On an August afternoon in Philadelphia, 23-year-old Jara Krys is drinking iced tea in an upscale bottle shop, the kind of place where men in bespoke suits stop on the way home from corner-office jobs and linger in front of the beer case. Krys, who’s taking time off from a bachelor’s degree in economics and international studies at The Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, might earn in three days what some of those men make in two weeks. Every so often, she glances around the room, as if she’s expecting to see someone she knows. It wouldn’t be a stretch for her to run into one of her clients in this neighborhood, a tony enclave of BMW-driving execs and their yoga-mat-toting wives, although she won’t reveal any names. That kind of discretion is protocol in the upper echelons of finance occupied by her Wharton peers, but in Krys’s line of work, the stakes are different: She’s a high-end transgender escort who charges a base rate of $500 an hour and plans to double that amount later this year. She’s also in the process of revamping her brand, which she describes with the calculated fervor of a tech CEO.
Krys talks with her hands, throwing disco-ball spots of sunlight with her long, varnished fingernails. In spite of the 90-degree heat, she’s dressed in all black: a black crop top, black jeans, and black Michael Kors wedge sneakers. Her hair is shoulder-length and shaved on one side. With her blue-green contacts and pale skin, she looks vaguely like a punk Disney princess.
Her attention is birdlike, lighting on one thing after another. At one point, she reaches into her purse and takes out a pressed powder compact. She checks her reflection, dabbing at a shiny spot on her nose. “I’m just a perfectionist,” she sighs. Krys oozes ambition, and it doesn’t seem to faze her that there’s no blueprint for what she’s setting out to do: Use her Penn education to advance her career as an escort and, once she’s made a name for herself, become a powerful advocate for sex worker rights and trans equality.
Krys first entered the sex trade as an orphaned 18-year-old in Las Vegas with few practical options for making ends meet. She was living on her own as a senior in high school, covering expenses that far exceeded what she would have been able to earn from any minimum-wage, part-time job. But for many trans people, even a minimum wage job can be out of reach. A 2013 study released by the Human Rights Campaign found that the unemployment rate for transgender people is twice as high as the rate for the general population, and they’re four times more likely to have a household income of less than $10,000 a year. Faced with this bleak economic situation, coupled with the high cost of transitioning, some transgender women turn to sex work.
While there are no hard numbers on the trans female sex worker population in the U.S., The National Transgender Discrimination Survey, released last December, found that more than one in 10 of the 6,400 transgender adults polled had engaged in sex work. Black and black multi-racial respondents were the most likely to have been involved in the sex trade, followed by Hispanics and Latinos. As a group, transgender female sex workers are at high risk of contracting HIV, and they’re disproportionately affected by violence.
But Krys, who’s Latina herself, feels that there’s a fundamental problem with the sex work narrative. “There’s a huge stigma associated with being a sex worker,” she says. “It puts the blame on the women who become sex workers and not on the system that forced them into sex work, which makes it impossible to affect any real change.” Krys believes that sex workers shouldn’t be categorically pitied, nor should sex work be seen as a disgraceful way to earn a living. Her candor defies preconceptions about the underground nature of the sex industry. She’s talked about her work in several Philly news outlets and on social media, where she lists her profession as “transgender model and entertainer.”
As the fight for trans equality has gained momentum, at least one prominent transgender person has spoken publicly about having been involved in sex work: writer and television host Janet Mock. “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,” she wrote in a blog post in January 2014. And there are other former sex workers, like Melissa Gira Grant, who have brought their stories into the open to fight for destigmatization.
Krys, for her part, aims to take that openness in a slightly different direction: She wants to achieve her business goals through escorting. Her plan, in pidgin Whartonese, is to leverage her diverse client portfolio to amass capital for future ventures, which might include a regular show on YouTube, a professionally designed website with an online store for trans-friendly sex toys, and, if all goes according to plan, a line of gender-non-conforming clothes and lingerie. She doesn’t want to be a merely well-to-do escort and entrepreneur. She wants to be the most elite transgender escort in the world.
Being able to talk openly about her trade is, in itself, a privilege, which Krys readily owns. Her hard-won financial stability shelters her from the violent reality faced by many transgender women, especially those involved in sex work, and it’s precisely that advantage that drives her to speak out. But her unique position isn’t always easy to maintain. On one hand, she feels a kinship with the vast community of sex workers who so often are denied the right to advocate for themselves; on the other, she’s determined to set herself apart from them, from everyone.
Krys grew up in Las Vegas, the unofficial capital of Nevada’s $50-million-a year brothel industry, as the youngest of 13 children. She remembers her early years as a film dissolve of houses —first, the roach-infested, three-bedroom place next to a hoarder’s compound, then the duplex in the slightly nicer neighborhood, and then her paternal grandmother’s house in King City, California, where she lived for one year after her father, a fruit salesman, lost all his savings in an ill-fated cherry investment.
Krys describes her family as “traditionally Mexican,” meaning they believed—in theory, at least—in the machismo ideal: Men should be strong, women subservient to their men. There was no place in Krys’s household for the feminine longings she had as someone who had been assigned male at birth — her father and brothers made sure she understood that every time she tried on her sisters’ clothes or used their makeup. She says her sisters weren’t much kinder; they didn’t hit her like the boys did, but they called her names and shut her out. As she entered adolescence, Krys presented as a feminine-looking gay boy, only daring to wear skirts and mascara on Halloween.
Both her parents had died before her junior year of high school — her mother from ovarian cancer when she was six, her father from a brain hemorrhage when she was 16, though chronic illness had rendered him unable to care for the family years before his death. At 15, Krys moved in with an older sister, Erendira Fuentes, who acted as her legal guardian. Krys hated being under her roof; Fuentes had children of her own, and with so many mouths to feed, Krys felt that she was viewed as a burden, a squatter who cared more about school than her own family. As soon as Krys turned 18, she moved into her own apartment, scraping by on food stamps and rental assistance.
In spite of her home life, she excelled at school, holding down a near-perfect GPA. Krys’s best friend, Troi Thomas, and one of Krys’s high school teachers both remember her as an unstoppable force, a fiercely competitive kid who kept her classmates at arm’s length. She talked circles around her peers on the debate team. Thomas says that she could take any subject and, in less than two hours, come up with a winning set of arguments and rebuttals. The rest of the team would fall in step behind her.
School was an escape for Krys, the one place where she felt in control. She didn’t want anyone to know that she struggled with intense depression — that, by age 16, she’d already attempted suicide more than once. She desperately wanted to get out of Vegas, and the debate team was her one-way ticket. She would sooner go without meals than miss a tournament. When she picked up sex work to pay for trips with the team, she told no one — not even Thomas.
“Jara and I sometimes talked about our sexual experiences, and I knew that she’d been hooking up with some older men,” says Thomas, now a senior at Towson University. “But she never let on that they were paying her, and she certainly never let on that she was having a hard time living on her own and making ends meet. That was just Jara. She made damn sure no one knew anything was wrong.”
To Krys, becoming an escort didn’t seem like such a radical detour —Vegas, after all, is a city where sex work is an open secret. Soon after she turned 18, an older man she met on a gay dating site began paying her for sex. Krys says he was unattractive and socially awkward, but she never felt unsafe with him. “Those older man-younger boy relationships happen a lot where people are disenfranchised as a community,” she says. “Older men creep on a lot of gay children who are looking for someone who will take care of them and treat them like their parents don’t treat them.” She learned a few things from that first client relationship — several sex workers lived in his house, and Krys was a quick study — but she stopped seeing him around the time she graduated from high school.
Krys was accepted on full financial aid to Penn’s prestigious Huntsman Program, a dual-degree track in economics and international studies through Wharton and the School of Arts and Sciences. When she arrived at Penn, she was still presenting as a gay boy. She felt disconnected from her body, but at least she was free from worrying about keeping a roof over her head and paying for meals. She moved into her dorm early for PennCAP, a program that helps low-income students transition to college. Through PennCAP, she made a few friends, and she was mostly happy. But once the Huntsman Program began, she started to feel like an outsider again.
Huntsman has a reputation as an elite clique within an already elite institution. A student who was in the program with Krys says that “there are definitely more people at the upper end of the socioeconomic spectrum” in the average Huntsman class. The 50 or so freshmen in the program all lived on the same floor and hung out in a “Huntsman-only lounge.” They compared passports and planned trips to Paris for spring break. Krys hated the whole thing. She went to the mandatory events; otherwise, she hung out with her PennCAP friends and kept to herself.
She still studied obsessively, pulling all-nighters before French exams. Her short-term memory was shot — a common result of prolonged stress and trauma. Her discomfort with her body became totally unbearable. In the second half of her sophomore year at Penn, Krys began to publicly transition, but her depression deepened. “I was going through a period where I looked ambiguous,” she says. “I hated it. I wasn’t proud of being trans.”
The sight of her penis repulsed her, and she began to cut her genitals. She worked as much as she could to save up for hormones and surgeries, skipping classes to meet clients for $250 an hour. Her grades dropped from consistent A’s and A-’s to B+’s — hardly a steep decline, but in the ultra-competitive Huntsman milieu, Krys felt like a failure. She never had money to go out. On campus, people called her a freak behind her back and openly sized up her crotch. They would refer to her using male pronouns, even after she’d corrected them. She had traveled almost 2,500 miles to get away from her family’s bigotry, and she felt more trapped and alone than ever.
One night in February 2014, the winter of junior year, she hit rock bottom, and she knew immediately that she had to leave Penn. She wanted to focus on work to pay for her transition, and she decided she wouldn’t go back to finish her degree until she felt ready. She withdrew from her classes. Then, with just $1,500 in her bank account, she went to New York City—the first major investment in her career. She doesn’t know where she would be today if that gamble hadn’t paid off. “It was beginner’s luck,” she says. “In this industry, when no one knows who you are, when no one’s seen you anywhere, they all want you.” But that first real foray into the world of full-time sex work was more than a lucky break. For Krys, it was the start of a vocation.
Krys’s ongoing transition has had a significant impact on her earning potential. Throughout most of her time at Penn, she charged around $250 an hour. When she went to New York City, she upped her rate to $300 to cover the expenses associated with her nomadic lifestyle, plus the cost of reaching her target demographic: well-to-do, middle-aged, heterosexual men, many of whom are drawn to her Ivy-League credentials. Catering to their tastes isn’t cheap. When Krys went to New York right after leaving Penn, with no home or safety net, she put every last cent in her bank account to work. She had to pay for hotels (which can cost anywhere from $1,000 to $1,500 for a week-long trip), online advertising (up to $250, depending on how much she wants to promote herself), and food (whatever’s left in her budget).
When, in March 2015, she could finally begin to afford surgery, her marketability as an escort increased: The more feminine she appeared, the more she could charge. But Krys is wary of looking too much like “an ordinary woman,” which extends to her genitals. Penn’s student health insurance plan would have paid for gender confirmation surgery, which she has chosen not to undergo. Around the time she began her transition, she met someone who made her feel like she could enjoy sex without feeling ashamed of her body. There’s also a distinct economic advantage to not undergoing bottom surgery. Having a vagina would diminish her appeal as a rarity in a crowded market, and she wouldn’t be able to charge as much. “If you just want a cisgender woman, there are so many at the bar,” Krys says. “How are you going to find one at the bar that’s trans? How are you going to find one at the bar that’s trans and that you’re attracted to?” The men she sees all share a trans-girl fantasy, and Krys wants to fashion herself into their ultimate dream. Since last March, she’s had rhinoplasty, breast augmentation, otoplasty (a procedure that pulled back her ears), a jawbone shave, a hairline adjustment, and two rounds of cheek augmentation.
When she rolls out her brand new identity, she’s going to change her fee scale. Rather than charging based on time, she’ll request $1,000 flat for “an introduction,” meaning very serious inquiries only. She’ll stop advertising on Eros, her third-party site of choice, relying instead on word-of-mouth and her own redesigned website to attract new business. She talks about “diversifying her portfolio” in terms of her clients, parlaying their cash and social capital into a career in the fashion industry and then, eventually, into activism. Krys wants to cultivate long-term relationships with people who can help her make the right connections. In other words, she’s not looking for clients; she wants investors.
Krys herself is investing more than $5,000 into her brand, most of which will go toward hiring a photographer, makeup artist, and videographer to produce a series of promotional short movies for her new website, slated to launch later this year. In the not-too-distant future, she plans to move away from sex work altogether. Farther down the line, she wants to consult with other businesses to help them connect with a trans audience. “No one has ever done anything like this before,” Krys says. “So I can’t think five, ten years ahead. I’m just focused on the next five, ten months.”
She’s already secured the legal rights to the name of her merchandise company. In the next few months, she’ll start developing a YouTube channel of makeup tutorials. And while her goals are still just goals, everything is possible for her. The only thing she knows for sure is that she’s re-enrolling at Wharton next fall to finish her undergraduate degree.
Much has already changed in Krys’s life in a fairly short time. A year and a half ago, she was bouncing from hotel to hotel, breathing recycled air and obsessively monitoring her phone. Now, she rents an apartment in Philadelphia, where she can keep her belongings, where she can play Final Fantasy, her primary form of stress-relief — and where, above all, she can be alone.
She was seeing 20 or so regulars in Philly at one point, but lately, she’s scaled back to focus on her bigger plans, although she’ll see one or two of her most dedicated clients occasionally. Now, she works the most when she’s not at home. At least two or three times a month, she’ll travel to meet people who contact her online. She always asks that they pay her trip expenses up front, plus a deposit, usually equal to an hour of her time. This past Thanksgiving, a man flew her out to his home in the rural Midwest (to protect her client’s identity, she won’t say where, exactly, but she did say that it was weird being in his house, surrounded by pictures of his family). Another two or three times a month, she travels on her own dime, setting herself up in a hotel and fielding online appointment requests. When she’s in other cities, she might see anywhere from two to seven clients in a day. (Her all-time high: eight.) She always meets them in public, reading their body language and sizing up their intelligence — not only because she can afford to be a bit of a snob at this point in her career, but because the smarter ones tend to appreciate her intellect and treat her accordingly. If they pass muster, she’ll see them.
Some men just want a brief respite from their day-to-day lives, an hour of what Krys calls “sex and therapy.” Others are seeking long-term companionship without the quotidian disappointments of a real relationship. And a select few are looking for something deeper — in certain cases, they’re struggling with their own sexual or gender identity, and they find solace with her.
But Krys approaches every client relationship with the same level of intensity, even if she won’t see that person again. She identifies as demisexual, which means that she doesn’t feel physically attracted to strangers; for her, sexual fulfillment comes exclusively with emotional intimacy, and the intimacy she’s paid to create in a vacuum is, for better or for worse, a facsimile of the kind that grows over time. “I hate the idea of hooking up,” she says. “There always has to be some kind of connection, even if I’m faking it.” In some cases, there is a real connection: One particular client has become such a big part of her life that she brings him to her apartment, a privilege she extends to no one else. She refers to him as her “husband,” and he’s offered to pay off her student loan debt. It’s not a romantic thing, exactly, but it goes as deep as business can get before it becomes something else. For Krys, being able to count on someone like that is huge — bigger, perhaps, than any promises of exclusivity.
At this point, Krys doesn’t see the value in pursuing a romantic relationship outside of work. It’s not just that her standards are niche — “I want someone who won’t be competitive with me, but someone who’s really, really smart and ambitious, like a science nerd, and not super hot, just average-looking,” she says — it’s also a matter of economics. Spending time and money to find someone who isn’t paying her doesn’t make financial sense, especially when the vast majority of the men she’s dated treated her, as she puts it, “like shit.”
Krys has had three boyfriends since she started transitioning, all heterosexual men. Her relationships with them lasted about three months each. The first guy broke up with her because he couldn’t accept the fact that she has sex with other people; she broke up with the last one because his idea of trans women extended only to porn. (The second relationship died of more or less natural causes: He wasn’t over his ex.) Each step forward with someone new brings her that much closer to the conversation about what she does for a living, and that talk rarely goes well. Other men in the sex industry might be able to handle the demands of her work, but Krys doesn’t want to date anyone with whom she might end up in competition — not for clients, necessarily, but for prestige.
Not coincidentally, Krys feels most respected in her work relationships, where she can set her price without compromise. “My clients treat me like a princess, because they’re businessmen, and they’re paying for something,” she says. But she hints at certain situations at the beginning of her career in which she mistook wesanll-choreographed intimacy for the real thing. Getting hurt like that, she says, is just another kind of collateral damage, a risk she’s prepared to assume in the pursuit of her long-term goals. She has to fall back on ambition to keep herself sane, even when the cost of that ambition is her ability to lead a balanced life.
“It’s exhausting,” Krys admits. “You can’t make any plans, because you have to be ready 100 percent of the time, which means you can’t have a social life. And when you spend so much time alone, especially when you’re dealing with depression, you think too much.” She stares off into space. “You think about everything that’s wrong. You think about things through a lens that no one else is looking through.”
Krys has few close friends, not only because her work often prevents her from making other plans, but because, in spite of her forthrightness, she’s basically an introvert. She’s choosy about how she spends her time, and she finds that most people, including fellow escorts and others in the sex industry, aren’t usually worth hers. Of course, they’re the ones who would understand why she can never make plans in advance, who wouldn’t take it personally when she has to cut out early to meet a client. But Krys says that hanging out with them can be toxic to her well-being, and she likes to keep her distance from anything that might hamper her ability to stay in control. She used to travel with another escort whom she considered a friend, but she doesn’t hang out with her anymore.
Krys makes it clear that in the world of sex work, the instinct for survival tends to trump compassion. “Many of these girls have been treated badly, and they don’t know anything else,” she says. “A lot of their behavior comes from internalized abuse. I understand why so many of them do drugs.” She feels a strange combination of empathy for their situation and distaste for their actual company — a dissonance that reminds her that, had things gone differently, she might not be where she is today.
Escorts like Krys who can afford to choose their clients and keep a permanent place of their own are the exception rather than the rule. For many, street-based sex work – far more dangerous — is the only option. In October 2015, Kiesha Jenkins, a trans sex worker, was murdered in North Philadelphia in a botched robbery attempt; she was a target for robbery in the first place because she was known to be an escort, and therefore could have cash on her. Jenkins was one of more than 20 trans women murdered in 2015, most of whom were women of color. Krys says she’s never feared for her life, and she knows that her privilege — specifically, her Penn education, which gives her access to a certain clientele, and her surgery, which allows her to pass mostly unseen — keeps her safe from many of the daily perils faced by her peers.
But simply being trans sometimes puts her in harm’s way. When she was in Toronto on a work trip, not long after she left Penn, she was sexually assaulted by a man she met on Grindr who claimed to have dated several trans women. “I’ve spent so much time trying to forget it,” she says. She never went to the police, because she was afraid of being found out as an escort.
Krys believes that the decriminalization of sex work will make life less dangerous for all sex workers, especially those who are trans. Sex workers are often reluctant to report crimes for fear of being prosecuted themselves. For trans sex workers, that fear is compounded by the risk of being harassed, misgendered, and abused while dealing with public officials. Fifteen percent of trans people report having been sexually assaulted in police custody or jail, and as many as one in ten survivors of transphobic violence report being sexually assaulted by police officers. There are no reliable statistics on the incidence of police misconduct against trans sex workers, largely because those acts of violence often go unreported.
Krys has once found herself in a position to report police misconduct: Last April, she was arrested by undercover Chicago police officers who tried to bust her for soliciting. While she was in custody, Krys says the officers refused to call her by female pronouns and told her she was lucky that they hadn’t done worse than misgender her. With the help of a pro bono lawyer, she got the charges dropped and filed a complaint against the officers for transphobic behavior. (To make up for work opportunities she missed while dealing with the legal fallout, several clients advanced her a total of $6,000, which she used to pay for her breast augmentation.)
Most assault victims don’t hire legal representation, as Krys did after her Chicago incident. She doesn’t take that luxury for granted, but neither will she shy away from using the means available to her to make her voice heard. “If I want to create change, how am I supposed to do that being silent, without anyone paying attention to me?” she says. “I have to be the person saving my own life, and then saving my peers.”
But what Krys needs now in order to save herself — money, surgery, a competitive edge — are precisely the things that can sometimes alienate her from her peers. “The only thing that makes me feel empowered and respected right now is achieving a cisnormative standard of beauty,” she says. “Society only values me if I’m passable as a woman, which is no real value at all. But as long as I’m trying to be part of society, I have to abide by the system. I have to achieve what I can in the system without regard to the system. It’s an act,” she says quietly. “You do an act long enough, and you start to believe it.”
It’s a rainy day in mid-December, and Krys is lounging in her apartment, a newly renovated one-bedroom walk-up near Penn’s campus. The interior is spare and echoey, devoid of the usual flotsam of a twenty-something’s existence. The only furniture in the main living space — a black leather sofa and armchair, a coffee table, a television hutch, and three kitchen counter stools — all came with the lease. Everything is a shade of beige or gray or black, cast over with the purplish glow of the television screen, where an episode of The Fairly OddParents plays on mute. Even though she’s lived here for almost five months, the place feels provisionally unpacked, arranged so that only the essential objects — namely, her cosmetics — are within reach. A shoebox filled with perfume sits on the windowsill behind the couch. Bins of makeup cover at least one third of the granite-topped breakfast bar.
“I’m so happy with this place,” she says, settling on the couch with catlike ease. As she talks about her home — how the furniture was arranged when she first moved in, how she’s since rearranged it, the high-test gaming laptop she’s expecting in the mail — she exudes a quiet pride in what she can call her own, in the world she’s managed to create almost from scratch. What might come across as materialistic is, in fact, Krys’s profound awareness of the real price of a comfortable life. She knows what it means to be hungry, to be uninsured and unable to pay for basic care. She’s gone from living on food stamps in Las Vegas to a pre-furnished, $1,250-a-month apartment — no small feat for anyone, much less a transgender Latina woman. When she talks about where she likes to hang out in Philadelphia, the first place she names, without a hint of sarcasm, is her couch. Meaning alone, most of the time.
But not always. A week or two ago, in a decorating frenzy, she invited a friend over to help her spray paint an artificial Christmas tree and turn it into an objet d’art for year-round display in the two-by-two-foot space between the couch and the loveseat. But her friend was too slow with the aerosol can for Krys’s taste, so he ended up watching as she shellacked the whole thing with black paint herself. Now, the tree is sitting in her bathtub, wrapped in a plastic bag. It needs a second coat, which she’ll get around to at some point. Theoretically, she could do it today, this minute. But she’d rather go out and get ramen for lunch. Anyway, she says, a black Christmas tree can never be out of season. It’ll give her something to do some night, when she has nowhere in particular to be.