While January was designated as Human Trafficking Awareness Month, human trafficking— the use of coercion to force people into engaging in any form of labor for one’s own benefit — is an issue year-round. Sex trafficking is one of many forms of human trafficking.
Unfortunately, rhetoric and policy proposals responding to the very real problem of human trafficking often conflate coerced trafficking victims with people who consensually exchange sexual services for money or goods — with harmful results for both trafficking victims and sex workers. “Cracking down” on sex work only drives it further underground while making it harder for trafficking victims to get help.
As NCTE and our colleagues reported in 2015’s Meaningful Work: Transgender Experiences in the Sex Trade, trans people — especially trans women of color — engage in sex work at higher rates than the general population, due in part to widespread discrimination.
A historic lack of access and equity in areas like education, employment, housing, and health care continue to create a culture of uncertainty for transgender people, leading some to engage in sex work as a tool for survival. Misguided policies on sex work and trafficking inevitably have a disproportionate effect on transgender people.
Cracking Down on Advertising Sites Makes Workers Less Safe
The (un)intended consequence of this conflation between sex trafficking and consensual sex work can be seen in many ways, including “anti-trafficking” stings that can end in the arrests of non-trafficked sex workers and their clients.
Another, equally harmful, example is the effort to shutter websites used by sex workers to find and screen clients. In 2016, for example, the federal government raided the offices of Rentboy.com, a hub for LGBTQ sex workers with a reputation for charitable giving to the community.
Overnight, many of those workers found themselves without a safe way to work and considering street-based work to pay their bills. When these sites shut down, trafficking victims forced to use the site are also often forced onto the streets, where the crimes against them are harder to find and stop.
After some lawsuits to shutter these sites failed, proposals arose in Congress to make such efforts easier by amending the Communications Decency Act to make site owners legally responsible for the content posted by users and the transactions they facilitate.
There is no evidence that such efforts, such as the so-called “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act,” offer a solution for sex trafficking. But there is evidence that they further contribute to the dangers facing sex workers. This only makes it more difficult for the communities participating in sex work to actually gain financial stability.
Screening clients online may also be the safest option for sex workers, and may even save lives, according to a recent study from Baylor University and West Virginia University. Researchers found that the rate of all female homicides in several cities dropped 17% after Craigslist opened an erotic services section in their area.
But prosecutors and lawmakers continue in misguided efforts to shut these sites down, rather than focusing resources on identifying actual cases of trafficking and make services and economic opportunities available to victims and consensual sex workers alike.
Cracking Down or Getting Smart to Make Communities Safer
Shutting down sites that allow sex workers to find and screen clients more safely online could have the unintended effect of pushing more workers onto the streets, where neighbors often complain about their presence. In response to neighbor complaints, many cities, including the District of Columbia, have used “nuisance abatement” laws to not only prosecute sex workers but also force landlords to evict them from their homes. D.C.’s “Nuisance Abatement” law, which allows the city to sue any person responsible for or involved in creating or maintaining a nuisance, specifically targets sex workers. Prostitution, as defined in the bill, is considered a nuisance and serves as enough reason to displace people from their homes.
Community advocates have protested a recent proposal to expand DC’s law in order to evict local businesses accused of allowing sex work or drug transactions on their property, saying the law is already problematic and shouldn’t be broadened.
In addition, the categorization of sex workers as a “nuisance” only further reinforces the idea of sex workers as criminals, when in fact the majority of people participating in sex work, including many trans women of color, are simply trying to get by. Many become involved in the industry after facing exclusion from a society that makes it nearly impossible for them to access economic stability.
Typically, sex workers find clients in lower-income communities to avoid high profiling and policing in wealthier neighborhoods. With a spike in gentrification in D.C. and other cities, there is increased policing in communities that house marginalized populations, driving street-based sex workers to areas that further diminish their safety.
The rise of complaints from new tenants in neighborhoods that have historically been the homes of marginalized communities, often predominately people of color, is a form of systemic oppression. Individuals from privileged backgrounds relocate to areas that are financially appealing, file complaints to law enforcement with the argument of “improving quality of life,” and ultimately criminalize and displace communities of color, including queer and trans people.
It is important to recognize the harmful impact of these misguided policies on trans communities. We can help increase safety and support both sex workers and trafficking victims by reframing our perception of the sex industry, advocating for modernized legislation that removes criminal penalties for sex work, and supporting non-stigmatizing, low-barrier resources to those impacted by the sex trade — whether through choice, coercion, or circumstance.
Michaé Pulido is an undergraduate intern at NCTE.