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Trans Sex Workers Speak Out Against Backpage Shutdown

By now, you’ve probably heard about the shutdown of Backpage.com,a classifieds site used by sex workers to could find clients, put up ads, and mitigate risks while engaging in their trade. With this online solicitation, sex workers also found a space where they could discuss and screen clients beforehand.

But on Monday, the site was seized by the Department of Justice (DOJ) amid a moral panic about its alleged role for sex trafficking.

The Backpage shutdown was only foreshadowing another monster announcement on Wednesday morning: the passage of the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA).

While the Backpage closure moved sex workers to other websites, FOSTA-SESTA will shut down almost all the other major websites that could screen clients before they could be seized. Over a dozen websites where sex workers found clients have already voluntarily shut down in anticipation of the bills passing. This undoubtedly disrupts the lives of the estimatedone million sex workers in the U.S., particularly those who are at disproportionate risk of violence: women of color, trans women, and other vulnerable populations.

Among those affected is Raquel Velasquez, a trans woman and community organizer living in Tucson. In 2011, Velasquez made international press after protestingagainst Arizona’s ban on ethnic studies as a high school student; she took over her school board to stop the dismantling of the historic Mexican American Studies program.

Velasquez is now organizing withsex workers around the state, particularly as anti-sex work laws are springing up nationally.

Velasquez spoke to INTO about the urgency of protecting sex workers amid the Backpage shutdown. She emphasized how extremely difficult it’ll make the lives of trans women.

“First of all, let’s talk about the reality of how many trans women do sex work,” she says.”Almost every trans woman of color I know at least has experience trading sex for money, so we can’t afford to talk about sex workers like an abstract ‘most marginalized’ of us. When we talk about the seizure of Backpage or ‘sex trafficking’ stings, keep the end result in mind: It is about arresting the bodies and livelihoods of trans women of color.”

In one of the largest studies centering the experiences of trans sex workers, “Meaningful Work: Transgender Experiences in the Sex Trade,” researchers found that nearly 15 percent of transgender women have engaged in sex work in the past. When looking at race, 40 percent of black trans people and 33 percent of Latinx trans people engaged in the sex trade.

While only 6.3 percent of white trans people took on sex work, this is still higher than the general population, with estimates around .3 percent for people of all genders.

The numbers are much higher than one might think on both sides of the transaction,as sex work is actually exceedingly common. Up to 20 percentof men in the U.S. have hired a sex worker in the past.

This is only part of why organizations like Amnesty International, the largest human rights group in the world, have urged for the full legalization of sex work. The advocacy group“[recommends] the decriminalization of consensual sex work, including those laws that prohibit associated activities–such as bans on buying, solicitation and general organization of sex work.”

This stance is not just the belief of its administrators. It is based upon years of international research.

“This is based on evidence that these laws often make sex workers less safe and provide impunity for abusers with sex workers often too scared of being penalized to report crime to the police,” Amnesty explains. “Laws on sex work should focus on protecting people from exploitation and abuse, rather than trying to ban all sex work and penalize sex workers.”

Velasquez similarly cited Amnesty’s positionas well as those of other similar organizationswhen discussing the right for sex workers to work.

“Decriminalizing sex work, like what World Health Organization and UNAIDS say, is the best way to prevent HIV transmission among sex workers,” she adds. “We know that anti-prostitution laws and enforcement are the main facilitators of violence against sex workers, so anybody concerned about violence against trans women of color must make decriminalizing sex work a top priority.”

While still only constituting a minority within a minority, transgender sex workers are still almost six times as likely to have HIV (15.32 percent)as the general trans population (2.6 percent). This group is additionally 25 times more likely to be HIV-positive than members of the general population (.6 percent).

Velasquez emphasized that websites which allow sex workers to screen offer benefits to those engaged in the industry, even though noteveryone has historically had access tothese services.

“Street work never disappeared, particularly for folks who may be homeless or not have reliable access to internet or cell phones,”she says. “But you bet your ass if you could use the internet, you’d probably rather use the internet. Street work means very cheap pay, no screening tools but your instinct, and a wholly different kind of vulnerability that involves in being in somebody’s car.”

Less street work, thus, means less violence and less risk of sexually transmitted infections. This isn’t just Velasquez’s experience. She cited a 2017 study that shows this exact same trend.

“There was a Bay Area study which found female homicides dropped 17 percent with the introduction of Craigslist’s Adult section,”she says. “The two most likely explanations are that the Adult section created the possibility of financial independence for females in abusive relationshipsand that many female homicide victims are sex workers.”

“Working through Craigslist made doing sex work a lot safer,” she explained.

The time to support trans sex workers is now, Velazquez says. “It’s become cool to circulate pictures of murdered trans women and anti-trans violence statistics, but no one wants to think that maybe a good amount of this violence was made possible in the first place by criminalizing the sex trade,” she claims.

The fight for legalize sex work will be a long battle. However, it is now more necessary than ever for the U.S. to join the dozens of countries that have already decriminalized sex work.


Eli Erlick

Eli Erlick queer trans woman, PhD student, and director of Trans Student Educational Resources.

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