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A Rare Window Into Life at the Margins

A new survey conducted by the National Center for Transgender Equality provides a crucial glimpse at the economic lives of transgender sex workers.
(Photo: chrisschoenbohm/Flickr)

(Photo: chrisschoenbohm/Flickr)

In the United States, we are presently furnished more official data on how many people are arrested for doing sex work than we have on the real-life circumstances of sex workers. If I want to provide accurate information on sex work to readers using government data, I would have a very limited story to tell. While the Federal Bureau of Investigation aggregates prostitution arrest data from across the country, sex workers are absent from monthly jobs reports produced by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention also collect some data on sex workers, but it is principally concerned with HIV. If you want government funding to study sex work, you will more likely receive it if you confine your inquiry to what is already believed to matter: crime and illness. Because there is simply no comprehensive national data set on the lives of sex workers in this country, the public is at best left with the impression that crime and illness are what define sex work.

But a new survey has just filled in some of those blanks, and has focused on a community that is also among those most neglected in official reports: transgender people. The National Center for Transgender Equality — in a survey of more than 27,000 transgender people in all 50 states and the District of Columbia (as well as American Samoa, Guam, Puerto Rico, and U.S. military bases overseas) published in December — included some rarely asked questions about the social and economic circumstances of transgender people who have sold or informally traded sex.

What the NCTE found was that one in eight of the trans people it surveyed had done sex work at some point in their lifetime.

What the NCTE found was that one in eight of the trans people it surveyed had done sex work at some point in their lifetime. And when NCTE asked respondents if they had traded sex either for money or in exchange for food, a place to sleep, or other goods or services — in other words, exchanged sex without being directly paid in cash — nearly one in five respondents reported that they had.

We simply do not have comparable numbers on how many people in the U.S. overall have engaged in the sex trade. But if nearly one in five trans people recently surveyed said they had done some form of sex work or sex trade — making it a quite common experience — what might this tell us about how common an experience sex work is for all people in the U.S.?

First, what the NCTE found is that trans women of color were more likely to have done sex work than white trans women. Nearly one in five black trans women who responded to its survey had done sex work in the past year, along with 13 percent of Latina trans women and 13 percent of multiracial trans women. Race wasn’t just a factor in who does sex work, but where sex workers did their work. Among trans women who did sex work, 50 percent of those who had done street-based work were American Indian trans women and 48 percent were black trans women.

All this is important in gaining an understanding of the lives of trans sex workers. But it also matters a great deal to expanding our analysis of sex work from crime and illness to issues of employment and poverty. The NCTE asked trans people about losing a job for being trans; more than a quarter of them had subsequently done sex work. Almost half (45 percent) of those who had done sex work for cash were living in poverty; this was twice the rate of poverty found among non-sex workers. Homeless respondents were three times more likely than their counterparts to have done sex work.

Sex work may have also been a way for some of the respondents to become more independent. “At 17, I ran away with no way of supporting myself,” one person surveyed said. “I turned to Internet prostitution, which allowed me to do things for myself that I couldn’t [before], like buy girl clothes, pay out of pocket for my doctor to prescribe HRT [hormone replacement therapy], and put a roof over my head.’’ As another respondent put it: “I became a sex worker to support myself and pay for my transition. I did not want to do sex work, but I have had worse jobs that paid less.” These are the kinds of stories that will never fit on an arrest record or a clinician’s intake form.

The publication of the NCTE survey is an important moment for recognizing how many people have direct experience of the sex trade that we are not hearing from — or who have been made invisible — in public debates on sex work. This is an especially dangerous time to be working with so little information and such persistent misinformation: Just last week, the website, a low-cost advertising platform for sex workers, was the subject of a special Senate hearing. No sex workers, of course, were there to speak; what the government was most interested in was how to protect the public from the crime of sex work, not how to protect the lives of sex workers.

Trans people and sex workers (and those who are both) have this in common: They are the frequent subject of debate that is about them, not for them. In the present political environment, the idea of counting and tracking how many trans people or sex workers there are can feel, rightly, a bit dangerous. The problem faced by these communities, after all, isn’t only that officials lack the data; it’s that the concern was never about the real lives behind the numbers.