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Seawater/C-cup: Fishy Trans Embodiments and Geographies of Sex Work in Newfoundland

Daze Jef­feries
Abstract: In this work of autoethno­graph­ic research-cre­ation, I think with my aug­ment­ed breasts—beyond the med­ical archive and away from the clinic—as an embod­ied inquiry into trans geo­gra­phies of sex work in the island world of Ktaqamkuk/Newfoundland, Cana­da. Employ­ing the felt knowl­edges of my breasts in visu­als and poet­ics, I illus­trate fishy entan­gle­ments shared between my sex work and breast aug­men­ta­tion that have reframed my social and sex­u­al embod­i­ment. Engag­ing with my breasts as a con­tact zone of embod­ied dis/pleasure, eco­nom­ic promise, and social vio­lence, I sug­gest that pay­ing cre­ative atten­tion to trans women’s breasts might reim­age notions of trans sex-work­ing desire.
Resume : Dans ce tra­vail de recherche et de créa­tion autoethno­graphique, je pense avec mes seins élargis—au-delà de l’aspect médi­cal et clinique—comme dans une enquête incar­née sur les trans­géo­gra­phies du tra­vail du sexe dans le monde insu­laire de Ktaqamkuk, à Ter­rre-Neuve au Cana­da. Util­isant visuelle­ment et poé­tique­ment les expéri­ences tac­tiles de mes seins, j’illustre les rela­tions com­plex­es qui se sont établies entre mon tra­vail sex­uel et l’augmentation de mes seins qui ont trans­for­mé mon incar­na­tion sociale et sex­uelle. Exam­i­nant mes seins comme une zone de con­tact entre le dé/plaisir cor­porel, l’espoir de gain économique et la vio­lence sociale, j’avance qu’un intérêt créatif pour les seins des femmes trans pour­rait créer une nou­velle image des notions de désir dans le tra­vail sex­uel des trans.

Introduction

Dry-swal­low­ing pre­cious­ly mint-scent­ed turquoise and peach cream pills, the growth of my breasts began in late 2014. One morn­ing, two weeks into hor­mone replace­ment ther­a­py (HRT) with estro­gen, I squeezed my right nip­ple and a milky clear sub­stance (pathol­o­gized as galac­t­or­rhea) shot out for the first time. More excit­ing than alarm­ing, this expe­ri­ence sym­bol­ized the female leak­ing out of me. Over the next few months, while new kinds of tin­gles and feel­ings fig­ured into my embod­i­ment as a young trans woman, my body began to shift. Tex­tures of my coarse skin, hair, and nails became thin­ner and soft­er while breast buds pushed through. Fleshy inter­ac­tions and sen­su­ous engage­ments with the envi­ron­ments around me grew out of my chest. All my grow­ing pains became cor­po­re­al guides through sex change and the nip­py island weath­er sys­tems of Ktaqamkuk/Newfoundland, Cana­da.1

As I moved fur­ther away from an embod­i­ment that could be read as male, my med­ical tran­si­tion became inti­mate­ly con­nect­ed to my expe­ri­ence as a sex work­er. Many of my Johns would inquire about my inter­est in surg­eries: breast, facial, and gen­i­tal. While some of them sought my com­pan­ion­ship for a one-time fling and real­ized that I could not yet pro­vide the ulti­mate­ly trou­bled trans­sex­u­al fan­ta­sy they desired, recur­ring clients would remark about the beau­ty of my “trans­for­ma­tion” as my face soft­ened and my breasts began to round out with each pass­ing month. These clients formed two kinds of affin­i­ty with my breasts: while a num­ber of them loved my A-cup boobs, and pre­ferred small and perky tits over a large and pil­lowy bosom, the rest had shown excite­ment at the idea of fondling big, soft breasts on my body. I too had a com­pli­cat­ed rela­tion­ship with my breasts. Eight months into my med­ical tran­si­tion, as my fishy social body became increas­ing­ly read as female, a lack of boobs that were big enough to bal­ance out my phys­i­cal frame trig­gered a grow­ing expe­ri­ence of dys­pho­ria with my chest. In my long­ing for gen­der plea­sure, and in the real­iza­tion that breast implants would also be an invest­ment into the unknown time­line of my future as a sex work­er, I knew that I desired breast aug­men­ta­tion.

After con­sult­ing with a physi­cian in late 2015 about my needs for top surgery, a sin­gle plas­tic sur­geon in New­found­land and Labrador (NL) wel­comed me as a patient with­out hes­i­ta­tion. A year and a half into my med­ical tran­si­tion, while bal­anc­ing my under­grad­u­ate stud­ies, cre­ative prac­tice, and sur­vival sex work, I had saved enough mon­ey for breast implants. In July 2016, two months before I start­ed grad school, my $8,000 aug­men­ta­tion mammaplas­ty was per­formed at the Health Sci­ences Cen­tre in the cap­i­tal city of St. John’s. My first surgery of any kind, it sig­ni­fied a major step in my trans­sex­u­al body project, but I had absolute­ly no idea what to expect. A fish out of water, I didn’t know any oth­er trans women islanders who were able to access top surgery. The only crit­i­cal knowl­edge that I could find about trans breast aug­men­ta­tion came from doc­u­men­tary YouTube vlogs of both pre- and post-oper­a­tive sur­gi­cal bod­ies, as well as from dis­cour­ag­ing arti­cles with­in the med­ical archive.

While fem­i­nist schol­ars have used qual­i­ta­tive research to explore issues of desire in trans women’s sex­u­al, sur­gi­cal, and social embod­i­ments (Bauer and Ham­mond 6; Vartabe­di­an 58), there is a sig­nif­i­cant gap in the qual­i­ta­tive lit­er­a­ture regard­ing trans women’s breasts. For sev­er­al decades, our breasts have been object­ed to pri­ma­ry study by clin­i­cians and med­ical researchers in order to illus­trate a vari­ety of com­pli­ca­tions (Kan­hai et al. 480; Pritchard et al. 2278). From con­di­tions of breast can­cer to skin necro­sis to sym­mas­tia (breast con­flu­ence at the mid­dle of the chest as a result of implant dis­place­ment), the study of trans women’s breasts with­in the clin­ic has warned both patients and physi­cians to be fore­thought­ful of uncer­tain risks asso­ci­at­ed with hor­mones and surgery. While this body of schol­ar­ship draws atten­tion to very real excep­tion­al out­comes of breast aug­men­ta­tion, and it demon­strates the impor­tance of grap­pling with med­ical risk, I am unset­tled by the way it dan­ger­ous­ly frames trans women’s desires. Rec­og­niz­ing how trans women’s bod­ies have been gross­ly objec­ti­fied and inap­pro­pri­ate­ly examined—with our desires made invisible—in much aca­d­e­m­ic inquiry (Namaste, Invis­i­ble Lives 1), I argue that there is a crit­i­cal need for cre­ative and heart­ful fig­u­ra­tions of trans women’s breasts beyond the clin­i­cal the­atre (Ross 74).

Fig 1. Some Numb (dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy and illus­tra­tion print­ed with dis­tort­ed ink on recy­cled paper). 2019.

Using cre­ative meth­ods of inquiry (research-cre­ation) to explore the breast­ed embod­i­ments of trans women’s lives is one way toward such an art­ful trans­so­mat­e­ch­nics (Stryk­er 38; Sul­li­van 283). Fol­low­ing the curi­ous inter­est of med­ical pro­fes­sion­als to study the effects of breast aug­men­ta­tion upon trans women’s “work and artis­tic pro­duc­tion” (Weigert et al. 1429), this essay fur­thers intel­lec­tu­al con­ver­sa­tions about the use of cre­ative prac­tices to sit­u­ate trans women’s embod­i­ments with­in social and geo­graph­ic envi­ron­ments (Arse­nault 66; Plett 221; Ross and Kar­bu­sicky, Trem­ble­ment de Chair). In the next sec­tion, I briefly out­line the cur­rent medico-legal land­scape of trans care in NL to illus­trate how trans women’s access to cov­er­age for breast aug­men­ta­tion is made trou­ble­some by med­ical pol­i­cy. Call­ing atten­tion to my sex work as a domain that made access­ing top surgery pos­si­ble on my own terms, which in turn fun­da­men­tal­ly changed my social embod­i­ment and mar­ketabil­i­ty as a trans escort, I sug­gest that trans women’s breasts must be imag­ined oth­er­wise. With­in the con­text of a rur­al island geog­ra­phy, I ask: How might cre­ative­ly work­ing with breasts, beyond the med­ical archive and away from the clin­ic, be one way of doing trans­so­mat­e­ch­nics in New­found­land? How might breasts be cen­tral to trans mat­ters in this place?

From let­ters writ­ten to MHAs (Mem­bers of the House of Assem­bly), call­ing for the acces­si­ble cov­er­age of tran­si­tion-relat­ed surg­eries (TRS), to protests at Trans March­es to sex-work­ing ads to a range of life writ­ing, visu­als, and per­for­mance art—embodiments and fig­u­ra­tions of the breast have been used by trans women, trans men, and non-bina­ry New­found­lan­ders to nego­ti­ate with our body projects and pol­i­tics for a num­ber of years.2 For exam­ple, in my piece, Some Numb (Fig. 1), lay­er­ing my bosom upon pans of har­boured sea ice is a way to map the tit­il­la­tion of my incred­i­bly sen­si­tive post-oper­a­tive breasts with­in Newfoundland’s dif­fi­cult cli­mate and island geo­gra­phies (an assem­blage of sen­su­ous socio-spa­tial rela­tions). Guid­ed by trans schol­ar Viviane Namaste’s ways of pro­duc­ing trans knowl­edges beyond the med­ical archive, I think with my breasts as an inquiry into trans fishy embod­i­ments and geo­gra­phies of sex work in New­found­land (Namaste, Over­sight 43). Using visu­als and poet­ics, I begin to cre­ative­ly map how my breasts have reframed both my mar­ketabil­i­ty as a sex work­er and my social embod­i­ment as I nav­i­gate through this island world. Engag­ing with my breasts as a con­tact zone of embod­ied dis/pleasure, eco­nom­ic promise, and social vio­lence, I sug­gest that pay­ing cre­ative atten­tion to trans women’s breasts might reim­age notions of trans sex-work­ing desire.

Geographies of Trans Care in Newfoundland and Labrador

While trans peo­ple in NL have been able to access HRT with informed con­sent for over a decade, and we have recent­ly gained increased access to affirm­ing gen­der mark­ers on medico-legal doc­u­ments, until a short while ago we have been stuck in the only Cana­di­an region to still require an out-of-province assess­ment for tran­si­tion-relat­ed surg­eries (TRS). Before late 2019, in order to access sur­gi­cal care fund­ed by the NL gov­ern­ment, trans patients were first required to obtain a refer­ral for surgery at the CAMH (Cen­tre for Addic­tions and Men­tal Health, for­mer­ly the Clarke Insti­tute of Psy­chi­a­try) Adult Gen­der Iden­ti­ty Clin­ic in Tkaronto/Toronto, Ontario. An are­na of era­sure, gate­keep­ing, and neg­li­gence in which trans bod­ies are selec­tive­ly autho­rized to access care, this clin­ic has been cri­tiqued by trans activists and com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers across Cana­da (Namaste, Invis­i­ble Lives 190). Active­ly seek­ing to avoid the dra­ma of this clin­ic, many trans folks in NL have cho­sen to fund surg­eries with our own labour, on our own terms. At the same time, com­mu­ni­ty mem­bers and our allied physi­cians have con­tin­ued to push for acces­si­ble trans care, and the result is a chang­ing land­scape of TRS that are eli­gi­ble for provin­cial cov­er­age. While breast aug­men­ta­tion has long been mis/understood as a cos­met­ic sur­gi­cal prac­tice, as of ear­ly 2019, it now qual­i­fies as an insured pro­ce­dure for trans­fem­i­nine patients under NL’s Med­ical Care Plan (MCP), but only when there is breast apla­sia (non-devel­op­ment of breast tis­sue) after 18 months of HRT. This means that most trans women who desire breast aug­men­ta­tion will not be eli­gi­ble can­di­dates for surgery if the slight­est bit of breast tis­sue exists.

How might physi­cians mea­sure breast apla­sia dif­fer­ent­ly across the diver­si­ty of trans bod­ies? What doc­tors are will­ing to chal­lenge this cri­te­ri­on as an act of trans­misog­y­ny? While I know many trans women islanders who desire aug­ment­ed breasts, and a hand­ful of local girls who are fund­ing their own surg­eries, the pos­si­bil­i­ties of access­ing cov­er­age for breast aug­men­ta­tion are made trou­ble­some by the work of era­sure in med­ical pol­i­cy that does not rec­og­nize top surgery for trans women as a more-than-cos­met­ic encounter. Accord­ing to many trans women islanders, who are not sex work­ers and who do not have the income of an inde­pen­dent trans escort, this added cov­er­age as it cur­rent­ly exists was a failed vic­to­ry from the start. My social posi­tion as a high­ly desired sex work­er made access­ing breast aug­men­ta­tion a quick pos­si­bil­i­ty at the age of 21. While often push­ing me into a net­work of fetishiza­tion, secret desire, and dis­em­bod­i­ment as a trans escort in a small city, the labour of my sex work has been an eco­nom­ic safe­ty net with­in which I have been com­plex­ly tan­gled. In the con­text of my life out­side CAMH’s clin­i­cal the­atre, as a way to bet­ter under­stand “the val­ue of not assum­ing that offi­cial nar­ra­tives of our clin­i­cal his­to­ry tell the whole sto­ry, or real sto­ry” of trans women’s lives and embod­i­ments, I observe the rela­tion­ship between my breast aug­men­ta­tion and sex work as a way of nav­i­gat­ing through NL’s messy medico-legal insti­tu­tions (Namaste, Over­sight 43).

Fig 2. A Hun­dred Hands All Over (dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy and illus­tra­tion print­ed with dis­tort­ed ink on recy­cled paper). 2019.

Fol­low­ing works in trans­so­mat­e­ch­nics that refuse colo­nial log­ics of gen­der to imag­ine trans embod­i­ment oth­er­wise (Ben­away 113; cár­de­nas 52), this essay illus­trates the sig­nif­i­cance of cre­ative aca­d­e­m­ic inquiry into trans women’s breasts. If trans women’s top surg­eries are to be under­stood as embod­ied process­es toward improved qual­i­ties of life, as well as acts of cre­ative trans­fig­u­ra­tion (Ash­ley and Ells 24), activists and physi­cians in NL must con­tin­ue to chal­lenge the ethics and med­ical dis­course of aug­men­ta­tion mammaplas­ty as an unnec­es­sary cos­met­ic pro­ce­dure. Simul­ta­ne­ous­ly, we must also rec­og­nize a series of fleshy, mate­r­i­al, and social com­pli­ca­tions that can take form through breast aug­men­ta­tion. The sec­ond half of this essay grap­ples with some of these trou­bles by ask­ing: How are plea­sure, risk, sex, and vio­lence com­plex­ly mapped upon trans women’s social bod­ies by way of un/bearing breasts? Out­side of the clin­i­cal the­atre, and the gen­i­tal-cen­tric mod­el of trans sur­gi­cal care (Spade 324), what might become of trans women’s breasts? Think­ing with these ques­tions, I cre­ative­ly map a flux of fishy rela­tions (dis­em­bod­i­ment, microag­gres­sions, and objec­ti­fi­ca­tion) that have mate­ri­al­ized through my breast aug­men­ta­tion in order to com­pli­cate the spa­tial pol­i­tics of trans women’s sur­gi­cal bod­ies.

Fishy Felt Knowledges of Breast Augmentation

The visu­als and poet­ics that guide my felt knowl­edges have been formed in rela­tion with the larg­er con­cep­tu­al frame­work of my cur­rent research-cre­ation that I call feel­ing fishy (for more on felt knowl­edges, see Mil­lion; Spring­gay; Trem­blay; Vac­caro). A dynam­ic point of encounter between trans embod­i­ment, queer ephemer­al­i­ty, and Atlantic ecol­o­gy, feel­ing fishy mate­ri­al­izes in my work as a cre­ative and crit­i­cal map­ping of the ways that trans women’s lives in New­found­land are entan­gled with the island’s ocean­ic geo­gra­phies (Jef­feries, “Myths” 21). Informed by his­to­ries of the term fish in com­mu­ni­ties of trans women across Tur­tle Island—queerly endear­ing ver­nac­u­lar that emerged in the 1970s as a way to sym­bol­ize the dif­fer­ent mar­ket nich­es of cis and trans women’s sex-work­ing bodies—feeling fishy, in this essay, rep­re­sents a slip­pery embod­i­ment toward liv­able futures (Rid­ley 483). Fol­low­ing Black trans schol­ar Dora San­tana, whose transat­lantic poet­ics flow between body, water, and ener­gy, and for whom “water is the embod­i­ment of trans ori­en­ta­tion,” feel­ing fishy is a way of com­ing to terms with a dis­em­bod­i­ment that is in con­stant flux both at and in the hands of oth­ers (San­tana 183).

Fishy … That’s some­thing we say amongst our­selves … It means she looks real … Two per­fect­ly shaped D-cup breasts on a tiny frame. God damn it, bitch. Those are fishy,” artic­u­lates trans artist Nina Arse­nault in her auto­bi­o­graph­i­cal pro­duc­tion, The Sil­i­cone Diaries (212-13). In my read­ing of this quote, feel­ing fishy speaks to the divine art­ful­ness of many trans women’s body projects. Both iconi­cized and made abject over her sur­gi­cal trans­fig­u­ra­tion, Arsenault’s work offers insight into the effects of surgery upon her social body. In her arti­cle, A Man­i­festo of Liv­ing Self-por­trai­ture, she describes the slip­pery com­plex­i­ties of sex work, surgery, and social­i­ty upon the tem­po­ral­i­ties of her embod­i­ment. She says: “Because I was per­son­i­fy­ing new social and sex­u­al roles, peo­ple treat­ed me accord­ing­ly. This quick­ly and rad­i­cal­ly altered my rela­tion­ships to oth­ers and my environment—power, priv­i­lege, oppres­sion” (66). Arsenault’s lived expe­ri­ence illus­trates the coex­ist­ing dis­pos­abil­i­ty and desir­abil­i­ty of trans women’s bod­ies that shift with and across the spaces we inhab­it. Feel­ing fishy, then, is also about queer dis­place­ment. Rec­og­niz­ing the dif­fer­ent spa­tial rela­tions of my breast­ed embod­i­ment, one that is desired and objec­ti­fied by Johns with­in the pri­va­cy of the home, and my social body, one that is often made spec­ta­cle and dis­pos­able by strangers in pub­lic space, I under­stand how my breasts con­tin­ue to frame my fishy social loca­tion as a young trans woman islander.

Over the past three years, in the act of mov­ing through pub­lic space in St. John’s, my breast­ed embod­i­ment has been sub­ject to an array of social vio­lence, includ­ing harass­ment and cat­call­ing, trans­misog­y­nis­tic slurs, looks and expres­sions of dis­gust, as well as non-con­sen­su­al touch­es from strangers. Fre­quent­ly objec­ti­fied by oth­ers, my large and perky breasts have facil­i­tat­ed gross harass­ment from men and con­tin­u­ous sham­ing from women, specif­i­cal­ly in moments of uncon­trol­lable nip­ple show-through. I gen­er­al­ly find this igno­rant behav­iour more illu­mi­nat­ing than dis­ori­ent­ing because it offers insight into the work­ings of trans­misog­y­ny in social space. How­ev­er, the unwar­rant­ed stares, scoffs, winks, whis­tles, and com­ments each shape a trou­bled rela­tion­ship with the aug­ment­ed breasts that I could not imag­ine becom­ing any­thing more than gen­der-affirm­ing as a young trans­sex­u­al. Although I am often able to ignore the weight of these envi­ron­men­tal microag­gres­sions, the most chal­leng­ing part of mov­ing through St. John’s as a trans woman with vis­i­bly aug­ment­ed breasts is encoun­ter­ing the smug mis­gen­der­ing and the inten­tion­al era­sure of my wom­an­hood by strangers, pri­mar­i­ly oth­er women (I am left to won­der why). At the begin­ning of my med­ical tran­si­tion, I had no way of know­ing how much social vio­lence would be direct­ed at me sim­ply by embody­ing trans wom­an­hood with breast implants. Tak­en togeth­er as ongo­ing chal­lenges that I con­tin­ue to expe­ri­ence as I move through social space, these forms of igno­rance influ­ence the dif­fi­cult tem­po­ral­i­ties of my breast­ed embod­i­ment.

At the same time, as one of the few local trans women escorts in St. John’s, whose cur­rent body project aligns with the arche­type of erot­ic trans­sex­u­al desire for many male clients, my bosom has ush­ered me into a new eco­nom­ic milieu. For Johns who specif­i­cal­ly and only desire a trans part­ner with soft curves and big breasts, my body is a mar­ket niche. As these men fon­dle my chest and suck­le my nip­ples, the phan­tasies of their trans-amorous desire cor­po­re­al­ize in the act of syn­chro­nous­ly touch­ing my breasts and gen­i­tals. For a large num­ber of these clients, whose hege­mon­ic mas­culin­i­ties pre­vent them from think­ing crit­i­cal­ly about their desires to share touch­ing encoun­ters with trans women, or from doing the work of open­ing up to the beau­ti­ful diver­si­ty of trans­fem­i­nine embod­i­ments, my breasts become erot­ic spec­ta­cles and the most sig­nif­i­cant mark­ers of my wom­an­hood. Read side by side, these brief expe­ri­ences of dis­pos­abil­i­ty and desir­abil­i­ty illus­trate how, for both social strangers and sex­u­al clients, the imag­ined geog­ra­phy of my body is fishy in dif­fer­ent ways. As my aug­ment­ed breasts incite vio­lence from strangers in pub­lic space, and become spec­ta­cle to my clients in the pri­va­cy of our encoun­ters, feel­ing fishy is a form of knowl­edge that comes to me like a slow berth,

wash­ing over
jel­ly-like jig­gles
of more-than-skin
and nip­ples suck­led
by hun­dreds of men
whose
oil-stained hands
cling to my chest
as if they might drown
in the fic­tion
of my plea­sure
while I wait
to escape
each other’s cap­ture.

Grap­pling with the fishy intri­ca­cies opened up by my bosom in sen­su­ous socio-spa­tial rela­tions, these poet­ic frag­ments attempt to reframe notions of pain and plea­sure in my life as a trans woman sex work­er. In her beau­ti­ful nov­el, Lit­tle Fish, writer Casey Plett inter­ro­gates the inevitable com­plex­i­ty of trans girl dra­ma that shapes her pro­tag­o­nist Wendy’s every­day life. Set in Win­nipeg, a city with a sig­nif­i­cant­ly larg­er pop­u­la­tion than St. John’s, she writes: “When Wendy first tran­si­tioned, there was some­one to notice and com­ment every step of the way … She had no lan­guage for it at the time. And she didn’t think any of it out of place … Like, duh, if you grew tits, your friends were gonna talk to you about your tits” (Plett 220). By rec­og­niz­ing how our many ways of mov­ing through the world are struc­tured by trans­misog­y­ny and gen­der-based vio­lence, I iden­ti­fy with Wendy’s aware­ness that trans women’s bod­ies are bound togeth­er with the pol­i­tics of place. And when Plett writes, “In every sec­tion of the city it seemed Wendy had a mem­o­ry of some­one who had treat­ed her body with the casu­al­ness they would only treat their own” (Plett 221), I can’t help but feel the touch of embod­ied mem­o­ry on my breasts again.

Fig 3. Quare Tick­les in Scum (dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy and illus­tra­tion print­ed with dis­tort­ed ink on recy­cled paper). 2019.

Outside of the objec­ti­fi­ca­tion and igno­rance that have facil­i­tat­ed a dif­fi­cult per­son­al rela­tion­ship with my bosom in social and sex­u­al envi­ron­ments, my post-oper­a­tive embod­i­ment has also been refig­ured by sen­so­ry com­plex­i­ties beneath my skin stretched over sil­i­cone. In my piece, Quare Tick­les in Scum (Fig. 3), the assem­blage of water, light, breast, and moon jel­ly­fish sym­bol­izes sev­er­al imag­ined geo­gra­phies and sen­su­ous tem­po­ral­i­ties of my embod­i­ment. Short­ly after my top surgery, I lost all sen­sa­tion in my breasts and nip­ples for half a year. As nerve func­tions slow­ly began to return, I expe­ri­enced sear­ing pain and elec­tric shocks on the reg­u­lar. From total numb­ness to incred­i­ble dis­com­fort, I con­tin­ued to do sur­vival sex work with my recur­ring clients. Aside from the fact that moon jel­ly­fish look like float­ing breast implants, draw­ing rela­tions between the sting of a jel­ly and my post-oper­a­tive bursts of sear­ing pain is an attempt at map­ping the sen­so­ry vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of my breasts over months of being fon­dled by Johns. Need­ing to work with my sex­u­al body for eco­nom­ic neces­si­ty, my nego­ti­a­tion of dis­plea­sure was a way to avoid the risk of jeop­ar­diz­ing my rela­tion­ship with clients who secured my income each month. Feel­ing fishy, I cre­ative­ly inter­ro­gate this trans­ac­tion as a form of disiden­ti­fi­ca­tion with­in which:

here
in transat­lantic scum
my kind of whore
is known to sink,
make kin
with a rugged bot­tom
(the weight of
his body,
an ocean
to drown in)
and wait
for the sting­ing
to grow weak.

Reflect­ing upon a loss of feel­ing in my bosom for the first six months of my sur­gi­cal recov­ery and the present erot­ic hyper­sen­si­tiv­i­ty of my nipples—both of which have com­pli­cat­ed my sex work—allows me to take the fishy felt knowl­edges of my breasts else­where. In my attempt to trou­ble cre­ative­ly what might become of trans women’s breasts out­side of the clin­i­cal the­atre, con­tex­tu­al­iz­ing the vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty of my skin stretched over sil­i­cone, along­side the dis­pos­abil­i­ty and desir­abil­i­ty of my social and sex­u­al body, helps me think more crit­i­cal­ly and emo­tion­al­ly about the influ­ence of aug­men­ta­tion mammaplas­ty on trans women’s lives and embod­i­ments.

What might my breast­ed embod­i­ment come to rep­re­sent beyond the grow­ing trans­misog­y­ny I expe­ri­ence as I move through and with this island world? How might I think about plea­sure beyond the domain of sur­vival sex work and the ways that my body has been clung to by hun­dreds of rur­al men with com­plex desires and rough hands? Acknowl­edg­ing the assem­blage of embod­ied dis/pleasure, eco­nom­ic promise, and social vio­lence that has mate­ri­al­ized with my breasts, my top surgery can­not sim­ply be under­stood as an act toward the improved qual­i­ty of my life. Cer­tain­ly, it has trou­bled and influ­enced my embod­i­ment as a trans woman sex work­er in ways that I could not imag­ine before surgery. Three years post-op, I con­tin­ue to ques­tion the oceans of felt knowl­edge that my breasts have opened up. I do not believe that being made spec­ta­cle by Johns in the pri­va­cy of the home, or by strangers in social space, fits into the schema of gen­der affir­ma­tion that I had imag­ined before top surgery. Nonethe­less, these acts of objec­ti­fi­ca­tion and trans­misog­y­ny shape a fishy embod­i­ment that I am forced to grap­ple with as a trans woman in a small city at the edge of a dying world.

Conclusions

In the sub­lime iso­la­tion of my sex work, a geog­ra­phy of per­for­mance with­in which the phan­tasies of clients go unpo­liced, the sto­ry of my gen­der dys­pho­ria that has been less­ened through breast aug­men­ta­tion is com­pli­cat­ed by Johns who pay good mon­ey to co-cre­ate sen­su­ous tem­po­ral­i­ties with me based on their imag­i­na­tions of trans­sex­u­al embod­i­ment. In pub­lic space, the nar­ra­tive of my top surgery as an act of agency is trou­bled by the fact that I have learned to keep my breasts con­cealed most of the time in order to avoid unwant­ed vio­lence. In fishy rela­tion with the social and sex­u­al envi­ron­ments I inhab­it, work­ing with the felt knowl­edges of my breasts—from social vio­lence to bawdy fetishiza­tion to sen­so­ry numbness—reveals some­thing slip­pery about the co-con­sti­tu­tive natures of trans bod­ies and sen­su­ous geo­gra­phies (Hay­ward 245; Tour­ma­line, Atlantic is a Sea of Bones; Twist 48). Using visu­als and poet­ics to make sense of my embod­i­ment helps me ques­tion: Who and what am I becom­ing with hun­dreds of hands and lips all over my bosom? How do I escape psy­chic cap­ture from the eco­nom­ic mar­ketabil­i­ty that has changed my life, and the social vio­lence with which I have been faced, as a trans woman sex work­er in New­found­land? As a con­tact zone between bod­ies and worlds apart, what are the pre­car­i­ous tem­po­ral­i­ties and unknown futures of my breasts?

In this essay, I have con­tributed to a col­lec­tion of cre­ative and intel­lec­tu­al works that explore the embod­i­ments of New­found­land women using affec­tive and sen­su­ous engage­ments with place (see Jef­feries, “Inti­ma­cy” 130; Nor­man and Pow­er 59). By inter­ro­gat­ing cre­ative and emo­tion­al geo­gra­phies of my sex work, I have tried to illus­trate how my aug­ment­ed breasts con­tin­ue to shape and guide my trans self-in-cre­ation through embod­ied, eco­nom­ic, and envi­ron­men­tal trou­bles. Pulled back and forth through felt knowl­edges, think­ing with my breasts has been both unset­tling and ther­a­peu­tic. As I write and visu­al­ize togeth­er the fishy entan­gle­ments of aug­men­ta­tion mammaplas­ty and sex work in my life, I feel the hands of clients, chasers, strangers, and lovers all over my body again. As I reflect on my painful dis­em­bod­i­ment dur­ing the first six months after my surgery, I am tick­led by the numb­ness of my body’s reac­tion to jelly/fishy implants placed under my skin. As I con­tin­ue to expe­ri­ence microag­gres­sions and objec­ti­fi­ca­tion, I think toward the future tem­po­ral­i­ties of my breast­ed embod­i­ment in social and sex­u­al envi­ron­ments. Return­ing to the fishy frag­ments of my research-cre­ation, I acknowl­edge my posi­tion as just one body with­in a com­mu­ni­ty of trans women islanders who, for sev­er­al decades, have desired and fought for sur­gi­cal care that is med­ical­ly nec­es­sary, com­plex­ly affirm­ing, and fun­da­men­tal­ly entan­gled with our sur­vival (Hilliard 1). In the con­text of my social loca­tion as a sex-work­ing trans woman islander, using cre­ative meth­ods of inquiry to make sense of fishy trans embod­i­ments and geo­gra­phies of sex work has allowed me to bet­ter under­stand the con­tem­po­rary and his­tor­i­cal natures of trans women’s lives in New­found­land. Map­ping the felt knowl­edges of my breasts in slip­pery move­ments through sex-work­ing time and social space, I am learn­ing to embrace an ocean of unknown futures for this buoy­ant, fishy body.

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Acknowledgements

Thank you to my super­vi­sors, Son­ja Boon and Natal­ie Beau­soleil, and to the two anony­mous review­ers, for con­struc­tive encour­age­ment, feed­back, and sup­port.

Image Notes

All images cre­at­ed by Daze Jef­feries.

Notes

  1. I include both geo­graph­ic regions of the province New­found­land and Labrador in my writ­ing only when refer­ring to medico-legal pol­i­cy and access to care on a provin­cial scale. When work­ing with trans women’s cre­ative geo­graph­i­cal and eco­log­i­cal rela­tions to the island of New­found­land, I do not make ref­er­ence to Labrador.

  2. See my self-pub­lished poet­ry col­lec­tion Milky Mok­sha (2016), which explores embod­i­ments of my sex work to inter­ro­gate the com­plex­i­ties of island trans wom­an­hood in New­found­land. The poem CAME THROUGH, in par­tic­u­lar, inter­ro­gates my rela­tions with clients dur­ing the first two months after my breast aug­men­ta­tion: “two great cir­cles inter­sect­ing / float me on / absorb me into the cul­ture of anoth­er / out on the water” (73).