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Transgender sex workers are mistreated by the institutions that are supposed to help them

Sex workers wearing masks to protect their identity protest against a proposed human trafficking bill in Belfast, Northern Ireland
Sex workers wearing masks to protect their identity protest against a proposed human trafficking bill in Belfast, Northern Ireland
Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

Transgender people, especially trans people of color, face devastating levels of discrimination in all walks of life. They experience dramatically higher rates of poverty, homelessness, mental health problems, harassment, and discrimination than other groups.

But for transgender people who work in the sex trade, these problems are even worse.

A new report takes a look at the discrimination faced by transgender sex workers, and it's grim. The Best Practices Policy Project, the Red Umbrella Project, and the National Center for Transgender Equality examined data from the 2011 National Transgender Discrimination Survey (NTDS), the most extensive survey ever taken on trans discrimination. Researchers took a closer look at the 694 NTDS respondents, about 11 percent of 6,450 total respondents, who reported experience with the sex trade. While both trans men and trans women reported engaging in sex work, trans women were twice as likely to do so.

As you might expect, the extreme marginalization of sex work combined with the extreme marginalization of being transgender is bad news for people's well-being. Trans sex workers face much worse discrimination in education, the work force, and criminal justice than trans people who aren't sex workers.

The study's authors caution that they don't know if the disparities they found between trans sex workers and other trans people are caused by sex work, or just related to the marginalization that causes people to turn to sex work in the first place. For instance, are people treated worse by doctors because of their status as sex workers, or because they are poor and tend to get worse medical care? It may be some of both, and the variables are complex.

Transgender sex workers are in dire economic straits

The study found that trans sex workers are much more likely to experience job loss, homelessness, and poverty than trans people who don't engage in sex work. Transgender people already face more of these economic challenges than the general population, and these challenges may lead them to go into the sex trade. "Many transgender people participate in the sex trade in order to earn income or as an alternative to relying on homeless shelters and food banks," the report says.

Twice as many trans sex workers were unemployed or lived in extreme poverty than trans people who weren't sex workers. Almost half (48 percent) of trans sex workers had experienced homelessness at some point in their lives, compared to 14 percent of trans non-sex workers.

These and other differences were even more stark for trans people of color and trans women. A whopping 42.6 percent of black and black bi-racial trans sex workers were unemployed, and more transfeminine than transmasculine sex workers were unemployed (27 percent versus 19 percent).

The vast majority (69 percent) of trans sex workers said they had been denied a job, denied a promotion, or fired because of their gender identity, compared to 44.7 percent of non-sex workers. People who lost a job due to bias were almost three times as likely to engage in the sex trade.

Trans sex workers also had lower levels of education than other trans people, and reported experiencing more discrimination when they were attending K-12 schools. More than half said they had been physically assaulted in school, and more than a quarter left school due to harassment issues.

Trans sex workers are mistreated by the institutions that are supposed to help them

Trans sex workers said they were rampantly discriminated against by the very people who should be protecting them or helping them better their lives, like homeless shelter staff, doctors, and police officers.

More than twice as many trans sex workers had been denied access to a homeless shelter than non-sex workers (39.5 percent versus 17.5 percent), and almost two-thirds of trans sex workers said they had been harassed by homeless shelter staff.

Trans sex workers reported being mistreated by medical professionals:

Trans sex workers more mistreated in a medical setting Source: Best Practices Policy Project et al

And by law enforcement officers in jail:

(The pink bars represent harassment, yellow is physical assault, and red is sexual assault.)

Trans sex workers more mistreated in jail Source: Best Practices Policy Project et al

The study's authors urge decriminalizing sex work

Vox's German Lopez found that there's no good evidence in support of making sex work illegal, and a lot of compelling evidence in favor of decriminalizing it. This study's authors agree.

"Being involved in a highly stigmatized and often criminalized form of employment deepens the marginalization that transgender people face," the study's authors write. It's hard enough to deal with this kind of poverty and discrimination without also being regularly hassled by law enforcement, and going deeper underground to avoid law enforcement often makes things worse.

About 80 percent of trans sex workers reported high levels of interaction with the police, and more than half said those interactions made them uncomfortable. Police often confiscate condoms as "evidence," which is not just intimidating but also dangerous — 15 percent of trans sex workers overall, and 40 percent of black or black multiracial trans sex workers, are HIV-positive.

"Leading human rights and public health experts agree that decriminalization is essential to protect the safety of people in the sex trade and to combat HIV," the report says.

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