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Decriminalize Transgender Sex Work, Urges New Report

Meaningful Work

Here’s what we learned from RedUP, NCTE & BPPP’s new report on trans sex work. 

A new report on transgender sex work sponsored by the Red Umbrella Project, the National Center for Transgender Equality, and the Best Practices Policy Project urges policy makers and legislators to "repeal criminal laws for prostitution and related offenses." Building on data from the National Transgender Discrimination Survey, "Meaningful Work: Transgender Experiences in the Sex Trade" concludes that decriminalization is "essential to protect the safety of people in the sex trade and to combat HIV."

The report finds that transgender people engage in the sex trade to forge a better socio-economic existence for themselves, to provide for their families, to find employment alternatives that do not expose them to the harsh discrimination that they may face in traditional workplaces, and to ameliorate high rates of joblessness and homelessness. Black transfeminine individuals are particularly impacted by these problems.

"For many transgender people, the sex trade can offer greater autonomy and financial stability compared to more traditional workplaces, with few barriers to entry," the report says. But the study also maintains that participation in sex work has high costs, with often-fleeting autonomy and irregular financial security. Moreover, the largely unregulated sex trade can be dangerous, exposing sex workers to multifaceted harm from clients, from predators who seek to rob sex workers on the street, and from law enforcement officers, who seek to enforce zero-tolerance policies and "prostitution-free zones."

The report emphasizes that the very same socio-economic problems that lead to involvement in sex work can increase trans people's "vulnerability to harm and decrease the ability to make self-determined choices." The report continues, "Involvement in the sex trade remains highly stigmatized and stigma is compounded by other forms of discrimination, such as race, gender identity or expression, and class. People of color, immigrants, those engaged in outdoor sex work, and youth face the highest rates of police abuse and harassment, institutional discrimination, and violence. The consequences of stigma, targeted policing, and poor physical and mental health outcomes weigh heavily on already vulnerable communities."

The report points out the stigmatizing bind within which trans sex workers are often placed in the eyes of the law:

"US laws today categorize those involved in the sex trade as either criminals or victims. Either way, sex workers are targeted for arrest and frequently channeled into social 'services' that give them a choice between participation and jail time. Sex workers have been at the forefront of those criticizing this approach for simplifying complex issues into a criminal/victim dichotomy, without allowing for the reality that people with few opportunities -- particularly those who are poor, migrants, and targets of pervasive social stigma -- make the best of their situations, whether by working a low wage job, dealing drugs, or trading sex for money. Transgender sex workers, in particular, reject categorization as victims or criminals -- they are individuals with needs and will pursue the necessary avenues to progress toward the life that they want."

The report acknowledges that "full decriminalization may not be immediately feasible in many jurisdictions," but notes that policy makers and legislators can curtail policies of "zero tolerance," "prostitution-free zones," and "quality of life" measures that often lead to incarceration for trans sex workers -- situations where they may often be harmed.

The report also urges the repeal of felony-level charges and mandatory minimum sentencing. Because sex offender registration for sex work blights trans people's future employment and housing prospects, the report recommends, "States should eliminate sex offender registration requirements for sex work-related offenses that do not involve violence or coercion, and make it possible to expunge the records of those arrested and charged under these laws. ... Federal and state governments should change policies that prevent individuals with criminal records, including sex workers, from applying for or receiving student loans, public housing, food stamps or other public benefits, or from voting."

While these steps toward decriminalization are going on, governments "should carefully review the application of mandatory reporting in cases of minor involvement in sexual exchange, and ensure youth receiving social services receive clear and accurate information concerning reporting laws and the limits of confidentiality," the report asserts

Rather than working against law enforcement's need to combat trafficking and coerced sex work, decriminalizing trans sex work will assist in those efforts by allowing resources to be directed toward roots of the harm that some trans individuals face when they engage in sex work, the report states. Decriminalization will make it "far easier for sex workers to screen clients, report violence, access social services, and find employment outside the sex trade without the burden of a criminal record," the authors say.

For some transgender people, especially those who engage in sex work on the streets, the sex trade can turn violent and even deadly. Survivors of violence are fearful of turning to police lest they be subject to further harm. In October, The Advocate highlighted the outreach efforts of Naiymah Sanchez, the coordinator of the TransHealth Information Project at GALAEI, a gay Latino social justice organization. She told the Philadelphia Daily News, "Because these trans women are engaging in sex work, when they're robbed, assaulted or raped, they don't report it to police; they don't want to be criminalized. The things that get reported are murders, because they have to be reported."

Along with advocating for the decriminalization of sex work, the report recommends that policy makers and legislators pass nondiscrimination laws "that would explicitly prohibit discrimination based on gender identity and expression and sexual orientation in employment, housing, public accommodations, public education." Trans people should have access to all available means to live their true selves, including "updating the name and gender on driver's licenses, birth certificates, passports, and other forms of identification without medical requirements, excessive fees, or other burdens," it states. "This includes changing gender based on self-designation and eliminating publication requirements for name change." These latter recommendations stand to help level the playing field for trans people, who typically must jump through far greater hoops to transition within their lives than people who change their names upon marriage.

Two other concluding recommendations of the report involve improving health care and social services, and changing policing practices so that trans people have more positive interactions with law enforcement. The report does not address its recommendations only to lawmakers. It also suggests that organizations forge "deeper collaborations and partnerships with advocates for racial justice, police reform, and others working to end race and gender based violence. Organizations should work to prioritize Black and trans voices and allow them to have space to ask for support, particularly around issues related to policing."

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