Sex work, the exchange of sexual services for resources, lives at the intersection of access to resources, bodily autonomy, self-determination, and resilience. For LGBTQ individuals often barred from traditional forms of labor, services, and resources, survival sex can provide support when institutions fail.
One form of sex work, survival sex, is the exchange of sexual services for the most basic resources including shelter, food, safety, medication, and controlled substances. Individuals may trade sex for those resources directly or for money to meet that need, but the defining scope is one of immediacy and need. These periods can be sustained or time-bound and are experienced by individuals of every gender identity, age, ethnic makeup, and immigration status. Keep in mind that survival sex may only be one of many ways that an individual meets their needs LGBTQ folks are disproportionately impacted by the factors which make people more likely to engage in survival economies. In one study, LGBTQ youth were seven times more likely than straight peers to exchange sex for a place to stay.
Discrimination and stigma from formal employment can bar people from access to living-wage jobs and increase rates of poverty. Informal economies such as the sex trade have provided a backbone of community survival for queer and trans folks in the face of systems that often fail them.
Every aspect of survival sex – including buying, selling, and sharing resources – is criminalized in the United States, and youth in particular face the possibility of status crimes for simply living outside of formal systems. LGBTQ communities experience disproportionately higher levels of policing overall, and laws criminalizing the sex trade contribute significantly to that over-policing and incarceration. LGB young women are twice as likely and LGB young men ten times as likely to be incarcerated in juvenile detention for prostitution charges compared to their peers. The transgender community and trans women, in particular, are disproportionately targeted and profiled as sex workers by law enforcement, who often make the assumption that trans women in certain neighborhoods, or simply standing on the sidewalk, must be engaged in the sex trade. This form of over-policing and profiling is so prevalent that it is referred to as “walking while trans”.
Criminalization of the sex trade compromises peoples’ health, safety, and wellbeing. To
avoid policing, individuals may take other risks, such as moving into more isolated spaces, increasing their vulnerability to physical and sexual violence. An arrest and subsequent criminal record could bar access to public housing and benefits, end opportunities for other forms of employment, and incur fines, fees, and court costs. These harms are all layered onto the existing trauma of policing, arrest, and incarceration.
Within systems of capitalism in which many people are precariously housed and employed, survival sex is a grey area. Rather than over-policing and criminalization, sex workers require
low-threshold, comprehensive resources and opportunities. Consistent, long term housing and a living wage job can be a pathway out of sex work for those who wish to stop. For others, harm reduction information and non-judgment can be powerful tools to help keep sex workers safe. Many survival sex workers are meeting basic needs in the face of socially-constructed circumstances. Criminalizing sex work isn’t about cracking down on sex – it’s about compromising a community’s basic survival