Trans Agenda for Liberation: Pillar 5

Freedom to Thrive

Defining The Problem

Sex work is work. Sex workers are legitimate workers. As Black and brown transgender sex workers, we demand the full decriminalization of sex work and the end to the stigma, violence, and policing that plagues our communities. It is impossible to be genuinely committed to ending violence against trans communities, particularly trans women of color, without a commitment to decriminalizing sex work.

There is nothing inherently dangerous about sex work, the same way that there is nothing inherently dangerous about sex. But when sex work, as with any industry, is imbued with shame, racist policies, unchecked police power, and misogyny, it becomes dangerous. Nine in ten trans sex workers report being harassed, attacked, or assaulted by the police, and police force many transgender sex workers to engage in sex to avoid arrest. Further, three out of four transgender sex workers have experienced sexual violence or intimate partner violence at some point in their lives. Many trans women of color who have been murdered were sex workers or have engaged in sex work at some point in their lives.

Policies that criminalize sex work or the platforms we use push us further underground, making it that much more dangerous. More than a third of transgender sex workers use online platforms for advertising, which allows them to screen clients, advertise safely, and have more ownership of their work. Misguided policies that criminalize or regulate these spaces, such as SESTA/FOSTA, which became law in 2018, only place transgender sex workers at greater risk of harm and limit our self-determination by removing platforms that we’ve used to work safely.

Efforts that focus on softening legal consequences for sex work-related charges, such as arrest diversion programs or “johns” school — where people who’ve been arrested for soliciting sexual services are deterred from doing so again — legitimize the belief that there is something inherently wrong with sex work. It supports the idea that sex workers, and those who buy sex, are deviant and require intervention. Further, they divert resources away from our communities and into the racist and transphobic criminal legal system. We cannot limit our efforts to only reducing the harm of the police state. We should also work towards community-led solutions that allow us to keep one another safe rather than relying on police — we must decriminalize sex work, divert resources away from police, and invest in the safety of our communities.

Any effort that legitimizes the system of policing, including solicitation or loitering laws, only places further harm on Black and brown transgender sex workers. Police are the most egregious source of harm in our work and our lives. We see this harm in the ongoing profiling of Black and brown trans communities, particularly transgender women of color, often referred to as “walking while trans.” Trans migrants are at greater risk of detention and deportation for simply being suspected to be doing survival sex work. We are criminalized for our very existence — as we wait for the bus, walk to the store, or stand outside of a bar, police profile us as being “suspected” sex workers and therefore feel justified to arrest, harass, and perpetuate violence against us.

Defining The Strategy

Like in all areas of work, sex workers deserve to be free of harassment and violence while at work. This cannot and will not happen with more state regulation and control. No system can effectively ensure Black and brown transgender sex workers’ well-being when those systems are built on anti-black, xenophobic, and transphobic values and core beliefs, as is evident in U.S. police forces. Legalization of sex work would increase regulation and surveillance from the government — we demand decriminalization, not legalization.

The broader sex worker rights movement must commit to being anti-racist and center the experiences of Black and brown transgender sex workers. It is too easy to fall into the trap of wanting to appear respectable to the public when a movement starts to gain legitimacy. We see this in the way that national sex worker groups are trading real community connections for small political wins or social approval. These groups inadvertently reinforce a hierarchy of social acceptance — white, cisgender, non-disabled, and wealthy sex workers are portrayed as proper, self-sufficient, and sometimes even glamorous, garnering news articles and television shows about their lives. Meanwhile, Black, trans, poor, and disabled sex workers are depicted as perverse, easily coerced, and needing to be saved. We need a cohesive movement that is accountable to Black and brown transgender sex workers and will no longer allow national groups to undermine our work and our commitment to local communities.

Sex workers have been the family that many of us needed, providing us with the homes that we have always deserved. Sex workers have only been targeted for violence simply for who we are or how we choose to make our income. Sex workers are not only worthy of safety — we’re worthy of dignity and autonomy.

Demands

Decriminalize Sex Work

We demand the full decriminalization of sex work. We demand that law enforcement no longer receive any funding or resources to further criminalize and harass us as we work and live. There is no safety for transgender people of color as long as police have indiscriminate power to harass us. The violence that we experience cannot be solved through police or the racist state. Instead, our safety will come from where it has always come from — from the interdependence, care, and brilliance of Black and brown transgender sex workers.

Honor Our Stories
So often, we hear stories of sex workers experiencing violence, harm, and coercion. These stories are important and deserve attention — what deserves equal attention are the stories of resilience, kindness, and family. In spite of danger from both civilians and police officers, sex workers have been creative and resourceful in how we’ve taken care of one another. Financial stability is a key reason why people engage in sex work, but another overlooked reason is the valuable connection and family that Black and Brown trans sex workers receive. We demand that more resources are dedicated to supporting this network, including resources for gender-diverse convenings. We own our stories and demand that they be told in their entirety, including the stories about the beauty of our community. We must lift up the multitudes of experiences and identities in our community, including stories of nonbinary and transmasculine sex workers.
Invest in Communities, Not Police
Our stories are too often used, and our bodies and voices too often sacrificed, to justify anti-trafficking or legalization policies that only further harm Black and brown communities, including those of us who’ve been trafficked. We demand that organizations, funders, and unions publicly declare an investment in decriminalization. Decriminalization means that we funnel resources into community, not police. It values agency and self-determinization over shame and stigma. We can no longer stand by as band-aid solutions are offered that only increase harm to our communities and families and legitimize harmful systems.
We Deserve Autonomy and Power Over Our Lives
We must be able to freely make decisions for ourselves, without coercion from the state, including the decision to engage in and transition out of sex work. This means that we need free legal support, access to healthcare, trans-specific mental health support, housing, and other resources that allow for true self-determination. We demand that trade unions recognize sex work as work and engage with sex workers to organize unions. We demand collective bargaining power to ensure that our work is deemed legitimate labor, that we have healthy and safe working conditions, and that we have the benefits that should be afforded to all people.

Acknowledgments

We are deeply grateful to the many people who generously contributed to, reviewed, and offered on Freedom to Thrive, including: Agaiotupu Viena, Cathy Kapua, Mickaela Bee, Ash Stephens, Xoai Pham, Kris Hayashi, Shelby Chestnut, and Emily Waters.