These are scary times for trans and sex workers alike. In the U.S. alone, hate crimes killed 22 transgender people and 204 sex workers out of 100,000 in 2019. During these violent times, it is important not only to mourn but to reflect on how our system perpetuates these crimes. Therefore, this article chronicles the ideologies that stand in the shadow of these crimes, and how they intersect to crucify the BIPOC trans community.
What Is A “TERF?”
As broken down in Sara Ben Abdallah’s article, Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists or “TERFs” are “simply transphobic cis-women…shielding their transphobia with amateur feminist theory.” Defined by the collapse of feminine and masculine identities, TERF ideology seeks to define us solely on biology. For example, the concrete ability to menstruate, or the ability to be pregnant would define a woman. This ideology, however, would replace culturally bound structures of gender-defined heterogeneously around the globe.
What Is A “SWERF”?
Sex work exclusionary radical feminism, or “SWERFs” are those that discriminate against sex workers. They argue that sex workers, primarily those in prostitution, become the victims of regular sexual exploitation, and violence. Therefore, by participating in this kind of industry, sex workers become co-perpetrators of these crimes. While most feminist schools support an individual’s right to choose what sexual activities they do or do not engage in, SWERFs take it upon themselves to tell other people what to do and what not to do with their bodies
How Do They Relate?
Their ideology overlaps as both subgroups follow a prescriptive approach to feminism; that is, telling women what to do — TERFs with their gender, and SWERFs with their private parts. However, the overlap of their ideologies creates danger among those at the intersection of it: transgender sex workers. These ideologies put transgender sex workers at a considerable disadvantage for discrimination and hate crimes.
Causal Factors: Transgender Individuals
The discrimination that transgender people experience is on three levels: interpersonal, institutional, and systemic. Interpersonal discrimination relates to how others treat transgender people during person-to-person interactions. For example, “dead-naming” or “misgendering” someone, which involves using the wrong name or pronouns. Institutional and systemic discriminations are practices and laws that favor a dominant group and impact a specific industry or profession. For example, voter suppression, which prevents specific groups from voting, determines the policies placed in workspaces.
This discrimination primarily relates to the normalization of the gender binary or the belief that there are only two genders—male and female. Because this gender binary became so ingrained in society, many individuals are not aware of the existence of transgender or gender-nonconforming people. As a result, negative attitudes and biases can lead to high levels of discrimination. One study found 60% of its participants victimized because of their gender identity. Another study reported how transgender people encounter a range of discriminatory experiences in their families. This includes everything from physical violence and open hostility to indifferent or neglectful responses from parents. Many participants reported having to leave their homes during adolescence, whether by choice or force. Therefore, this overt discrimination against transgender individuals leads them to take on what is known as “survival sex.”
Causal Factors: Sex Workers
Sex workers also face interpersonal, institutional, and systematic discrimination through the nationwide criminalization of sex work. Criminalization, as a legal term, means that sex work is an act punishable under the US’s criminal justice system. According to a study done by the Sex Workers Project (SWP), 80% of street-based prostitutes interviewed experienced violence while working.
Further, when asked about reporting violence to the police, they reported that police did not take their complaints seriously and often told them that they should expect violence. “Carol,” said to researchers, “If I call them, they don’t come. If I have a situation in the street, forget it. ‘Nobody told you to be in the street.’
Furthermore, 30% of sex workers are threatened with violence by police officers, while 27% experienced abuse at the hands of police. Reported incidents included officers physically grabbing and kicking prostitutes, as well as beating, stalking, and even throwing food at one subject. Sexual harassment included fondling of body parts, giving women cigarettes in exchange for sex, and police offering not to arrest a prostitute in exchange for sexual services noted by one participant as a “blow and go.”
What Does This Mean?
Under these types of circumstances and ideologies, where both transgender individuals and sex workers face harassment and discrimination, it comes as no surprise that transgender sex workers face an even greater danger. Transgender Europe (TGEU) ‘s Trans Murder Monitoring Project (TMM) reveals that 75% of trans victims of murders between January 2008 and December 2011 were sex workers.
Furthermore, they were more than twice as likely to live in extreme poverty than those who hadn’t participated (30.8% vs. 13.3%) and less likely to be higher-income earners, only 22.1% reported household income over $50,000/year (compared to 43.4% of nonparticipants). In addition to gender identity and work, race also plays a significant factor in the violence against sex workers.
Studies from around the country reveal persistent police use of profiling to harass and falsely or selectively arrest based on race and gender presentation. One-fifth (22%) of respondents who have interacted with the police have reported harassment by police due to bias; respondents of color reported substantially higher rates (29-38%). The National Coalition of Anti-Violence Projects has also noted that trans people of color are 6.2 times as likely to experience police violence compared to other survey respondents.
Transgender respondents also reported experiencing inappropriate touching, sexual harassment, humiliation, and violence more so at the hands of police officers. A study of transgender community members in Queens, New York, primarily people of color and immigrants, found 51% experiencing verbal harassment, 46% reporting physical harassment, and 37% experiencing both. Similarly, in a study of 220 transgender Latina women living in Los Angeles, almost 60% of women believed they were stopped without having violated any law.
So, What’s Next?
Something must be done to change not only our actions but also our views towards transgender sex workers. While we can choose to learn from our individual biases, we must also take collective action to change their circumstances. This collective action, I argue, begins with the decriminalization of sex work to dismantle the inherent harm and stigma that criminalization presents and prolongs.