And why we must finally realize we're only oppressing the most oppressed.
This Monday, the internet classifieds platform Backpage.com decided to voluntarily shut down its "adult" advertising section. The move came after intense pressure from members of Congress, who have repeatedly cited the goal of protecting children, mainly teenage girls, as they allege that Backpage has facilitated underage sex trafficking. And while it has been pointed out that the shutdown of the US's largest online venue for adult service ads will make it less safe for adults who opt to do sex work, what hasn't been widely discussed is how forcing sex workers back to the street by limiting their ability to obtain customers disproportionately affects trans people, especially trans women of color.
Unlike for young trafficked girls, there is no widespread movement among legislators to protect trans sex workers, because underage girls are considered innocent victims, while transgender workers are thought of as willing participants in a stigmatized industry. However, it is not in their innocence that the two groups differ. Rather, it's that seeing trans sex workers as innocent requires legislators and the public to confront their complicity in creating and maintaining the oppressive conditions that drive trans people, especially trans women of color, into the sex industry in the first place.
In a 2015 report on sex work among trans people by a coalition of organizations, including the National Center for Transgender Equality, 14.9 percent of 3,007 surveyed transgender women reported having done sex work, as well as rates between 6.5 and 7.4 percent of people identifying as other gender identities under the trans umbrella. And an astonishing 39.9 percent of black trans people reported having engaged in sex work.
As the report notes, there are few reliable estimates of how many Americans have engaged in sex work overall, making it hard to extrapolate what percentage of them identify as trans. But what's certain is that transgender Americans face increased rates of economic hardship, which can be blamed on a "combination of discrimination in education and workplace." Indeed, the report went on to reveal that trans people are four times more likely to earn less than $10,000 a year, and that 34 percent of black trans people live in extreme poverty. For many, sex work is a necessity to survive.
Online platforms like Backpage allow sex workers to control interactions with clients in ways they can't on the street; for trans sex workers especially, who must navigate ways to disclose their trans status without risking physical harm, street work is decidedly more dangerous than arranging work online, where one can sniff out suspicious and unsavory clients from afar. Given that rampant street violence against trans women of color has resulted in dozens of murders year after year, with many of the victims tied to sex work, Backpage provided a necessary degree of protection against many of the inherent dangers of being visibly trans on the street.
The alternatives to Backpage include exclusive sites with high membership fees that are out of reach for low-income workers, and other sites without nearly its reach. The shutdown has been well-criticized by technologists and free speech advocates, and sex worker advocates have pointed to the site as a "critical investigative tool" for law enforcement to find exploited children and prosecute pimps. But lawmakers seemingly see these and other concerns as trivial, and to do so, it becomes necessary for them to distinguish underage victims of sex trafficking from sex workers, to portray the latter group as exposing themselves to danger by choice.
I once resented that trans women like me are associated with sex work, and took pride in not being one of "those" women. Yet I won't forget a sex worker advocate friend who explained to me what got her into the business of sex work in the first place—an arrest for solicitation at 15, when police saw her walking down the street and perceived her to be a man in woman's clothes. It's a charge well-known in the community as "walking while trans." She figured that since she didn't have any other viable options—and she was going to be arrested for being black and expressing her gender anyway—then she might as well make money.
I've listened to many similar stories, from trans women forced into sex work after getting kicked out of their homes, after being bullied in school to the point where they had to drop out, after being unable to find sustainable employment, after needing to raise funds to pay for trans-related healthcare on top of those realities. It's easy to portray trafficking victims as innocent, because we can easily dissociate ourselves from the evil people who take advantage of them. But those who end up doing such work in order to survive are also unwilling victims. Their innocence, however, is harder for us to see, because that means admitting our society is racist and transmisogynist enough to produce the heartbreaking rates of poverty and discrimination among the trans community. And that means admitting that each of us is directly complicit in propagating a society that severely limits opportunities for trans people, or indirectly so by not doing enough to help trans people lead sustainable lives.
Rather than shaming sex workers, today, my shame resides in knowing that the stigma our society feels against sex workers, especially trans women of color, comes after denying to ourselves that we continually oppress people who are already among the United States' most severely oppressed. I would rather be taken for a trans sex worker than continue to be associated with a society that forces trans people into sex work to survive, and makes it so hard for them to even do so without risking their lives.