Sex work as a last, and dangerous, option for transgender people worldwide

As the end of the year approaches, many people will start to contemplate a change in career. For the world’s transgender community, however, the opportunity of freely choosing an occupation remains limited. As discrimination and harassment in the job market is common, many resort to sex work.

A US survey reported that 13% of the transgender people interviewed were engaged in sex work, or trading sex for housing. For black transgender people, the number rose as high as 44% and similarly, for those of Hispanic or Latino descent, to 33.2%. Many have been involved in sex trade since they were teenagers.

The situation is not unique to the United States. In the Asia-Pacific region, specifically in Indonesia, Malaysia and India, as many as 80-90% of the transgender population reported being involved in sex trade. Surveys and testimonials from all corners of the globe bear witness to sex work as a last resort for many transgender people, and transgender women in particular.

Discrimination in the regular job market is highlighted as one of the main reasons for resorting to prostitution, and transgender people in all demographic groups testify to high levels of workplace discrimination, unemployment and homelessness. Of those engaged in sex trade, 48% of American transgender people reported having been homeless at some point in their lives. The high levels of homelessness is closely linked to the risk that transgender people face of being expelled from their family home upon coming out as transgender. As such, many go into sex work even at a very young age.

In an interview with transgender sex workers on the streets of San José, Costa Rica, the women confirm the image of prostitution as the only way to support themselves. As society has effectively locked them out, through discrimination on the job market as well as in other aspects of their lives, many have been on the streets for more than ten years. For them, sex work is the only way to pay for living costs, as well as for gender confirmation surgeries in cases where healthcare systems fail to provide those for free. Similarly, for some, sex work is the only work where they feel that their gender identity can be appreciated, rather than a cause for shutting them out.

However, working on the streets is neither safe, nor legally unproblematic. In as far apart corners of the world as France, Nepal, China and the United States, transgender sex workers are witness to brutal violence. The violence and harassment they face come not only from clients, but often from groups who seek out sex workers and attack them. One Latin American transgender woman in Paris describes how she and her friends have been stabbed in their necks, legs and arms, and beaten up countless of times. “You leave your house, but you don’t know if you will return”, she says and explains how she always prays while getting dressed to go to the park where she works.

In 2018, Peruvian transgender sex worker Vanessa Campos was shot to death in the same park in Paris. Cases of brutal hate crimes and murders of transgender sex workers are frequent all over the world. Each year, hundreds of murders on transgender people are reported globally, and of those around 60% of the victims are estimated to be sex workers. It is likely that many more remain under the radar, due to the high stigmatisation of transgender identity around the world. A significant majority of the violence takes place in Central and South America: in Brazil alone, more than one thousand transgender sex workers were reported murdered between 2008 and 2017.

Rally for LGBTQ rights outside Supreme Court (Credit: Bob Korn /

In many places, the criminal justice system fails to protect the rights of transgender people. On the contrary, harassment, physical violence, sexual assault and discrimination from the police force is more the rule than the exception. This is especially true in the case of black transgender sex workers, of whom in the US 70%  reported having been sent to jail for any reason. Across groups and countries, the cases of misgendering are high, and harassment at all stages in the legal system is extremely commonplace.

For most transgender sex workers around the world today, laws make their practices illegal. This does not only enhance the likelihood of maltreatment from the police, but also forces sex workers to take risks in order to stay hidden, both to protect their customers and themselves from being discovered. Whether it means walking further into a dark park at night, or hiding in a shady hotel, staying in the shadows makes sex workers extremely vulnerable to potential violence from a customer or others. And for many, there is no one to call for help, since their work is illegal.

Voices to decriminalize sex work come both from many sex workers themselves, as well as from organizations like Amnesty International. They argue that by taking away the illegal status, selling sex could be made safer, in terms of improving the opportunity of sex workers to get help in a dangerous situation. Similarly, getting out of sex work will also be made easier, as previous sex workers would no longer bear the burden of a criminal record.

However, the topic of decriminalisation is one of constant debate, and different countries of course have differing legislation. For example, Amnesty Sweden doesn’t conform to the stance of Amnesty International in terms of complete decriminalisation as the way forward. Rather, they argue for a model like the Swedish one, also implemented by several other countries around the world, which criminalize the buying of sex but not the selling.

Regardless of whether sex work is decriminalised throughout the world, the root of the problem remains. Discrimination in the job market, and in society at large, will continue to push transgender people into sex work, as long as it is their only option for making a living. Preventative measures, such as laws against discrimination in the job and housing markets, based on transgender or sex worker status, is required globally. Measures for equal treatment in the legal and judiciary system would also be required, to make sure such laws are actually implemented.

Legal protection against harassment, as well as the addressing of transphobic attitudes globally, remains an even larger challenge. Deeply rooted attitudes of entire societies will need to change, to the end violent and discriminatory transphobia at all levels of society.

Many of the transgender people who today make their living on the streets, dream of education or even the kind of jobs that the majority take for granted, like being a secretary or a waiter. Nepalese sex worker Pretty sums it up: “we are as qualified as any other member of society. All we need is support and opportunity”.

Karin Wennberg

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