Illustration by Lucy Han.

'We're Monumentally Fucked': Trans Sex Workers on Life Under FOSTA/SESTA

Trans sex workers, especially those of color, say their lives and livelihoods have been endangered by "anti-trafficking" legislation passed earlier this year.

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Aug 2 2018, 6:41pm

Illustration by Lucy Han.

As a trans woman who is also disabled, Sonja, 27, spent much of her life facing routine discrimination in the job market. So, she eventually began to support herself through sex work. When Craigslist shut down its personals sections to comply with the passing of FOSTA/SESTA in early 2018, she lost her primary source of income, and her situation became desperate. “I tried to go back to clients that had sexually abused me or crossed my boundaries out of desperation for money,” Sonja said in a recent phone interview from her home in Olympia, Washington. “Including one who had directly sexually assaulted me.”

Initially passed by the House of Representatives as the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), and by the Senate as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), FOSTA/SESTA was signed into law by President Trump in April. The legislation exposes website operators to civil and criminal liability for content created by users, if it is deemed to promote or facilitate prostitution. Supporters of the bill said it would take an important tool out of the hands of sex traffickers and push law enforcement to prosecute the crime more aggressively. But the law fails to distinguish between “sex trafficking” and consensual sex work. Since the spring, more than a dozen websites that sex workers have used to locate and negotiate with clients have been shuttered – and even more may close during the first days of 2019, when full enforcement of the law is expected to begin.

Since the passing of FOSTA/SESTA, sex workers across the US have rallied against the legislation and vocalized its harmful, and sometimes devastating, effects on their lives and livelihoods. Among these voices, trans sex workers and advocates argue that FOSTA/SESTA has forced more trans sex workers onto the streets, or into the hands of pimps or dangerous clients, at the very same time trans people are being murdered at record numbers – leaving many trans people to risk their lives in order to eat and pay rent. “I have this dread, fear,” explained Sonja, “that the websites that I advertise on now will disappear on January 1 - like they will be taken down by the federal government - and then I will have nothing.”

As Sonja describes it, after FOSTA/SESTA came into law, the landscape for sex work in the US changed drastically— some people left the industry to find legal work, but for many like Sonya that was never an option. “I’m a sex worker as a last resort,” she said. “The people who have the privilege of stepping away from doing sex work are doing that, and the people who have no choice are banding together and figuring out new strategies, even financially supporting each other.”

The discrimination trans people, and especially trans women of color, experience in their everyday lives — whether at home, at school, or in the workforce — can limit options for supporting themselves financially, which sometimes means that sex work is the best or most reasonable option for survival. According to a 2015 report conducted by the Red Umbrella Project (RedUP) and the National Center for Transgender Equality, roughly 11 percent of transmasculine and transfeminine individuals have participated in sex work in the past, including nearly four out 10 Black trans people surveyed. People who engage in sex work are also more likely to have been denied a job or been fired due to their gender identity, according to the study.

“I’ve been discriminated against in the workplace, four different times, at four different jobs, for four completely different companies, and four completely different job sectors,” said a 25-year-old trans woman who goes by the stage name Jenna Creed. In a phone interview from her home in Las Vegas, Creed described how in the traditional workforce, she’s endured sexual harassment, being dead-named, and was even compared to Caitlyn Jenner by a former manager. “That’s really what made me turn to sex work.”

When she worked in retail, Creed dealt with constant transphobic harassment and still hardly made enough to survive. “I could not even pay for my hormones off $8.25/hour,” she said. Sex work, however, has enabled her to make far more money than she could have in the traditional job market and has given her more agency over how she conducts that labor. “At the same time that it is a fucked up situation, [doing sex work] affords me a greater ability to be able to take of myself,” she said.

When we spoke, Creed’s phone had been shut off; she had been struggling to make ends meet since April, when the site Backpage was shut down pending a federal investigation. Still, Creed says she could be in a much worse situation, adding that many trans women of color have it especially hard right now. “If it wouldn’t have been for my partner, who I met as a client, as an escort, I would be devastated, I would be homeless.”

“We’re monumentally fucked,” said Ceyenne Doroshow, a Black trans woman, former sex worker, and the founder and executive director of the NYC-based group Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society (GLITS), which provides support to transgender sex workers using harm reduction and human rights principles. She was speaking at the Trans Lives in Sex Work panel, which was held in mid-June at the Jefferson Market Library in Manhattan. “Our community is suffering really bad.”

Doroshow spoke about FOSTA/SESTA in the gravest of terms. Since the bill was passed by Congress, she said she’s seen more trans women turn to working on the streets — a trend also noticed by other advocates and sex workers interviewed by Broadly.

Sophie Cadle is the lead peer advocate and youth liaison for the New York Transgender Advocacy Group (NYTag), which works to build trans and gender-nonconforming leadership and push for policy changes. She also engages in survival sex work, and said that in the last few months she has noticed an increase in street-based arrests – an outcome that was anticipated by advocates and sex workers nationwide well before the legislation’s passage. “[It’s] something I’ve seen with my eyes,” said Cadle. Trans people, especially Black trans people, already report high rates of bias-based harassment and assault at the hands of law enforcement. They are also incarcerated at disproportionate rates – for example, nearly half of Black transgender folk have been incarcertated at some point in their lives. FOSTA/SESTA may only make things worse.

Asked whether there have been more police on the streets since FOSTA/SESTA was signed into law, or more arrests of trans women for prostitution, the NYPD declined to provide data. “The NYPD does not target transgender persons for arrest. Arrests are made based on community complaints pertaining to allegations of prostitution,” said Detective Kellyann Ort in an email.

Regardless of arrest rates, FOSTA/SESTA may mean that more community members are being subjected to violence. Doroshow said that since the spring she’s heard of more cases of trans women being raped or not paid for their labor—crimes they may be too fearful to report to the police. While this is also an issue for all survival sex workers, an underlying concern is the increasing number of transgender women violently attacked and murdered every year—violence sex workers may be more susceptible to if they can’t negotiate with clients in a safe environment. In a recent email interview, a 29-year-old trans woman who goes by the stage named Delirium Sade told Broadly that this past spring she was so desperate for money she decided to conduct some sex work in the street. “[I] was beaten pretty badly by three of [my clients],” she said.

Advocates worry that these kinds of experiences may become par for the course as trans sex workers lose the ability to vet clients or opt to see clients they don’t trust in order to survive. “Turning down a client is a privileged thing,” explained Sonja, adding that since trans sex workers are often fetishized and devalued, they often can’t afford to say no.

Creed told Broadly that within hours of the Backpage escorts section being shut down, she received six calls and text messages from pimps acknowledging that things might be getting tough, and offering to connect her to clients – which means that pimps are likely exploiting the passage of FOSTA/SESTA for their own benefit, too. And whereas before this spring, most of the potential clients who contacted her were kind and respectful, now that’s not the case. “They’re more demanding, they [act like they] can say what they want to, more of a sense that they can do anything they want and you can’t do anything about it because you can’t go to the police,” said Creed.

“I am now facing a world after SESTA/FOSTA that offers no sanctuary, no security, no financial stability, no healthcare whatsoever, nothing"

Things for Sade are looking marginally better than they were before, but still worlds away from what her life was like just six months ago. She’s moved to the Bay Area, where she’s living on food stamps and Medicaid, and is struggling to access necessary medical care, including other surgeries related to her transition. “I am now facing a world after SESTA/FOSTA that offers no sanctuary, no security, no financial stability, no healthcare whatsoever, nothing,” she said.

Asked what comes to mind when she thinks about FOSTA/SESTA having an indefinite presence in her life, Sonja's fear and anxiety seem palpable, even through the phone. "You know, it's just been a lot of despair."

Both Creed and Sonja, however, said that the sex worker community has been giving them strength – from the mutual aid people are providing to each other when needed, to the political organizing and lobbying that’s taken place to tell the public and elected officials how FOSTA/SESTA has changed their lives.

Creed said she is very hopeful about the possibility of change. “Organizing with the people that I organize with – they’re absolutely wonderful, great, strong people that are stronger than I am, in moments where I have little to no strength to continue.”