This June, millions around the world will observe the anniversary of the Stonewall riots, an event that famously spurred the LGBTQ equality movement in the United States. It was transgender sex workers, like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, that were the leaders of the protest, and the targets of police violence.
While the roles of these women are frequently ignored in mainstream narratives, they tell an important story about the prominence of sex workers in the movement — a significant but vulnerable part of the transgender community.
Many factors make transgender people more likely to have engaged in sex work, including dire economic straits enforced by discrimination in employment and housing. 1 in 5 transgender people have participated or currently participate in sex work The majority of transgender sex workers are people of color, and they face a high risk of harassment, sexual assault and violence — often from law enforcement. In fact, a majority of transgender people are afraid to ask the police for help — whether or not they’ve engaged in sex work before.
Mitigating these problems means challenging the many harsh laws that target the safety and well-being of sex workers. With so many anti-prostitution laws in place, sex workers face great personal risk, and are deterred from reporting the violence they face.This year, we have seen historic strides in drawing attention to sex worker rights- advocates in New York and Washington DC are pushing for the decriminalization of sex work.
This month, the California state legislature passed Senate Bill 233, a bill replicating an existing San Francisco policy that would not only allow sex workers who are victims of violent crimes to report crimes without being charged with sex work-related offenses, but also decriminalizes carrying condoms — a frequent piece of “evidence” used to arrest sex workers or those suspected of being sex workers. With this legislation, California begins to address an often overlooked issue in the health and safety of sex workers: condom confiscation.
Historically, condoms have been used as a justification for continued intimidation tactics from law enforcement towards transgender people and sex workers. Nearly half of arrested transgender people report that police used condoms in their possession as evidence of engaging in the sex trade. These tactics have a devastating impact: 75% of transgender sex workers report that they do not carry condoms for fear of police and 40% of sex workers who have had condoms confiscated went onto to engage in sex work that same day or night.
These practices are incredibly unsafe given how vulnerable transgender sex workers are to contracting HIV or other sexually transmitted diseases: Transgender sex workers are 12 times more likely than other trans people to be HIV positive, and black or multiracial black transgender sex workers are 25 times more likely.
SB 233 keeps sex workers from being charged when reporting or witnessing a crime. As California Senator Scott Weiner notes,“too many sex workers are victimized, and the last thing we need is for sex workers to be further victimized by being arrested when they report a crime” .
Considering the high rates of violence faced by trans sex workers, SB 233 is no doubt an initial step in the right direction. But additional measures must to be made to truly ensure that sex workers feel safe reporting violent crimes and standing up to discriminatory policing tactics. Without full decriminalization sex workers are still left on the edges of society, leaving them more vulnerable to violence and arrest.
While we celebrate the achievements of SB 233 and other movements in bringing attention to these issues, there is still much work to be done to ensure that sex workers get the rights and visibility they need and deserve.
Ketaki Deo is a junior at the George Washington University, majoring in Political Science with a minor in Sustainability. She is currently the president of GW Hindu Students Association and GW Allied in Pride — the largest LGBTQ+ org on campus — and is currently an intern at the National Center for Transgender Equality.