By Peter Berton
Jelena Vermilion (https://isis-intrepid.com/about) is a sex worker, award-winning adult actress, political activist, and MtF transsexual; and not in that particular order. In fact, it is impossible to decide what comes first, because Jelena fuses all of her qualities into her being, while doing the every best to achieve happiness, personal fulfilment, and social justice for all sex workers.
Chances are you’ve seen or heard her on CBC, dispelling sex worker stereotypes and standing up for the community’s rights:
Peter Berton: When you realized you were trans?
Jelena Vermilion: I’ll start by saying I have never identified as a boy, but rather it took me a long time to identify how I felt as being of a trans female identity. I exhibited gender variance very early on in my adolescence, and I started to articulate this as being a gender anomaly in my mid-teens.
Peter Berton: What your transition has been like?
Jelena Vermilion: I started hormone replacement therapy when I was 17 years of age. First I ordered the medication illicitly online and then spoke with my (former) physician about getting a prescription.
The physical attributes of my transition have been pretty smooth sailing. It is the interpersonal and social consequences of being a loud-and-out trans woman which has had more of a negative effect.
I no longer speak to my father, for example. He disowned me when I disclosed that I have done sex work.
Peter Berton: Why did you get into the adult industry; both escorting and acting?
Jelena Vermilion: I started escorting in 2013 when I became homeless, and I was scouted via my escorting ads, which lead to me accepting employment in the porn industry.
I did well and was well-received, and so I continued on that path (pornography) for as long as it was a viable income source. I got into the adult industry because it is a pragmatic choice among many, and it offers me flexibility that other kinds of employment do not.
Peter Berton: How do you conduct your escort business, to protect yourself and your health?
Jelena Vermilion: I operate very particularly. When a client contacts me, I will respond with an introductory text which explains in summary what I offer, my rates, et cetera. I then would have dialogue with the prospective client in order to determine if we’d be a good fit as far as compatibility of desires are concerned.
After booking a client, I will send him limited information about my location and I will then provide the final details when the client is near (within view) of my residence. I protect myself by using a pseudonym, by disclosing information in a graduated fashion, and by responding to cues from clients which may signal the possibility of a lack of safety. I use my better judgement and leverage my charm to mitigate conflicts.
I have not been a victim of violence in this work, since I started in 2013.
Peter Berton: Please tell us about your political activism.
Jelena Vermilion: I am pretty politically active. I volunteer with transgender youth, I do public speaking engagements explaining barriers to healthcare — and specifically the medication PrEP – for transgender, incarcerated, sex-working, and African/Carribean/Black women populations.
I do direct action labour organizing with the Industrial Workers of the World. I provide consultation to the Ontario TransPulse study main researchers as a sex work expert. I testified in 2018 in a human trafficking case ,which was a constitutional challenge to out current prostitution laws in Canada. This is a handful of what I’m involved with.
Peter Berton: Many trans-attracted clients see trans sex workers as fetish objects to be exploited, rather than people to be respected. How does this affect you?
Jelena Vermilion: I think that often times, trans women are exploited and objectified by trans-attracted men.
It is common to hear about men who lie to trans women in order to access her body, and then he will ghost her or discontinue spending time with her. This can include convincing the woman that he wants a legitimate relationship with her, often leading her to sleep with him as she sees it as an emotional investment rather than a business transaction.
While I will acknowledge that trans-attracted men do face stigma in society, I often observe (and have personally experienced several times) instances where the innate gender power dynamics are exploited by the man in order for him to gain access to her body, no matter how temporary. This is very sad as it makes us as trans women feel and seem disposable as human beings and as prospective partners.
Peter Berton: At the same time, you have to deal with them worrying about ‘being gay’; even though they are the ones seeking their first trans experience! It sounds like a no-win situation.
Jelena Vermilion: As an escort, I am often the one facilitating these exploratory experiences for trans-attracted men. Many of them fear they are gay because they want to go down on me, they may beg me to top them, and/or they want to have anal sex with me.
In one way or another, I represent transgressive pleasures to them. This at times can feel isolating as it can highlight my social subjugation as almost a sort of avatar of a person; as someone who can’t find a legitimate partner of their own. At other times, it can elicit feelings of emotional distress, dysphoria, and resentment within myself. When clients try to coerce me to top them, I feel incredibly uncomfortable, for example.
Peter Berton: And yet you fight on.
Jelena Vermilion: Yes.
One of my favourite quotes comes from by Nicholas Klein: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”
For now, I’m not focussed on winning, but living instead. I want a partner of my own, and I think I step closer to my personal goals each day.
About the Author
Winner of the NakedTruth.ca award for Favourite Adult Journalist, Peter Berton has written for Adult Video News, Klixxx, XBIZ, Xtra, and YNOT.com. He likes to interview sex workers to tap into their vast knowledge about human nature, business marketing, work/life balance and succeeding as entrepreneurs.