Criminalizing Sex Work Creates Violence and Poverty

Over the past five years I have been interviewing unhoused people who sell or trade sex, as well as service providers and grassroots organizers, to gather stories and strategies for fighting back against the criminalization of sex work, drug use, and homelessness. Laws outlawing sex work, drug use, and resting in public space are all part of the criminalization of poverty. Yet poor people’s political organizations sometimes fall into the trap of respectability politics, silencing sex workers and others who do things deemed unacceptable by mainstream society. Now is the time for grassroots movements for racial, gender and economic justice to listen to sex workers and to act in solidarity. In a moment when politicians are using simplistic narratives about individual violence and victimization to criminalize vulnerable groups of people who sell or trade sex, this issue of The Street Sheet centers the stories and analyses of people who have been without housing in San Francisco and have sold or traded sex to get by.

Many people who experience housing deprivation sell or trade sex for a living. People who sell or trade sex are diverse group including people of all genders and races. People do sex work for the same reason that people do any other type of work: To earn enough money to meet their needs. For some people I interviewed, selling sex was a way out of exploitative minimum wage jobs. Compared to working long unpredictable hours for low pay to enrich large corporations, sex work gave them more control over their schedules and working conditions. Jay, a cisgender man, started doing sex work to supplement inadequate wages from his full-time job in food service.  Unpredictable shifts and long hours led him to quit the food service job and start doing sex work full time. After he started escorting, Jay was finally able to afford a Single Room Occupancy hotel room. Jess, a cisgender woman, says that sex work allowed her to pay for college and housing that she couldn’t access otherwise. Online platforms allowed some sex workers to carefully screen clients for histories of past violence and develop caring relationships with regular clients. Income from sex work helped many people move from unstable into stable housing. Jess considers sex work her “chosen profession,” a rewarding job that she enjoys more than any other work she’s done.

Others, like Ana, dislike doing sex work but don’t have other ways to make ends meet. Ana was kicked out of her family’s home at a young age, and unable to get other jobs due to anti-transgender discrimination. Shelters weren’t safe or accessible so she did sex work to keep a roof over her head. Ana has been profiled as a transgender woman and an immigrant, has been arrested and incarcerated multiple times for prostitution, and has lost her housing as a result of being locked up. At protests to divest from incarceration and invest in housing, Ana chants the loudest because it’s personal: Most of the money that has been spent in response to Ana’s poverty has been to pay police to arrest her, prison guards to beat her, and private corporations to build and manage structures to confine her.

Laws regulating homelessness, drug use and the sex trade funnel resources into policing and prisons in the name of protecting the people most vulnerable to victimization. Ironically, the laws prohibiting prostitution and the enforcement of these laws fail to protect people in the sex trade. Instead, these laws make people in the sex trade even more vulnerable to poverty and violence. Unhoused people who work on the street are especially likely to be targeted for arrest and incarceration, and have fewer protections against violence by police or clients.

Criminalization of sex work allows police to harm unhoused sex workers

Too often, policymakers ignore the voices of communities that are most affected by their decisions. Advocates of more punitive policies use stories of violent traffickers and sex work clients, but ignore violence perpetrated by police. Yet sex workers have repeatedly called on lawmakers to address police violence. Police violence disproportionately targets poor people of color and queer and trans people who live or work in public space. A majority of the unhoused sex workers I spoke with had harmful encounters with police. From being ticketed or kicked awake when they were sleeping in public space to being threatened with arrest if they did not have sex with officers, sex workers consistently experienced policing as a source of harm. Maria said: “There are so many crooked cops out there. I’ve been harassed by them on some really shady levels…If I were to report them, it’s like my word against theirs. And I’m like a drug addict street prostitute—and to them I’m like the lowest of the low. There’s no way in hell that his whole life and his career is gonna be taken away from him on my word.”

Instead of more police, the people I interviewed wanted access to safe, stable housing, food and medical care. Access to these basic resources would help prevent exploitative and dangerous conditions.

Despite this reality, a rhetoric of protection is used to increase punishment of sex workers, drug users, and poor people more generally. Punitive law enforcement responses are cloaked in a language of rescuing victims. Public pressure to protect victims of violence creates misguided support for policies that harm the most vulnerable people in the sex trade, including homeless people who sell or trade sex. In particular, anti-trafficking legislation has historically resulted in more policing of immigrants and sex workers. Police enforcement of laws meant to target traffickers more often targets poor people who sell or trade sex, especially transgender women and women of color who are without stable housing. Furthermore, by focusing narrowly on violent individuals, these laws ignore systems of violence: Housing deprivation, mass incarceration, and corporate labor exploitation disproportionately harm the poorest people in the sex trade.

How anti-trafficking legislation can cause poverty and vulnerability to violence

Legislation meant to “protect victims” has instead ended up causing more poverty and vulnerability. Recent examples include the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), federal legislation criminalizing and impeding sex workers’ online communications.

Many policymakers who supported these laws expressed their intention to “rescue” trafficking victims by banning online advertisements, but sex worker activists, trafficking survivors and allies explain that this will instead push sex workers into more dangerous conditions on the street.

The criminalization of prostitution, along with new anti-trafficking legislation and enforcement, disproportionately target the most impoverished group of people in the sex trade. Shutting down online platforms takes away sex workers’ autonomy and reduces sex workers’ ability to screen clients to make sure they haven’t committed violence in the past. Sex workers without housing are especially vulnerable to violence because they often work in less predictable environments and don’t have the resources to adequately screen and select safe clients. Taking away online platforms threatens indoor sex workers’ livelihood and pushes sex workers into more dangerous conditions on the street.

Police officers’ unions, Business Improvement Districts, Sheriff’s Associations, and other groups whose financial interests are tied to the criminalization of poverty have lobbied for punitive policies regulating sex work, homelessness and drug use and against activists’ efforts to pass legislation that would decriminalize homelessness, sex work or drug use. These groups have pushed lawmakers to invest in policing, a response that strengthens the central role of incarceration in the U.S. economy.

Fighting back

Grassroots organizations are fighting back against harmful laws and investments, and this has resulted in some important gains in the past few years. For example, in 2013, sex worker activists succeeded in changing local legislation to decriminalize possession of condoms in San Francisco. Before the passage of this law, SFPD could confiscate condoms and use them as evidence of intent to commit a crime. This practice targeted transgender women and street-based sex workers. Now that San Francisco police officers are no longer allowed to confiscate condoms, communities have more protection against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections.

Sex worker activists in California very recently defeated SB 1204, a California Senate Bill to amend the definition of “pandering” in a way that would further criminalize sex workers, trafficking survivors and their supporters. This legislation proposed to broaden the definition of pandering, introducing new sweeping language that threatened sex workers who work in teams for safety and clients of sex workers, as well as the provision of harm reduction-based support services. Sex workers and supporters from dozens of organizations mobilized to Sacramento to defeat the bill.

We must oppose funneling more resources into criminalization and punishment. Instead, let’s support sex worker activists’ push for investment in no-strings-attached resources that allow people to get out of poverty: Housing, healthcare, harm reduction resources and access to voluntary, stigma-free care for drug addiction, mental illness and trauma. Decriminalizing sex work, drug use and homelessness will help break the cycle of poverty and criminalization that disproportionately targets people of color and queer and trans people.

To support sex workers in fighting for real solutions to the problems of poverty and violence, share your time or your money. Allies can join sex worker activists on Saturday, June 2nd at Oscar Grant Plaza for a press conference and protest march, beginning at 1pm. Those who are able can also donate to the Saint James Infirmary, a sex worker run clinic that serves people in the sex trade and helps fight against criminalization and for economic racial and gender justice. Donate online at: