Standing Against the Criminalization of Sex Work

This op-ed piece was written by DC Trans Coalition member Sadie-Ryanne Baker, on behalf of and with help from the DCTC organizing collective, in response to troubling recent events.

Justice, Not Jails
DC must rethink impact on marginalized communities of policing sex work

On the weekend of September 25th 2010, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) raided a hotel in Northwest in a prostitution-related sting. After initial witness reports that dozens were detained, MPD has confirmed that six arrests were made on charges of soliciting prostitution.

Every week, the DC Trans Coalition receives numerous complaints involving police harassment. Many of these reports come from transgender, transsexual or gender-non-conforming (hereafter trans) individuals, especially trans women of color, who are involved in, or believed to be involved in, sex work.  Due to transphobic and racist police bias, many trans women are harassed and falsely arrested for sex work (the crime of “walking while trans”) while simply interacting in their own communities.

Whether they are sex workers or not, however, is beside the point. No one deserves the degree of persecution and violence these individuals face. While most survivors of policing abuses are unwilling or unable to file formal complaints, we continue to receive a consistently high volume of contacts from individuals who have been assaulted and/or verbally ridiculed by police. Many are treated inhumanely while in custody, despite MPD’s own General Order prohibiting such abuse. A soon-to-be-released study by the National Center for Transgender Equality notes that 71% of trans respondents had experienced harassment and disrespectful treatment by police officers and 45% were uncomfortable reporting crimes to police. After the most recent raid, DCTC was approached for advice from trans community members who are fearing for their own safety in the face of similar sweeping police actions. No one should have to live with this fear.

Due to discrimination, trans people are more likely to experience poverty, housing instability and un(der)employment than cisgender (non-trans) people. Many engage in criminalized activities, including sex work, in order to survive.  We are disturbed and frustrated that the solution most often employed by the DC government is to over-police and to arrest our community members rather than connecting these individuals to jobs, services and public assistance.

Since sex work is illegal, sex workers are denied protection with basic labor practices and human rights standards. If attacked or assaulted by a client, there is often no legal recourse. Marginalized groups such as trans women are among the most vulnerable. This becomes terrifyingly clear when we gather annually for the Trans Day of Remembrance. The list of murder victims heavily features sex workers, most of whom are trans women of color.

Rather than protecting these individuals from violence, many police actions only perpetuate violence. After incarceration, and the establishment of a criminal record, these individuals face the nearly impossible challenge of finding a ‘legal’ job. Instead, they are likely to find themselves back in the sex work industry. At the bottom of the social ladder, marginalized communities such as trans women of color are the worst hit by this cycle of jail and poverty. A preliminary glance at MPD’s arrest records, which we recently obtained from MPD via a Freedom of Information Act request, suggests that a trans woman is far more likely to be arrested for indecent sexual proposal than a cisgender person.

All LGBTQ people should be concerned when the state attempts to enforce morality. Instead of allowing the government to target sex workers as criminals, we must solve the underlying issues of racism, transphobia and poverty. Raids like the one conducted by MPD last week only perpetuate unsafe working conditions and further demonize sex workers, forcing sex workers out of the safety of the private room and into the dimly lit and significantly more dangerous public streets.

It is our hope that the incoming Gray Administration will rethink these failed policing strategies. We look forward to meeting with him to discuss possible alternatives. We need jobs not raids; we need fair wages and labor standards not “Prostitution Free Zones.” Whether individuals chose it freely or not, sex work is real work and will continue to be an industry for those with limited employment options.

We welcome help and support from our allies as we build upon our advocacy efforts. In these tough economic times, we need to develop real remedies designed to curb the persecution and violence that far too many sex workers experience when trying to make ends meet. The time to stand up for the most vulnerable among us is now. To learn more about how you can help support our work, please be sure to contact us at


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