In this essay, now-retired performer Valentina Mia talks about her experiences transitioning and the conditions that led her to join the pornography industry. She interrogates the role of the Trump administration's SESTA/FOSTA legislation and calls for the full decriminalization of sex work.

Transgender women, especially transgender women of color, are made into whores by our nation which, in turn, subjects us to inhumane conditions from which there exists no foreseeable escape. In response to the material conditions to which I am subject by virtue of my assemblage of identities as a transgender woman of color, I advocate for the full decriminalization of sex work to enable me to have access to the legal structures that have, so far, only precluded me from recourse for the times I have been assaulted, raped, robbed, harassed, and stalked.

I want to begin by addressing the ugly side of sex work, followed by an analysis of the system of oppression that is dismantled by the decriminalization of sex work. The primary motivational factors for becoming a sex worker, for me, were poverty and drug addiction. The conditions from which these factors typically arise are discrimination, abandonment, abuse, lack of formal education, and the inability to acquire a job that pays a living wage. While becoming a sex worker is a choice for some of us, it is predetermined fate for others. For me, what began as a choice (when I lived as a cisgender man), later became my only option (as a transgender woman). As a transgender woman, my relationship with sex work is complicated and complex.

My introduction to the world of sex work was in 2015 as a webcam model for Chaturbate. I began camming because I wanted to have an outlet to express my newfound femininity as a self-proclaimed “cross-dresser.” The good side of camming was that it enabled me to discover myself in an accepting environment wherein being transgender was celebrated. Camming helped me acquire the courage to come out as a transgender woman. During spring 2016, while in graduate school at the University of Houston, I decided to hormonally transition from “male” to female because I just couldn't hold back any longer. In doing so, however, I realized rather quickly the harsh reality that I was transitioning into a specific type of woman—a transgender woman—and with that came a set of unwritten rules I had to follow before being able to enter back into society as my newly identified self. Almost immediately after transitioning, camming became my only option, as my identity as a transgender woman effectively demoted me to the status of a second-class citizen in our society. By the end of that semester of grad school I needed to find a new place to live, but the man who had promised me a place to stay ghosted me two weeks before my lease ended. As a result, I was left without stable housing and spent the summer couch surfing, without a stable address. As a result, Chaturbate became my sole means of supporting myself.

After graduation, but only a few months into transition, I applied for positions at companies that happened to lack antidiscrimination policies to protect people based on one's gender expression. Because I hadn't legally changed my name and gender marker, my coworkers and boss could call me by my “dead name” without repercussions. In Texas there are very few protections afforded to transgender individuals. Not only did I have limited legal protections, but as a recently transitioning person I also lacked confidence in my appearance. In my first six months of transitioning, I was harassed and/or made fun of almost daily. People would laugh at my face or snicker and stare at me. I felt like everyone knew I was wearing a wig, and I had to wear a lot of makeup to hide my thick, dark facial hair that cast a shadow that no razor could eliminate. During this time, I was invited to shoot with the porn company Grooby. I felt sex work was my best option, even with a graduate degree. I pursued porn, which led to escorting to keep up with the expenses I felt came with the lifestyle and image of being a porn performer. I've since given up escorting for reasons I'd rather keep to myself, but my point is that, ironically, the very society that effectively forced me into sex work is doing everything it can to ensure I never escape sex work by further oppressing me with legislation aimed at protecting women who were forced into sex work.

The government should not have the authority to make things harder for me, when they are the reason I'm here in the first place because of a lack of legal protections and rights that would allow me to maintain stable employment. I am not a victim; I am a survivor, but the state wants to trap me in a cycle of poverty and oppression. Legislation like SESTA/FOSTA, which criminalizes the advertisement of sexual services online in an effort to combat human trafficking, is an attempt to further subjugate me by taking away a significant source of income for me. The definition of cruelty is hitting someone when they are already down, and this legislation does just that. We are not victims, but policies like this victimize us. Just this week, my PayPal account was shut down. Under its Acceptable Use Policy, PayPal may not be used for certain “sexually oriented” digital goods or services. Next, they're coming for our bank accounts with the End Banking for Human Traffickers Act, which would pressure banks to close the accounts of traffickers. This only encourages banks to go on a witch hunt, shutting down those accounts they fear to be under the spell of forced prostitution. The best solution to combatting problems inherent in a system that subjects certain identities to sex work is resisting those who attempt to exert control over our bodies. Decriminalizing prostitution is the only effective means of dismantling that power and reorienting ourselves to new frontiers from which sex work is dealt with as a social issue, not a criminal one.