We Need to Decriminalize Sex Work in the U.S.

Hands in handcuffs with copy space
Hands in handcuffs with copy space

As we mark December 17, the International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers, we remember stories such as that of 22-year-old Keisha Jenkins who was brutally murdered on October 6, 2015 near Philadelphia's Hunting Park. Keisha was a black transgender woman, and like many transgender people facing injustice in almost every facet of life, she was engaging in sex work in order to survive.

Keisha was only one of many transgender women who've had to engage in sex work as a means of survival. In fact, 16 percent of transgender people, including 53 percent of black transgender people and 34 percent of Latino/a transgender people, report having to work in the underground economy in order to survive according to the National Transgender Discrimination Survey.

Sex work as the only means of survival

There are countless reasons many transgender people decided to engage in sex work in order to survive. Employment discrimination, family rejection, unsafe educational environments and other forms of discrimination all contribute to high rates of economic insecurity and poverty for transgender people.


"There are countless reasons many transgender people decided to engage in sex work in order to survive."

The overwhelming majority of transgender people -- of which 90 percent report experiencing mistreatment, harassment and discrimination at work -- struggle to find good-paying jobs. Not having a family support system, as well as discrimination in housing, in public and elsewhere, contribute to poverty and homelessness.

For example, transgender people are four times more likely than the general population to live in extreme poverty, including 34 percent of black transgender people and 28 percent of Latino/a transgender people. It is these types of conditions that lead many transgender people to engage in sex work.

Unfair lifelong consequences

As a nation, embedded in our core values is the idea of allowing everyone a fighting chance to provide for themselves as well as giving everyone a fair second chance. From the get go, transgender people are face a wide range of injustices. Being convicted of a crime for engaging in sex work leads to negative lifelong consequences such as being denied access to public assistance services or housing, and their right to vote.

A criminal record, in many states, will negatively affect their ability to attain employment. And in the many cases where they are placed on sex offender registries, this will affect nearly every aspect of their lives, including where they can live and work. Our criminal justice system, as it currently exists, provides devastating barriers for formerly incarcerated people to reenter society, find a job, provide for themselves, and live safe and healthy lives.

By criminalizing sex workers, in a criminal justice system that makes it nearly impossible for formerly incarcerated people to successfully reenter society, our legal framework is placing unnecessary hurdles for many transgender people to survive.

Ending violence against sex workers

All across the nation, sex workers face constant threats of violence and in the worse cases, murder because of the lack of spaces in which sex workers can more safely engage their clients -- and a disproportionate amount of those facing violence are transgender women.


"As a nation, embedded in our core values is the idea of allowing everyone a fighting chance to provide for themselves as well as giving everyone a fair second chance."

Over all, transgender women of color face devastating amounts of violence, and the criminalization of sex work leaves them even more vulnerable. This year alone, 12 transgender women and gender nonconforming people who engaged in sex work were murdered in the U.S. -- together, these women comprised 29 percent of U.S. sex worker homicide victims.

While there are attempts to create safe spaces, these efforts are constantly being shut down by law enforcement agencies and those involved risk being indicted on punitive criminal charges -- as we've seen recently by the federal raid on Rentboy.com. This type of approach further pushes sex work deeper underground and deprives people engaged in sex work of ways to safely navigate interactions with clients and leaves them more vulnerable to violence and exploitation.

Ultimately, we must end the criminalization of all people who work in the sex trade in order to end this violence. Laws punishing people who engage in sex work serve only to worsen the violence and economic hardships of transgender people already struggling to survive. At the same time, we must work to end employment discrimination and other conditions that lead to economic disparities for transgender people so that they do not have to engage in sex work.

For more information about the work that the National LGBTQ Task Force does to decriminalize sex work, please go to www.stoptransmurders.org.