From Margin to Center: Sex Work Decriminalization is a Racial Justice Issue
By Jasmine Sankofa, AIUSA Sexual and Reproductive Rights Advocate
Sex work is criminalized throughout the United States, typically as misdemeanor offenses. Similar to the way the Unites States treats and criminalizes drug use, the policing of sex work exacerbates stigma, compromises access to resources, justifies violence, and is steeped in racial disparities. Women of color, especially Black cisgender and transgender women, girls, and femmes, are particularly vulnerable. Because sex work and sex trafficking are conflated, interventions are focused on abolishing the sex industry instead of eliminating structural issues that drive exploitation.
From profiling to strip searches, from discarded condoms to forcible and extorted sex—law enforcement is a frequent perpetrator of violence against sex workers. As the Daniel Holtzclaw case in Oklahoma revealed, having a history of sex work and drug use increases vulnerability to police sexual violence. Black women, who are over policed, impoverished, and live in racially segregated communities, are marked as prime targets. Unfortunately, what the thirteen survivors in Oklahoma experienced is not an anomaly.
Although sexual assault is grossly underreported, sexual violence is the second most reported form of police misconduct, after use of force. The DC Trans Coalition found that 23% of Black transgender people were physically or sexually assaulted by police because they were perceived to be transgender and involved in the sex trade. Another report, Meaningful Work, found that nearly 40% of Black and Black Multiracial transgender folks who have experience exchanging sex were subjected to pervasive harassment, violence, and arrest.
When violence is committed against sex workers, police often refuse to investigate. In Los Angeles, Black sex workers were targeted for nearly three decades. Police officers responded by coding case files “No Human Involved.” Sex workers remain targeted and shamed, and Black women continue to feel the brunt of it—of the 41 sex workers murdered in the United States in 2015, 17 were Black and 12 were transgender women.
Actual or perceived involvement in the sex trade results in approximately 30,000 arrests annually, according to FBI crime data. In 2015, nearly 40% of adults arrested for prostitution were Black. This disparity is larger for minors, where approximately 60% of youth under the age of 18 arrested for prostitution were Black—despite being categorized as victims of sex trafficking under federal law.
The criminalization of HIV also primarily targets people in the sex trade, even when the risk of exposure is unlikely or non-existent. In addition to physical violence, criminalization results in substantial collateral consequences—including the severing of parental rights, sex offender registration, healthcare isolation, and barriers to employment in the formal sector.
While the harm produced by criminalization and stigma renders Black women exchanging sex hyper vulnerable, sex worker rights have yet to be fully integrated into the broader racial justice platform.
Luckily, this is beginning to shift. In August, the Movement for Black Lives released a powerful policy agenda visioning Black power, freedom, and justice—sex work decriminalization was included in this vision. In an interview, Charlene Carruthers, the National Director of Black Youth Project 100, asserted the importance of centering issues faced by Black sex workers. She stated that “unless we work from the margins, and move the margins into the center, none of us will be free.”
Black women have always fought for bodily autonomy and resisted against exploitation. Instead of punishing and shaming survival strategies, we should be invested in expanding choices. Sex work decriminalization is a racial justice issue, requiring us to address the root causes of vulnerability. To do this, we need to check ourselves—by silencing our judgment, listening to their voices, holding space for their healing, supporting them on their own terms, recognizing their agency, respecting their choices, and challenging structural oppression on all fronts.
In recognition of International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, let’s (re)commit to our collective freedom and center those of us at the margins.