Monday, March 1, 2010

The War Against Trans Sex Workers

The Jersey Journal, a newspaper in Hudson County, NJ just over the river from Manhattan, had a recent article about trans sex workers getting busted by the police. The headline said:

West New York police to pimps and prostitutes: No more sex!

They then describe a police sting operation involving a trans sex worker, giving her male birth name, of course used mostly male pronouns, how tall she was (6'2"-in an obvious attempt to scream "male") and how much she charged. Furthermore, they describe her services as "a transsexual sex romp."

Transsexual Sex romp
First of all, describing sex work, especially sex work by trans women as a "sex romp" is an absurd statement. Trans women doing sex work expose themselves to the highest murder rate in the country. They are working with, perhaps, the most dangerous population of johns who are notoriously unpredictable in terms of their behavior towards the sex worker. It's not uncommon trans women in this line of work face harassment and violence by former clients in an attempt by those clients to come to terms with their sexual attraction towards transwomen and their internalized shame for being turned on by them. It's a dangerous business, not a joke, and is often used by young trans women who have a been kicked out of their families and communities both to survive and to pay for transition-related expenses.

Trans sex workers also have some of the highest rates of HIV infection. The Center for Disease Control has stated: "According to several transgender HIV/AIDS needs assessments and sexual risk behavior studies, the seroprevalence among trans sexworkers may be as high as 60% among some street worker populations. The highest HIV rate in the country may be among male-to-female (MTF) transgender sex workers). In other words, a "romp" it ain't.

The article mentions the sex worker's "steep" prices as though sex work, when done by trans women, should be cheap and affordable. In other words, this isn't a real woman, so why should anyone pay real woman prices to have sex with her? In fact, the reason many trans women are able to charge and get relatively high prices is exactly because their clients are highly closeted and have shame about what they're doing. They're basically paying a discretion tax.

What's also interesting is the trans woman they arrested was not a streetwalker. She advertised over the Internet and that was used to arrest her in the sting. The headline declares West New York police are warning pimps and prostitutes. But was there even a pimp in this case (none was identified)? Most women doing sex through the Internet don't use pimps (unless they are involved in sex slavery rings... another very important, but different, issue). So how does the headline connect pimps to this trans woman and her business? Is it an attempt to project danger and violence onto the sex worker when, in fact, it's far more likely she would be the victim?

Where are the Johns?
Most media talking about trans sexworkers doesn't key in on the identity of their johns. Increasingly, media discussing cissexual sexwork in the last 20 years has made at least a side discussion of the clientele who is subsidizing those services. Yet in this and any discussions of trans sexworkers, it might as well be back in the early-60s, before Johns were ID'd or arrested. The men who spend large amounts of money for trans porn and trans sexworkers are literally given carte blanche by the media and police because they know how humiliating it would be to have the stigma of "straight man" into sex with trans women.

Moreover, it's interesting how normally thoughtful media outlets (like PBS's Frontline or a recent CNBC show called "Dirty Money: High End Prostitution) always exclude trans women sex workers front any of their discussions of the sex trade. Many feminist writers both pro and against the sex trade rarely if ever mention the large number of trans women throughout the world who live and die in the sex trade. It's as if their being made invisible means cissexual young women in the sex trade means = forced into it. Trans young women in the sex trades means = voluntary participants/criminals. If anything, many of the trans sex workers have even fewer "straight" options than do cissexual women and fewer shelters and places where they can escape violent situations.

In January, 2010, a greatly publicized story made the rounds about former NFL star player Eric Green getting slapped with a lawsuit by a trans woman he sexually assaulted in Arizona. In most of the articles, they also make mention many hints the victim was a prostitute (she was arrested at a New York Housing Complex for trespassing and was humiliated by a woman cop who made her strip). Connecting the dots, she was a "tranny hooker" and was assaulted by a celebrity... so who should you believe? On many blogs, there were numerous suggestions she was lucky to have had sex (as if being forced to have oral copulation is sex) with a NFL player and that she was looking for publicity. Now, granted, this same sexist media saw is used against cissexual women in rape cases (although with less and less frequency) but with trans women it's evidently fair game.

I'm not suggesting all sexwork is a victimless crime. In fact, in trans sex work there are a lot of victims who are not infrequently on the Transgender Day of Remembrance calling of the names. They are between a rock and hard place, often in a society which doesn't respect, protect or honor their rights as citizens and trans youth, and their need to transition any way they can. I would love to see a media source actually respect some of the complexity of their lives rather than view them as a joke or a civic annoyance. I would love to see it viewed as a national disgrace how these young people are often pushed into sex work because they've been harassed in their school environments, are not able to get homeless/foster care services and are poorly served by public support services in general.

Rather than having an article about busting trans sex workers, I would appreciate seeing an in-depth discussion about the need for safe educational spaces, needs assessment and mentorship programs for trans youth. I see no examination in such articles about the desperate need for health services such the Lyon Martin and Tom Waddell public health centers in San Francisco or Callen-Lorde Community Health Center in NYC, which have excelled at providing services to trans women) and an understanding how these populations rarely feel as if the police are there to protect them. Don't want trans sex workers, then start by making sure employers can't discriminate on the basic of gender expression and identity. Anything less than that is a part of the problem and a tacit approval of more names added to the Transgender Day of Remembrance.

For every article like the one by the Jersey Journal, I wish we could have many more like this, where trans youth are allowed to speak up for themselves and let the world know about their lives.


  1. Used to go to the Waddel clinic and met some of the nicest people one could ever hope to meet. Felt a bit like Joan Cleaver there but the patients and staff were wonderful. Wish it was closer.

    Met a lovely tall sex worker there who talked about the trade. I felt so sad for her but she treated it as just part of life.

    How strong and brave she was as we walked away from the clinic that night. I offered her a ride but she declined figuring she might pick up some work on the way to her place. We hugged and said our goodbyes and she strode away confident and proud in high heels I can't imagine living in.

    Her one bit of advice was if you go into the trade don't have SRS because you'll make a lot less. Sitting in my car I thought thank God I don't have to do that. Even though I'm not a religious person I said a little prayer for her continued safety. What a scary and dangerous life. Wish there was a way to protect them.

  2. Gina, I didn't see a contact link so I posted to this post. Delete it after you read it. Ethan turned me on to your blog and I think it's great. I'd like to cross post your posts on if you'd be interested in that. Email me at



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