Leaving Penn to find herself
Jara Krys, a transgender student on a leave of absence from Penn, went into sex work to pay the bills.
Leaving Penn to find herself
Jara Krys, a transgender student on a leave of absence from Penn, went into sex work to pay the bills.
The first step is the website ad: $10 for each post and $10 more each day to promote it. The cost adds up, but the payoff more than covers the investment. Jara Krys’ payoff comes at $300 per hour, non-negotiable.
The next step is a mutual vetting by phone. Cops ask too much, and some men just want to get off on the sound of her voice. The man on the other end of Jara’s phone paid for three hours on the Friday of Labor Day weekend. He told her to meet him at a hotel on 17th Street.
When the three hours were up, Jara walked from the hotel back to her University City apartment, with a stop at Wawa to pick up spicy chicken fingers, Slim Jims, Red Vines and one doughnut. At home, she settled in for her version of the post-coital cigarette: multiplayer-online game DotA 2. Midway through the game, her phone rang. It was the man she just left sad-eyed in the hotel room.
“I want to see you again,” he said, asking her to come back to the hotel.
He paid $1,200 for an overnight, and Jara abandoned her game to make her way back down to 17th Street.
“I only got two hours of sleep that night. I don’t know how I made it through the day,” Jara said the next week. Not that she regretted it, she added, as she reclined in a chair sipping iced tea. Let Jara talk and she’ll go on tangents for hours, starting with a story of a client that reminds her of a friend that reminds her of a problem in the transgender community. Eventually, she’ll circle back to how her life was before Penn.
If Jara had followed her original plan, she’d be a senior in Penn’s Huntsman Program in International Studies and Business, set to graduate next May. If Jara had stayed as she was freshman year, she’d still be a man named Christian Jaramillo, afraid to explore why she was drawn to dresses and ashamed to tell anyone that she’d turned to sex work for money. Since then, she’s accepted her identity as transgender and gone from male to an androgynous gender to more feminine. She talks about a career as an international sex worker as a real possibility. No matter what, she’s sure that she’ll be well-known in the future.
“If you want to be an icon,” she said, “you have to start somewhere.”
Jara Krys grew up 15 minutes outside of the Las Vegas strip, born into a poor and sprawling family that, as a niece of hers put it, nurses a long-running mean streak. Jara, named Christian at birth, is the youngest of 13 full and half-siblings. Her mother died when she was six, her father when she was 16.
Jara never let herself identify as anything other than a boy before college. Looking back, she describes her attitude as transphobic, disgusted by the trans porn she found on the computer of a much-older half-brother, whom everyone in the family tacitly agreed was a pedophile. But she liked to put on her sisters’ dresses and made female avatars for herself in online video games. As a very young child, she stripped the clothes off her sisters’ Barbie dolls and marveled at their bodies’ flatness, wanting the same for herself.
Her family noticed.
“When my dad would catch me being too feminine, he’d hit me for it,” she said. “Whenever I was acting like a woman, they’d get mad at me.”
The depression that would follow Jara through college hit her when she was young. From fifth grade until high school, Jara’s worst moments included swallowing a handful of pills and putting a knife as far into her mouth as it would go. When she couldn’t forge meaningful relationships with her family, she turned to men: She lost her virginity at age 13 to a 16-year-old boy and ran away from home with a man nine years her senior when she was 14.
After her father died of a long-term illness, Jara moved in with her sister and her sister’s husband. Jara was supposed to receive income from her father’s Social Security account, but says she didn't see any of it until after she was 18. Her sister took it, Jara said, claiming it as her due for housing Jara. During her senior year of high school, Jara moved into a place of her own.
“I supported him,” said Jara’s sister, Erendira Feuntes, who goes by Erin. Nearly 12 years older than Jara, Erin said she had to house nearly all of her younger siblings at some point. Asked about the Social Security, she said, “When he moved out, I signed it over to him.”
Jara said she went to the Social Security office when she turned 18 to stop her checks from going to Erin, but she said she never got back the money from before.
The sisters aren’t on speaking terms anymore, by Jara’s choice. Erin still wants to reopen a relationship, but it’s not a priority for Jara. Although Erin still refers to Jara as “he,” she said she supports Jara’s transition and wasn’t entirely surprised by it. Having Jara live in her house, though, was grueling.
“It was a challenge, not because of who he was and who he is and what he’s like. He had an argument on everything. He loved to debate,” Erin said. “It’s hard because he never appreciated us.”
Despite her home life, Jara was a model student in high school. She became salutatorian of her graduating class and spent her free time on policy debate and mock trial. Her friends and family who knew her at the time describe her as the personification of a pre-Ivy League student.
“His work ethic was just off the charts,” said Troi Chomas, who was Jara’s high school debate partner and is now a junior at Towson University in southern Maryland. Troi sometimes switches between male and female pronouns, especially when talking about their time in high school when she knew Jara as Christian. “He picked up policy the same year we were debating together, and we did really well because he worked his butt off. It was crazy.”
To pay for travel to debate tournaments, Jara secretly earned money by taking up sex work — a younger boy selling himself to a consistent rotation of older men. One of the men who found her through a gay dating site controlled a large network of male sex workers in their mid-20s. Although she was never in the network — the man paid for Jara to be with him personally — watching him work taught her the basics of the sex trade.
After graduation, she headed to her top choice: the Huntsman Program at the University of Pennsylvania, on full financial aid. Jara took off for Philadelphia, still a boy named Christian who was inclined to linger by the makeup aisle but didn’t know why.
Jara talking about her escort work sounds like any other twenty-something talking about a new startup. She’s conscious of how she presents her brand in, as she put it, a “highly-saturated market.” She talks about attracting the right client profile, picking the right price point and setting the right regulations.
“Wharton taught me how to be a proper sex worker,” she said, smirking.
Delve past the stereotypes and the sex industry is more than prostitutes lurking on the street corner. There are the girls who want a sugar daddy and get their payoff in luxury goods. Some sex workers, mostly those who work on the street, charge by the act. Jara’s type charges by the hour. She speaks with derision of the girls who pride themselves on getting their customers out the door as soon as they can; Jara never goes under a full hour. She identifies as demisexual — someone who only enjoys sex within a relationship — and uses the hour to create a pseudo-relationship with her client. In the industry, what she offers is known as the “girlfriendexperience.”
Jara’s clients don’t have much in common but a desire for secrecy. There are the men who have her role play as a teacher, a daughter or a daughter’s best friend. There was the man with a missing arm and the man with abnormally short legs. One man looked about 80. Another had always wanted to have sex with a transwoman, but confided to her that he could never be seen with one in public.
The economics of escort work makes for a hand-to-mouth lifestyle: Earn $1,000 one day and spend it on a New York City hotel to try to make $2,000 the next. Sometimes Jara is broke, sometimes she can splurge on a new pair of shoes. What Jara saves from escorting will help pay for the breast implants and nose job she wants, which cost thousands of dollars.
An ex-boyfriend remembers seeing what he described as “endless stacks of hundred-dollar bills” in her purse — and never paying for a date after their first. Another ex admitted he wasn’t entirely happy with Jara’s line of work, but says he never brought it up. On the upside, he added, “I get it for free. Awesome.”
Over a dozen people who know Jara were interviewed for this article. She’s told some about the intimate details of her sex work, while she’s never brought it up with others.
The first time she told one of her best friends, Jake Heagy, about her work, Jara was so vague that it took a few back-and-forths by text for Jake to understand what she meant.
“I try to be supportive because I feel like not enough people will be supportive,” said Jake, who graduated from the University of Maryland in Baltimore County last spring. He and Jara met on the dating site OKCupid in fall of 2013, though there’s never been anything between them but friendship. “But I feel like she’s a better person than the job. And to me it feels demeaning.”
The high school Jara agreed with Jake. She was ashamed of her work and only did it because she felt like she didn’t have another option to make money. It wasn't until college, when Jara started accepting herself as transgender, that she overcame the shame around her identity as a sex worker.
“I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t enjoy it. I hate people who are like, ‘Only women who have nothing else to do, only women who are depressed with their lives do it,’” she said. “I feel so empowered. I feel like a businesswoman. I’m getting somewhere. I can use it as capital to do other things.”
The single piece of furniture in Jara’s living room is a TV, left on the carpeted floor because she’s afraid to mount it on the wall by herself and hasn’t gotten around to buying a stand for it. The only room in her one-person apartment that looks lived in is the bedroom, where the entire four-foot windowsill is covered in bottles and boxes of beauty products.
“I need some furniture,” she said. “I’m going to take a trip to IKEA — I’ve never been.”
Sitting on her bed — a mattress on the floor — in a black-and-red robe with a turquoise bra peeking out, she pulled out her phone to look at the list of topics she didn’t want to forget to bring up.
Last on her list was depression. Her mental state and a desire to focus on her transition — along with problems she had in the Huntsman program — pushed Jara to take a voluntary leave of absence in the spring of her junior year.
“To be honest, I was having a lot of issues,” she said. “I just needed a break.”
From the beginning of school, Jara struggled to find her place in the tight-knit Huntsman Program. She didn’t get along with Huntsman’s executive director, Inge Herman. She’d made her closest friends in pre-orientation programs and felt that the Huntsman students had an affluence she couldn’t relate to.
Midway through her freshman year, a Huntsman classmate walked up to Jara and asked if everything was all right.
“I shouldn’t be telling you this,” Jara remembers him saying, “but Inge told us a lot in the lounge.”
Herman told a group of Huntsman students that Jara’s parents had both died, the student said to Jara. She told them that Jara’s sister had taken her Social Security money, something Jara only revealed to Penn’s Student Financial Services because she had to explain why she was applying as an independent student.
The Huntsman student, who requested anonymity, said he doesn’t remember the exact conversation or whether or not Herman was there. But he does remember discussing Jara’s personal life with four or five other students in the lounge and telling Jara about the conversation. Another Huntsman student, however, remembers a conversation with Herman specifically about Jara’s personal life during their freshman year. Herman told the student, who also asked not to be named, that Jara’s parents were both dead.
“She said we should have grace dealing with her because it’s obviously a pretty big thing to have happened at 18 years old,” he said. “Christian was a little bit more quiet, a little bit more reserved with us, and we didn’t know why.”
In an interview, Herman said that she and Jara had several conversations about Jara’s personal life. Herman acknowledged that she did share details like Jara’s parents dying and that she and her sister didn’t speak, but only in response to other Huntsman students asking why Jara didn’t spend more time with them. By sharing, Herman said, she wanted to encourage other students to reach out to Jara. Many students, Huntsman faculty director Janice Bellace said, knew the details already.
“It’s for the benefit of the student,” Herman said. “I never talk to any student about confidential information when it regards academics or health or anything like that.”
Whatever Herman’s intentions may have been, Jara never felt comfortable again with Herman or the other Huntsman students.
Feeling ostracized from her Huntsman classmates, Jara became increasingly depressed. Her mental health was tied up with her gender identity: The worse she felt, the more she hated her genitals. Looking in a mirror to see herself as a man made her feel sick.
Spring of freshman year, she walked into Counseling and Psychological Services without an appointment, suicidal and desperate to see anyone who had time. Haltingly, Jara told her therapist in a follow-up appointment about how her depression seemed connected to her penis and how, above all, she wanted to get rid of it.
That was normal, her therapist said, and Penn’s student insurance plan even covered gender reassignment.
“That day changed my life,” Jara said.
In the second semester of her sophomore year, Jara came back to classes wearing feminine jeans and high heels, the beginning of her outward transition. She started hormone therapy and moved toward an androgynous gender before ultimately settling on the “she” pronoun. She transformed her old name, Christian Jaramillo, into her new one, Jara Krys.
As she started her transition at Penn, all she wanted was to pass unseen.
“I didn’t want people to talk about me, I didn’t want them to think about me, I didn’t want them to think about what was in my pants,” she said. “I didn’t want to hear them say ‘he.’”
But some professors and many of her classmates still called Jara “he,” despite her requests. When a professor used her old name on a PowerPoint to divide a class into groups, Jara pretended she hadn’t been assigned a group. After class, she spoke to the apologetic professor but still walked out of the room feeling humiliated.
Jara’s closest friends at Penn — who were not in the Huntsman program — knew about her depression but felt ill-equipped to help her. At her lowest points, food rotted in her fridge for months. When her table didn’t have any more space on it, she pushed the trash onto the floor. She missed exams and was too embarrassed to say why, dropping classes until she was only taking one and a half credits — landing her on academic probation. Every day, she asked herself, Why am I even here?
In February 2014, Jara snapped. She hurled her phone down the stairs of a high rise and watched it shatter. The next morning, she emailed her College adviser, Katrina Glanzer.
“I really want to take a break from school, I am not in the right mindset and things are not going well. Would it be too late for this semester?” Jara wrote in a Feb. 3 email. “I really just need to stop doing my studies for a bit and concentrate on something else.”
Glanzer replied half an hour later.
“I think a leave is a good idea,” Glanzer said in the email. “I know it's been hard to focus on school and Penn will always be here for you to return to.”
Jara secured an OK from her therapist, with her earliest possible return date in the spring of 2015. With $2,000 in her bank account, she took off for New York City to do full-time sex work.
As of early September, Jara is the proud owner of a brand new Pennsylvania drivers’ license with a new photo, her new name and an “F” next to sex, acquired with the help of the Mazzoni Center, an LGBT advocacy organization in Philadelphia. The laws for legally changing one’s sex vary state-to-state: Many states require physical genitalia to reassign sex.
Despite what she told her therapist that day freshman year, Jara is now comfortable with her penis. Having it doesn’t make her feel any less feminine.
“A lot of my trans sisters feel shame when they’re young, like they’re born in the wrong body,” Jara said. “The only reason you feel like you’re born in the wrong body is society tells you so — not because you are.”
Most of her family knows about her transition by now, said her 17-year-old niece, Maria Hernandez. A few, like Maria and her sister Erin — the only two members of Jara’s family who responded to multiple interview requests — accept it. Most don’t.
“What stands out to me is how proud she is that she’s transgender,” Maria said. “She thinks it’s funny when people try staring at her. She’s like, ‘These people are staring at me because they know I’m so hot.’ It’s probably true.”
Jara’s time off from Penn allowed her to transition without the constant fear of scrutiny. At Penn, she timed her changes by semester, afraid that people would judge her for any drastic change. She didn’t wear a bra. Her voice stayed low. Instead of the carefully-drawn on makeup she wears now, she stuck to simple foundation.
“I thought I was so free at Penn, but when I got out of Penn and wasn’t going to school, I realized there was so much I wasn’t doing and so much I could’ve changed that I didn’t, because I was scared of what people would think,” she said. “I’ve come to the point that when I do go back to school, I wouldn’t care anymore.” Jara plans on returning to classes in fall 2015.
After graduating, Jara wants to start a non-gendered clothing company. Not baggy unisex clothes, she clarified quickly, but a place where clothes aren’t sectioned off by gender. She wants to start a nonprofit for sex workers that would provide support and advocate for their rights. She wants people to see sex workers as more than just their jobs. Sex work, Jara said, shouldn’t define people.
She’s also considering a full-time career as an international escort, which she says could make her six figures in a year — a salary rivaling those of her Wharton peers on Wall Street.
Either way, she wants a high-profile life.
“It seems egotistic,” she said, “but I want to be an icon for trans rights and rights of sex workers.”
For now, Jara’s just working on getting on stage at the Thursday night drag show at Bob and Barbara’s, a bar and lounge at 15th and South streets that boasts the city’s longest-running drag show. She picked out her wigs in a dark shade of red, the hair pre-styled in long waves and bangs. She’s styling her drag persona around the red-and-black motif from her hair. At her apartment, she lifted her wig carefully out of its case and went to the bathroom to put it on, tucking away her natural hair and brushing out the wig’s bangs.
“How does it look?” she asked.
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