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Decriminalize Sex Work to Protect Transgender Lives

More than one in ten transgender people has done sex work to get by at some point in their lives—a number far higher for trans people of color and any who have been homeless or fired from a job for who they are. The United States has among the world’s harshest criminal laws against sex workers. What does this mean for transgender people? A new Amnesty International report puts it bluntly: “Beatings. Rape. Harassment. Forced HIV testing. Exploitation. Extortion. Forced evictions. Exclusion from basic health services. Discrimination.” These are the costs of criminalization. 

After two years of extensive research across the globe, Amnesty International has released a new policy paper supporting the full decriminalization of sex work. We applaud this sensible and humane stance that affirms the basic human rights and dignity of people in the sex trades.

In the new policy, Amnesty International advocates for the repeal of laws that criminalize both the sale and purchase of sex from consenting adults. These laws force sex workers to operate on the fringes of society and leave them vulnerable to danger. Continuing stigmatization and illegality of the sex trade prevents sex workers from accessing police services, medical help, and additional needed resources.

In reality, policies that supposedly seek only to target those purchasing sex often result in the persecution of sex workers themselves. Complete decriminalization must occur in order to best protect the rights and dignity of sex workers. This is what Amnesty International found in a new report on the so-called “Nordic model” in Norway.

The criminalization of the sex trade also perpetuates police harassment and exploitation of sex workers.  In another new report, Amnesty found that transgender sex workers in Hong Kong experience especially abusive police practices, with male officers conducting unnecessarily intrusive body searches at higher rates than their cisgender counterparts. In Papua New Guinea, Amnesty found that the criminalization of both sex work and homosexuality leaves LGBT sex workers even more vulnerable to abuse.

The harms of criminalization are very real in the United States. ? In a report out last December, NCTE and others found that 64% of transgender sex workers in the United States experienced mistreatment by the police, including reported physical assault (13%) and sexual assault (9%).

Freedom Network USA, the country's largest network of service providers to victims of human trafficking, released a statement in support of Amnesty International's recent call on states to develop policies to decriminalize consensual sex work. Freedom Network USA believes that decriminalization would protect the rights and safety of all sex workers, including those being trafficked into the sex trade. “It is critical that we bring consensual sex workers out of the margins, providing the services, support, options and protection needed by all workers. It is only when consensual sex work is safe that victims of sex trafficking can be more quickly identified and supported,” stated Freedom Network USA’s Executive Director, Jean Bruggeman.

Every person deserves safety and dignity. Our current system does not guarantee these rights to sex workers. At NCTE, we will continue to fight for the decriminalization of the sex trade and just treatment of sex workers. 

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