In this reflective essay, I consider political and economic barriers facing trans sex workers in an age of networked connectivity. This essay doesn’t seek to outline reasons ‘why’ people do sex work, nor to pathologise sex work in any way, nor speak for all sex workers, nor offer expertise on the many and varied sex working communities that exist globally. I can’t lay claim to all trans experiences, nor do I wish to. I simply seek to address the nexus of sex work and transgender identity, and give some examples of the ways that a culture of white supremacist, cis-hetero-patriarchal capitalism tries to shut down marginalized peoples generating income outside of conventional systems, and to identify some of the ways in which communities and individuals counter these oppressions.
Capitalism is a system of systems: it’s war. The nature of war is to mobilize, strike against the enemy, and organize offensives and battles. This very language is part of establishing successful statehood, as evidenced by the war on drugs, or the war on terrorism. These wars take prisoners. The war on the poor has many arms, and is state-sanctioned and state-funded. Criminalization of and stigma against sex work is a tenet of this war. In an age of highly sophisticated systems of connectivity, sex workers use these tools to form networks, access community, and generate income.
We can’t talk about the war on the poor without observing that it is also a white-supremacist war, inextricably interwoven with the historical and ongoing oppression of people of colour globally. Economically, this system works to disadvantage non-white people and block access to capital and the means of generating capital. Monica Jones, an advocate for sex worker rights and a transgender woman of colour from Phoenix, Arizona, recently spoke to the U.N. about issues of state violence for sex workers, and the ways that criminalization impacts the communities she has been close to. The Best Practices Policy Project, an advocacy organization for sex workers and people in the sex trade and related communities in the United States,1 released a press release in which Ms.Jones is quoted as saying that “as long as police can target [her] community using these anti-sex work laws, we will never be safe from violence, including the violence of incarceration.”2 This violence extends into policing practices, such as the taking condoms as evidence of ‘manifesting prostitution,’ which leaves workers without the tools they need to do their job safely, and deprives them of the freedom to negotiate boundaries with clients. It’s stupid and harmful. Police all over the world use anti-sex work laws to target society’s most vulnerable people. Trans sex working bodies are thus rendered as disobedient bodies: pathologized, policed, detained and outlawed.
Connectivity has changed the landscape of wealth and we have a global economic and social situation where “people, commerce, and discourses now constantly cross borders – some more easily than others,”3 and sex work networks function within this. Beatriz Preciado talks about the crossing of borders by online sex workers in the early 1990s, understanding these communities as entrepreneurs who access new forms of capital: “After the fall of the Berlin wall, the first people able to make use of this market were sex workers from the former Soviet bloc, then those in China, Africa, and India.”4
Here we see how global connectivity, far from being the domain of the ruling class--as it is often posited, has been used by people in ‘developing’ nations to enter new economic roles and undermine colonial systems of wealth distribution.
The fiction of the ‘trickle-down’ theory of economics is a piece of propaganda that accompanies the mythic virtue of working hard while not complaining, and narratives of upward mobility. I’m from Australia, and I notice that Australian attitudes pertaining to work and wealth have certain parallels with other colonial states. The American Dream, for example, where everybody can start from the bottom and work their way up to achieve greatness and secure capital, parallels the ‘fair go for all’ fallacy of colonial Australian discourses. This discourse strives to disarm public outcry to the punishing of poverty. At the heart of anti-sex work discourse, which is propagated both by conservatives and those with left-leaning politics alike, is a moral panic that ‘undesirable’ people will gain access to capital and power, and an intense fear of sexual independence in peoples who aren’t white, heterosexual, male and cis. People in power can’t deal with bodies that defy subjugation. In this way, anti-sex work laws and rhetoric are used in attempts to psychically and physically barricade sex workers from their own agency.
— Tilly lawless (@tilly_lawless) April 3, 2015
Mainstream feminism is often just as conservative as right-wing patriarchy in its attitudes toward both sex work and trans people. The moral panic behind the violence of SWERFs5 is manifested through hate campaigns and the hijacking of sex worker stories for their own agenda.6 In March 2015 anti-sex worker activists attempted to hijack the hashtag #FacesOfProstitution7 on Twitter, which was started by Australian sex workers to combat stigma and debunk the myth that sex work and sex trafficking are the same thing. These anti-sex work tweeters used this hashtag to post photos of murdered women, implying that all sex work is violence against women (while simultaneously claiming that trans women are not women), and ignoring the evidence and experiences of the sex workers also posting with the tag. Ironically, a few weeks later when an Irish anti-sex work campaign was launched on Twitter, sex worker activists managed to hijack the hashtag #WeDontBuyIt, using connectivity to combat stigmatization. There exists a pervasive, paternalistic idea that sex workers need to be ‘saved,’ and that this needs to be done through arrest, interrogation and incarceration.
— Ophelia (@TrueLoveOphelia) April 25, 2015
Trans activism and sex worker activism are linked by the needs of the people who are vulnerable. Trans movements need to centre the voices and needs of trans women who engage in sex work or the sex trades, especially trans women of colour. We cannot begin to address sex worker needs and rights without addressing the needs and rights of trans people, specifically trans women who do sex work, who most directly face the oppression of cis-sexist patriarchal structures and the violence of the state. And we can’t talk about either of these things without centering on the experiences and voices of trans women of colour, who are over-represented both in statistics about violence perpetrated against sex workers and trans people and in prisons due to consistent police profiling. Mirha-Soleil Ross insists this, while describing herself in an interview with Viviane Namaste, tongue in cheek, as a “real pain in the ass,” and urges for non-sex working transgender activists to stop appropriating the violence and abuse that trans (women) sex workers experience to manipulate their own political agenda.8
Globally, there are a few different legal models affecting sex work. Where sex work is criminalized, sex workers have no rights and face incarceration and increased rates of violence. Here, sex workers who are charged or convicted have a criminal record, which limits access to many non-sex work jobs, making sex work the most viable option for accessing money. Criminalization means that sex workers are vulnerable to violence from law enforcement, and are shut off from basic services such as the ability to press charges or access resources if they are victims of violent crime. Where I live, in the state of Victoria, we have a model of legalization under which brothels are legal but must obtain a license: individual sex workers must register with the Business Licensing Authority, and the police are the regulatory body. There are many twists and turns in sex work legislation in Victoria,9 all of them functioning on a practical level to make sex work difficult, annoying, or dangerous. Some types of sex work are entirely illegal, such as street based sex work.
There are many trans people working as sex workers in Australia, both trans women and trans men. People talk a lot about the domino effects of living as trans,10 from those who have experienced these things themselves, to those working in anthropology or community health. I can honestly say that sex work has been the most accessible way for me to generate an income to pay for the expenses of medically transitioning, which includes psychiatric assessment, hormones, and surgery. In Australia, this process involves gaining access to hormones: one gets a referral from a doctor, sees a psychiatrist who writes a letter stating that they can either recommend or not recommend a hormone prescription, returns to a doctor or gets referred to an endocrinologist, and finally receives a prescription. At no time during this process did I consider disclosing to any of the medical professionals involved that I am a sex worker, after being advised by people in my community who were denied access to hormones after disclosing their sex worker status. My own access to hormones was blocked by a psychiatrist with a God complex and an incompetent doctor, and during this time if I didn’t have sex work I would have been unable to feed myself, have stable housing, or survive. Furthermore, the flexibility of sex work has allowed for my work as a creative to be sustainable.
The people I have met through sex work are some of the most passionate, interesting, empathetic people I have met in my life, as well as some of the most diverse. This goes doubly for the trans sex workers. I’m proud to be part of a workforce that creates a rupture in the flow of wealth designated by capitalism. Against the violence of capitalism, trans people in the sex trades are disrupting the rigidity of wealth distribution as we have done historically, and as we will continue to do in the future.
3 Lois Anne Lorentzen, Cymene Howe, Susanna Zaraysky, “Devotional Crossings: Transgender Sex Workers, Santisima Muerte, and Spiritual Solidarity in Guadalajara and San Francisco”, in Religion at the Corner of Bliss and Nirvana, (North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2009) 7.
4 Beatriz Preciado, Testo Junkie: Sex, Drugs and Biopolitics in the Pharmacopornographic Era, (New York: The Feminist Press, 2013), 38.
5 ‘Sex Work Exclusionary Radical Feminist’ – see <http://sjwiki.org/wiki/Trans-exclusionary_radical_feminism#Sex_worker_ex....
6 One of the biggest sex work related news stories of 2014 was that of Somaly Mam, an anti-sex work activist in Cambodia accused of kidnapping sex workers from their workplaces and using them for her own abolitionist agenda. She resigned from her own organization amid claims that she was a fraud. Much of the discourse around this event focused on the supposedly good work that Mam was doing, regardless of the fabrications around her organization.
8 Sex Change, Social Change: Reflections on Identity, Institutions, and Imperialism https://learningtrans.files.wordpress.com/2010/11/namaste-excerpt.pdf
R.A. Taylor is a writer, sex worker and transgender man living in Melbourne, Australia. He’s passionate about international sex work communities and movements, learning, and social theory. He is currently working on his first novel, which focuses on crime and queer identity from a prison abolitionist perspective. Sex work has allowed him to engage with new politics, and pursue his career as a writer, and make lifelong friends.