Sex workers have been a long standing, and often erased, part of the LGBTQ community. Sex work has offered a life line for those marginalized to not just survive but thrive, formed the backbones of nascent organizations and a sub-community for many who have been invisibilized by respectability politics. It is important to look at sex work and its place within the LGBTQ community and in the history of LGBTQ liberation. For an issue which encompasses issues of economic justice, labor, criminalization and policing, sexuality, racial justice, immigration, gender identity and complex other frameworks, sex worker rights can be a lynchpin issue impacting the most marginalized in our communities. Caring about LGBTQ survival means caring about the lives, health and safety of sex workers.
Why is Sex Work an LGBTQ Issue?
Sex Work has kept us housed and fed in the face of discrimination and Oppression. Criminalization makes that survival harder.
With discrimination in jobs, education and services, poverty has long been a queer issue. The trans community are twice as likely to be unemployed compared to cisgender individuals. For homeless and housing unstable youth, the disparities are even more pronounced, with some cities reporting that 40-50% of homeless young people reporting to be LGBTQ-identified.
Contributing to and exacerbating this economic disparity is the discrimination in traditional employment and social services. Ninety percent of the trans community report some form of harassment, mistreatment and discrimination in the workplace. One survey found that for homeless shelters, only 30% were open to housing transgender women, while structural barriers such as identification documents with different names and gender markers can make accessing to benefits and services even harder.
As a result, LGBTQ-identified individuals have often relied on sex work as a means of survival. The most recent Transgender Discrimination survey found that 11% of respondents report having done sex work. Broken down by race, the study found that 33% of Latinx respondents and 40% of black respondents reported participation in the sex trade. Homeless LGBTQ-identified youth are seven times more likely than heterosexual-identified peers to trade sex for a place to stay.
The collateral consequences of a prostitution arrest can also make access to resources and economic stability further challenging. A prostitution conviction can mean disqualification from public housing, deportation or the inability to adjust one’s immigration status, violating a code of conduct to lead to expulsion from higher education, civil consequences such as eviction or removal of children from the home, among many other collateral consequences.
Supporting the health and safety of those who trade sex will necessarily improve the well-being of members of the LGBTQ community, especially those most hard-hit by economic marginalization and injustice.
Criminalization of sex work promotes surveillance, policing and incarceration for LGBTQ individuals. [ix]
In the United States, prostitution, as well as all the mechanisms around that act, is fully criminalized in every state[x]. This is primarily defined as outlawing the exchange of sex for resources, with nuances as to what that encompasses as defined by different jurisdictions and local jurisprudence. As LGBTQ communities experience disproportionately higher levels of policing, prostitution laws are often a significant part of that over policing and incarceration. For youth, LGB young women are twice as likely and LGB young men are ten times as likely to be incarcerated in juvenile detention for prostitution charges, as compared to their peers.[xi]
Particularly harmful are laws against loitering for the purposes of prostitution. Evidence for arrest and conviction can include what a person is wearing, waving at cars, being in an area that law enforcement considers “known” for prostitution, or even having been arrested before – all of which being protected behavior in other contexts. Loitering for the purposes of prostitution has colloquially come to be known as “walking while trans,” because of the frequency with which trans women are subjected to their policing. During his time at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, Dean Spade reported that 80 percent of the trans women of color he worked with “had experienced police harassment or false arrest based on unfounded suspicion of prostitution.” (Make the Road, 2012, p.13) This practice was further documented by Amnesty International in 2005 and again by Human Rights Watch in 2012.
Third-Party Laws are about destroying our tools to stay safe – like harm reduction and community
Criminalization of the sex trade also goes beyond simply the exchange, but through proxy laws such as soliciting, pandering, or promoting criminalize other sex workers, peers, family members and community support. As these laws are often over-broad and require no victimization, acts such as sharing information, driving someone to an appointment, or receiving rent money can lead to charges. Peer support and harm reduction techniques such as giving referrals for potential clients and acting as a bodyguard for one another become a misdemeanor or, in cases of youth, a felony.
Laws such as promoting prostitution can be used against one person who helps another by posting an advertisement, or acting as a booker to interface with clients. Pandering for the purposes of prostitution can, for example, criminalize information sharing about how to find clients between peers in similarly precarious life situations. For a community which has survived by relying on each other when the world has turned its back, these networks are put in jeopardy through third-party laws. Removing these support systems do not disincentivize someone from engaging in sex work, but instead force many to trade sex under worse and more dangerous circumstances.
LGBTQ people have been fighting HIV for decades. Criminalization of sex work compromises that fight.
The decriminalization of sex work is an essential element to the fight against HIV transmission. In the most extensive study available, decriminalization of the sex trade could reduce HIV transmission 33 – 46% across the globe within the next decade. Sexual violence, which is exacerbated by criminalization, poses a significant risk to the health and safety of those trading sex. In addition, when policing practices involve sting operations, negotiation of things like condom use become criminalized activities, and sex workers must either avoid those conversations or try and use vague references to try and avoid arrest.
The use of carrying condoms as evidence of prostitution, a policing practice which has been documented around the world, has led to sex workers in policed areas to not carry condoms, regardless of whether they were going to engage in sex work. In a New York City-based study on the issue, 75% of transgender women said they had not carried condoms for fear of arrest.
Sex workers are also disproportionately impacted by the implementation of HIV criminaliaztion law through mandatory felony upgrades for those who are arrested for prostitution-related crimes while HIV positive.
Sex work has always been part of LGBTQ history. It’s how we’ve cared for each other.
Many LGBTQ icons of history have used commercial sex to not only provide for themselves, but care for others in the community. Marsha P Johnson and Sylvia Rivera were outspoken sex workers who not only catalyzed the modern LGBTQ movement, but also founded STAR, Street Transvestites Action Revolutionaries. Just like so many of our organizations today, STAR was founded after a protest/sit-in in 1970. The group focused on street-based LGBTQ, but especially trans young folks. The group eventually opened the sex work-funded STAR House, the first LGBTQ-specific shelter in North America.
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[ix] Prostitution and loitering laws are one part of the larger fight against quality of life policing which targets and profiles people of color and other marginalized communities.
[x] In Nevada, prostitution is legal within a highly-regulated brothel system, which is only allowed to operate in specific locations. Working independently or outside of this system remains criminalized and as of this drafting, Nevada had the highest arrests for prostitution per capita in the country, at a rate of almost 10:1 to the second and third highest states.