How LGBT People Would Benefit From The Decriminalization Of Sex Work

Possession of condoms is often used as evidence to profile transgender women of color as sex workers. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/BEBETO MATTHEWS
Possession of condoms is often used as evidence to profile transgender women of color as sex workers. CREDIT: AP PHOTO/BEBETO MATTHEWS

A massive feud has erupted over a new policy Amnesty International is considering recommending the decriminalization of sex work. A huge group of celebrities, including Lena Dunham, Kate Winslet, Meryl Streep, and Anne Hathaway, has joined with other organizations in decrying the proposal, framing it as calling for “the decriminalization of pimps, brothel owners, and buyers of sex — the pillars of a $99 billion global sex industry.”

The issue is a contentious one. The core of Amnesty’s argument is that criminalizing sex work creates additional barriers for sex workers to overcome the challenges that may have forced them into sex work or that prevent them from leaving it, all while unnecessarily stigmatizing all people who have ever engaged in it. The celebrities and groups who oppose the policy argue that criminalizing sex work is the only way to protect women from the manipulation and abuse they might experience through it. They fail, however, to consider the many people who are negatively impacted by the criminalization of sex work, such as the LGBT community.

The celebrities’ letter opposing the Amnesty policy change only mentions transgender people once — incorrectly describing them as “transgendered.” Men who have sex with men are not mentioned whatsoever. Instead, the letter emphasizes the need to end trafficking, noting, “Without a vibrant sex industry, there would be no sex trafficking,” ignoring how some people depend on the sex industry because other options are not open to them due to discrimination. It dismisses concerns about the aim of reducing HIV transmission rates by suggesting that such efforts “seem far more concerned with the health of sex buyers than the lives of prostituted and sex trafficked women.”

As the inclusive “Draft Policy on Sex Work” explains, however, “Groups most at risk of discrimination and oppression are frequently over represented in sex work,” and specifically, “Transgender people and men who have sex with men also account for a significant proportion of sex workers in many states.” In the U.S., one survey found that among LGBTQ youth, young men were three times as likely as young women to have traded sex for a place to stay, and in general, LGBTQ youth were seven times more likely than heterosexual youth to have done so. Likewise, another study found that transgender youth in New York City were eight times more likely than their cisgender peers to trade sex for shelter. Though all commercial sex by people under the age of 18 is considered “trafficking,” an overwhelming majority of LGBT youth involved in sex work are not being exploited, but simply working to survive. As a result, LGB youth are much more likely to be in juvenile detention on prostitution-related offenses — about double the rate for girls and 10 times the rate for boys.


The 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey found that 11 percent of respondents had done sex work for income at some point in their lives, compared to just 1 percent of women nationally. Trans people were more likely to have been involved in sex work if they had lost a job due to bias, and that group was in turn more likely to later experience harassment in the workplace.

LGBT people, especially LGBT people of color, are particularly vulnerable to being profiled by law enforcement as being involved in the sex trade. The recent cases of Meagan Taylor in Iowa and Monica Jones in Arizona demonstrate how trans women of color are frequently arrested for “walking while trans” — essentially, for being assumed to be sex workers simply for being transgender. Often, simple possession of condoms is used as “evidence” of an intent to engage in sex work.

Within sex work, LGBT people are also more vulnerable to violence. One study found that attacks against trans sex workers are nearly 2.5 times as likely to involve a gun than attacks on other sex workers. In 2012, approximately one fourth of reported anti-LGBT homicides were against sex workers. A new study about HIV rates in the transgender community found that among sex workers, trans women are nine times likelier to have HIV than their cisgender counterparts.

Many of the reports that document these statistics call for the decriminalization of sex work, decrying laws against prostitution as obstacles to supporting the people most mistreated in the sex trades. For example, that new study about HIV and transgender people, commissioned by the World Health Organization, notes, “Sex work is a significant source of income for many transgender women around the world, given their exclusion from other means of income generation. In settings where sex work is illegal, transgender sex workers often bear the brunt of police brutality and, when complaints against police brutality are lodged, they are often ignored.”

After suggesting that Amnesty would be supporting a “system of gender apartheid,” the celebrities’ letter concludes, “Amnesty’s reputation in upholding human rights for every individual would be severely and irreparably tarnished if it adopts a policy that sides with buyers of sex, pimps, and other exploiters rather than with the exploited.”


This response just doesn’t jibe with what the research shows or what Amnesty is proposing. By challenging the notion that all sex work should be morally condemned, the organization opens up the possibility of sex workers actually enjoying protections not through criminalization, but through health and safety standards, favorable work conditions, and trade unions. “Decriminalization of sex work does not mean the total absence of any regulation of sex work,” the draft explains. “Rather, it means that any regulation must be focused on respecting and protecting sex workers’ human rights.”

The Amnesty proposal still works to prevent people from being coerced into sex work, assist those who wish to leave sex work, and prevent trafficking, especially across international borders. But it also seeks to end stigma against sex workers, including protecting them against discrimination and violence and ensuring their access to health care, housing, education, social security and other protections. By ending criminalization and stigma, sex workers would also then be more empowered to seek police support and protection from violence, rape, coercion, and other forms of abuse — instead of fearing further abuse from police. Perhaps most importantly, Amnesty’s proposal encourages working with sex workers to implement policies about sex work to ensure that their concerns are heard.

Jezebel jests, “The demands, hazards, and larger experience of sex work of course shift and vary across cultures, and decriminalization will require thorough and methodical planning. But as debates brew, we can take comfort in the A-listers who raise their voices, shepherding us dewy-eyed lambs to the light of knowledge.” For LGBT people who depend on sex work for survival, these A-listers are essentially turning a blind eye to their concerns in favor of a moral high ground.

Amnesty will consider the new proposal at a meeting next month in Dublin, Ireland.