book, she disclose that she’s trans, she was a sex worker, she was sexually abused, and that she grew up poor.
Best quote from her “Disclosure” video: “We’re all frightened that if we tell the person that we love our truth or tell them who we really are, what we’ve been through that, then they will not love us any more. And I think that that’s what we’re all searching for. We’re all searching for someone to love us exactly as we are.”
5. Mock worked other jobs in fast food and retail, but she said, “Nothing would compare to the check that comes from being a sex worker—that money was quick.” Her body image issues were urgent matters for which she needed money quickly.
Best quote from her “Sex Work” video: From the other sex workers, she felt “a sense of community, sisterhood, resiliency, resources, strength. It was like our underground railroad of resources to navigate a system not built for us.”
6. She named herself after Janet Jackson, but it was Beyonce who instilled strength in her after she watched the “Bills, Bills, Bills” music video.
Best quote from her “Pop Culture” video: “When I started college, Aaliyah died, and I just remember how vital and immediate that was for me, and how it put this sense of urgency in me that death is real and that I didn’t want to die without being myself…”
7. She said people perceive her as a woman, but then, when she reveals that she’s trans, she becomes “objectified and gawked over.”
Best quote from her “Passing” video: “I am a woman. I live my life as a woman and that’s how I should be perceived. I’m not passing as anything. I’m being…being myself.”
8. She would sneak books like Terry McMillan’s Waiting to Exhale from the library because, to her, “words are how I found out what I feel, what I think…”
Best quote from her “Power of Words” video: “I’ve always yearned for that sense of being able to create the book that I should have been able to read growing up. To be able to create and contribute to that story about the experience of growing up as a young trans girl, as a young trans girl of color. What does that look like?”
9. Today, Janet published the essay below about her life after she started being a trans sex worker at the age of 16.
At 16 years old, I began trading sex for money. The money I earned I used to pay for the vital medical care my family couldn’t afford. This essay is not a confession. Neither is my book Redefining Realness. I do not believe that having engaged in the sex trades or being a former sex worker is a confessional matter.
I do not believe using your body — often marginalized people’s only asset, especially in poor, low-income, communities of color — to care after yourself is shameful. What I find shameful is a culture that exiles, stigmatizes and criminalizes those engaged in underground economies like sex work as a means to move past struggle to survival.
I was 15 the first time I visited Merchant Street, what some would call “the stroll” for trans women involved in street-based sex work. At the time, I had just begun medically transitioning and it was where younger girls, like my friends and myself, would go to hang out, flirt and fool around with guys and socialize with older trans women, the legends of our community.
The majority of the women I idolized engaged in the sex trades at some time or another – some dabbled in video cam work and pornography, others chose street-based work and dancing at strip clubs (an option reserved for those most often perceived as cis). These women were the first trans women I met, and I quickly correlated trans womanhood and sex work.
I perceived the sex trades as a rite of passage, something a trans girl had to do in order to make the money necessary to support herself. I had also learned (from media, our laws and pop culture) that sex work is shameful and degrading.
Sex work is heavily stigmatized, whether one goes into it by choice, coercion or circumstance. Sex workers are often dismissed, causing even the most liberal folk, to dehumanize, devalue and demean women who are engaged in the sex trades. This pervasive dehumanization of women in the sex trades leads many to ignore the silencing, brutality, policing, criminalization and violence sex workers face, even blaming them for being utterly damaged, promiscuous, and unworthy.
So because I learned that sex work is shameful, and I correlated trans womanhood and sex work, I was taught that trans womanhood is shameful. This belief system served as the base of my understanding of self as a trans girl, and I couldn’t separate it from my own body image issues, my sense of self, my internalized shame about being trans, brown, poor, young, woman.
Though I yearned to be among women like myself, I also judged them for doing work that I swore at 15 I could never do. The work and those women didn’t fit my pedestal perched Clair Huxtable portrait of womanhood.
Yet my economic hurdles were real and urgent, and I couldn’t deny that witnessing the women of Merchant Street take their lives into their own hands, empowered me. Watching these women every weekend gathered in sisterhood and community, I learned firsthand about body autonomy, about resilience and agency, about learning to do for yourself in a world that is hostile about your existence.
These women taught me that nothing was wrong with me or my body and that if I wanted they would show me the way, and it was this underground railroad of resources created by low-income, marginalized women, that enabled me when I was 16 to jump in a car with my first regular and choose a pathway to my survival and liberation.
Fifty percent of black, 34% of Latin@, and 16% of Asian trans people have made a living in underground economies, including sex work, compared to 11% of white trans people, according to Injustice at Every Turn: A Report of the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.
A leading factor that makes young trans women of color, like myself, more likely to engage in survival sex work is economic hardship. Family rejection and hostile, unwelcoming school environments can push a trans girl to leave these spaces, and anti-trans bias coupled with racism and misogyny and a lack of education heightens joblessness.
When you’re 16 years old, dreaming of being yourself and you come from a family that is already struggling economically (not to mention dealing with accepting your identity) and you’re faced with the high cost of gender affirmative healthcare, the hurdles are high and overwhelming, and sex work becomes the most appealing, viable, efficient option. At least it was for me.
Multilayered systemic oppressions are stacked up against trans women from low-income and/or communities of color so the sex trade becomes a road well traveled, helping trans women alleviate financial woes while also making many of us feel desired as women (through an objectifying male gaze), women who are taught that we are undesirable and illegitimate.
There’s no denying that sex work is dangerous work. Engaging in the sex trades increases a person’s risk for criminalization, acquiring HIV or other STIs, sexual abuse and violence. It can also, for myself at least, complicate and conflate your image of self, of love, of sex, of value, not to mention the stigma that is internalized about the work you do, work that often leads others to define you and your character.
My hope is that being open about my experience as a teenage sex worker helps further conversations about how we can better serve folk engaged in sex work as a means of survival, and particularly vital to my community, how we can develop programs that create more appealing and viable options for young trans women, so sex work isn’t their only option for support and survival. We need programs that help trans girls and women find affirming, affordable healthcare and housing options, that shepherd them towards completing their education and that instills in them a sense of possibility.
For many years I thought being trans, that being brown, that being a former sex worker, that being a different kind of woman made me less than and undeserving of being heard. So I silenced those parts of myself that I felt would lead me to further marginalization. I hope now to stand more fully in my truth, and that my decision to be authentic about my experiences gives young women like me, who feel they may not have and didn’t have other choices, the strength to step more fully into who they are.
This essay and my memoir are pivotal steps in my continual process of revealing myself to myself, to those I love and to the world. I believe that sharing our experiences – specifically the ones that we’re told to keep silent, secret and shameful – are the ones that gives us greater access to power.
I am choosing now to step further into my power.
You can watch her six-part video series here.