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Trans Rights & The Decriminalization of Sex Work

Law enforcement regularly profiles transgender women—especially trans women of color— for “walking while trans.” This discriminatory treatment is often justified using laws that prohibit loitering for the purpose of prostitution. Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to remove sections of this law in New York which has been on the books since 1976. The statute has been used as grounds to profile, harass, and arrest women of color, especially trans women — with ruinous and deadly consequences. Here it is important to note that that 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 choose sex work and some are left with few other options for employment due to the remarkably high rates of discrimination trans and gender non-conforming people face in education, employment, housing, and services as well as all-too-common family rejection. As a result, the criminalization of sex work disproportionately impacts transgender and gender non-conforming (TGNC) people.

Protecting sex workers from police violence is just one of the reasons we need to decriminalize sex work. Police abuse against sex workers is common, but police rarely face consequences for it. That’s partly because sex workers fear being arrested if they come forward to report abuse. Police also take advantage of criminalization by extorting sex workers or coercing them into sexual acts, threatening arrest if they don’t comply. Criminalizing sex work only helps police abuse their power. Decriminalization may also help sex workers access health care. Trans and LGB communities and communities of color know all too well the devastation that HIV and other STIs can cause. Finally, decriminalization also allows sex workers to lower the risk of violence from clients as well as the police since they are able to screen their clients and seek them out through legitimate channels. They can also report abuse from clients to the police without fear of being arrested, coerced, or abused by the police. This is especially important for trans women of color, who are far more likely to be profiled and harassed than other groups (whether or not they are actually sex workers).

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