As the Monica Jones case in Arizona recently dramatized, laws criminalizing sex work harm transgender and gender nonconforming (TGNC) communities in multiple ways. Law enforcement regularly profile transgender women—especially trans women of color—as sex workers simply for “walking while trans.”
Additionally, 11% of trans respondents to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey reported that they had engaged in sex work. In comparison, it is estimated that 1% of cisgender women have done sex work. Some people choose sex work and some are left with few other options for employment due to the remarkably high rates of discrimination TGNC people face in education, employment, housing, and services as well as all-too-common family rejection.
With this in mind, Transgender Law Center recently came out against two bills currently being considered by the California Legislature: Senate Bill 1388 and Assembly Bill 1576. While well-intentioned, these bills will actually cause more harm to the communities they are trying to help.
The vast majority of minors in the sex trade are older teens lacking in support networks, not children trafficked against their will. SB 1388, billed as a “human trafficking” measure, is intended to curb sex trafficking of minors. Unfortunately, as is often the case with so-called anti-trafficking policies, the provisions of SB 1388 would have far-reaching consequences for those who have not been trafficked, but who do sex work by choice or because of circumstances.
SB 1388 would increase penalties for customers. Yet, we know from street sex workers’ experiences that laws criminalizing sex work, or increasing penalties and enforcement, impede sex workers’ ability to negotiate condom use and force many to work in hidden or remote places where they are more vulnerable to violence.
SB 1388 would also put more money into diversion “counseling” programs for minors. These counseling programs, which lack oversight, are based on the presumption that there must be something wrong with people who work as sex workers and fail to address the underlying economic and societal reasons why many do sex work. A better solution would be providing real services—like housing and job training—to everyone who needs them and aggressively rooting out discrimination in housing, education, and employment so that TGNC youth and all people can be free to choose careers other than sex work if they wish.
The other bill, AB 1576, would have unfortunate consequences for another segment of the sex industry that employs a disproportionate number of TGNC people: adult films. The bill would require performers to use condoms while filming. Yet, in the context of filming adult videos, condom use can cause chafing and abrasions which actually increase the risk of STI transmissions. Due to stringent testing requirements already adopted across the adult film industry, there has not been a single case of on-set HIV transmission in ten years. Adult film performers should have the right to choose how best to protect themselves from STIs, free of coercion from either the state or their employers.
AB 1576 also has serious implications for performers’ medical privacy rights. The bill would require adult video producers to keep performers’ test results on file indefinitely. Smaller studios and amateur producers may not have the capacity to develop adequate record-keeping systems to keep performers’ medical information confidential.
AB 1576 seeks to blame and stigmatize on-screen sex workers rather than offer real solutions to actual public health problems. Trans and LGB communities and communities of color know all too well the devastation that HIV and other STIs can cause. California legislators should focus on how to reduce infections in these communities that are disproportionately harmed, not on-screen sex workers who have already developed effective safeguards.
If you are a resident of California, you can support TGNC and allied sex workers by contacting your state representatives to let them know how you feel!