Decriminalizing Sex Work Is a Matter of Survival

In the summer of 2018, after more than a decade of housing instability, Nona Conner was facing homelessness again. She’d been evicted from the apartment she was staying in. Anxious to find another place to live, she restarted her old GoFundMe, titled “Black Transwoman Housing Crisis,” to get the money together.

She was relieved when there were enough donations for a security deposit and one month’s rent. It took her three months to raise it all. In the meantime, she’d been sleeping on friends’ couches, renting hotel rooms, and spending as much time as possible at her job at Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS), a grassroots organization where she works with queer, trans and gender nonconforming people of color to access jobs and job skills during the day.

Before working at CASS, steady employment evaded Nona’s grasp nearly as much as steady housing. Born and raised in Southeast Washington, D.C., Nona was 15 when she ran away from a physically, verbally and emotionally abusive home. She went downtown to K Street and started selling sex to make ends meet.

“I tried getting several jobs. I would call there, sounding like a woman, and introduce myself as Bri — I went by Bri before I legally changed my name to Nona — but then I’d get there in person and they’d see that the name on my resume and the way that I looked didn’t match up with what was on my ID,” Nona said. “They’d go on with the interview for one or two minutes, say they’d give me a call. But I knew what they meant.”

“It was their bias,” Nona continued. “I’m gonna call it like it is.”

Many sex workers in D.C. are survival sex workers like Nona — people who engage in sex work in order to survive or to supplement low incomes, especially after having limited options. Because racism, sexism, transphobia, homophobia, and other forms of oppression marginalize people from accessing housing and employment, many survival sex workers are Black and Brown women, queer, trans and gender nonconforming people. Many sex workers are also disabled people who experience employment and housing discrimination. For people with disabilities, sex work can sometimes offer more flexibility than other trades. Some are immigrants who don’t have the documentation required to get other jobs.

These societal and economic barriers influence many people to go into sex work (as well as other occupations that mainstream society stigmatizes as “undesirable,” such as low-wage domestic work, service work and manual labor). “There are a lot of obstacles that stand in the way of getting a job,” Nona said. “Just being trans alone, being African American alone, makes it hard.”

Nona’s experiences inspire her to fight to decriminalize sex work and support people in the sex trade. As an organizer in the DECRIMNOW campaign in D.C., she works to remove the criminal penalties from the selling and buying of sex, and to increase access to resources like housing, health care and education that would help keep people in the sex trade safe.

The DECRIMNOW campaign started as an effort by the Sex Workers’ Advocates Coalition (SWAC), a network of organizations in D.C. that worked with D.C. Councilmember David Grosso to introduce the Promoting Public Safety and Health by Reducing Criminalization Amendment Act in the D.C. City Council in the fall of 2017 as an effort to decriminalize sex work in the district. Nona and other organizers canvassed and petitioned throughout 2018 to try to get D.C. City Council to bring the bill to a hearing. Although the Council didn’t bring the bill to a hearing last year, sex workers and their allies still have faith. SWAC plans to rewrite and reintroduce the bill in 2019. The new iteration will include even more measures to address vulnerability to ensure that everyone is safe and supported in making decisions that help them survive and thrive — regardless of gender identity, race, color, sexuality, ability, religion or nationality.

Nona believes that people shouldn’t be criminalized and punished for doing what they need to do to live, especially since a significant number of survival sex workers turn to the sex trade to escape abusive situations. “When I was 15, I went into my momma’s purse, took $20, and went to K Street to start working. I was finally free from the abuse,” Nona said. “I was around people who were like me. They’d been through abuse and that’s why they were there, too.” Nona ended up working on the street for around 15 years, and she grew close with the other women along the strip. She said it was like a sisterhood.

Engaging in sex work helped Nona pay for food each night. It helped her find places to stay. It helped her find people she could connect with and depend on. She believes that sex work is anyone’s right to do, even though she doesn’t like doing it. “Personally, I hope I don’t do it again,” Nona said, “but I’ll do what I have to do.”

While some sex workers love their jobs, other sex workers — especially those who do sex work for survival after being denied access to other resources — don’t enjoy it at all. Like many jobs, the trade is just a way to get by. Because our society stigmatizes Black and Brown trans people and sex workers as less than human, as “criminals,” as “deviants,” and as deserving of harm, many face hard times in the sex industry. According to the Collective Action for Safe Spaces 2015 Trans Needs Assessment Report that collected data from around 500 trans people in D.C., up to 54 percent of Black respondents and 60 percent of Latinx respondents had experienced violence and assault in their lives, and around 30 percent of Black and Latinx trans feminine people in the assessment had been denied housing. Twenty percent of respondents were currently experiencing homelessness, and of those respondents, half reported that they turned to underground economies like sex work to make ends meet.

“When I left home, it felt like a door opened and the whole world said, ‘You about to see what you’re gonna get a taste of, just be prepared!’ And I wasn’t. I wasn’t ready by a long shot.” Nona described what it was like for her as a Black trans teenager in the 1990s, fleeing an abusive family to sell sex along one of downtown D.C.’s busiest streets. “I wasn’t ready to be robbed, cheated by dates, stranded on highways, have weapons pulled on me. But that’s what I had to deal with,” Nona said. “At that time, there were no other options.”

What feeds and compounds this harm is the criminalization and policing of sex workers and people profiled as sex workers. People who engage in sex work aren’t offered the same protections as others, and when harms do occur, they don’t feel safe reaching out for help due to the threat of discrimination, arrest and police brutality.

Police can be particularly brutal toward people in the sex trade, especially Black and Brown women, queer and trans sex workers. A meta-analysis published in December 2018 reviewed nearly 140 studies about sex work from January 1990 to May 2018 from around the world and concluded that there was a strong association between policing of sex work and increased risk of violence, HIV and other sexually transmitted infections for people in the sex trade. In the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, nearly 90 percent of respondents who were in the sex trade said that they had been harassed and abused by police, and 27 percent of respondents in the sex trade who’d had an interaction with the police had been sexually assaulted by an officer. In New York City between 2012 and 2015, a study found that while Black and Latinx people comprised only 54 percent of the city’s population, they comprised 85 percent of the people arrested for loitering for prostitution. A 2014 study discovered that Black women in several cities in North Carolina were arrested for prostitution-related charges at two to three times their percentage of the population. In a 2008 survey of sex workers in D.C., of the sex workers surveyed who’d had an encounter with police, 38 percent were verbally abused and humiliated by an officer, and 17 percent had been propositioned for sex.

Police in D.C. frequently profile Black and Brown trans and cis women and gender nonconforming people as sex workers, and the law allows them to unfairly target and arrest people in these communities. This targeting surged in the city after the passing of D.C.’s Prostitution-Free Zone law in 2006, which allowed the Metropolitan Police Department to label certain areas as “prostitution-free” to increase surveillance and arrests. Many sex workers and Black and Brown trans and cis women, queer and gender nonconforming people reported that officers would profile them and confiscate their condoms, contributing to the lack of health and safety that people in the sex trade, and broader communities, experience. Some cops would use the mere fact that someone was carrying a certain number of condoms as a reason to make them leave a public space or face arrest.

The Prostitution-Free Zone law was repealed in 2014 after intense organizing efforts from several trans and sex workers’ rights groups, but the general stigma and criminalization that bred the law in the first place continues. In the summer of 2014 in neighboring Prince George’s County, Maryland, police officers announced with excitement that they would live-tweet a prostitution sting, including the names and photos of the “suspects.” D.C. police arrested more than 50 clients in one month during the summer of 2015. In the winter of 2018, two trans street-based sex workers reported that officers in both D.C. and Prince George’s County were using the threat of arrest to coerce them, and other sex workers, into having sex.

Nona has had countless experiences with police; working on K Street for years gave her firsthand knowledge of police and criminalization dynamics. “A few of the officers were nice and would warn us about upcoming stings. They’d tell us to hide out, because for the next few hours they’d be locking people up on sight,” Nona said. “But lots of officers were assholes. They didn’t read you your rights, wouldn’t tell you what was going on. They just locked you up. They roughed you up, called you ‘he’ and disgusting names. It was horrible.”

Stings and arrests don’t help people in the sex trade; instead, they make life infinitely harder. When sex workers have criminal records, they face more barriers to employment and housing. Many landlords will refuse to house tenants with any criminal background despite the knowledge that this disproportionately affects Black and Brown people, who are treated unfairly in the criminal legal system. The same often happens with employers.

Even arrests where the charges are dropped can have devastating effects on someone’s life. As a survival sex worker, being arrested means you can’t make money. When you are living paycheck to paycheck, living in hotel rooms, or otherwise need your money immediately, being in jail for even a few days could thrust you into homelessness. That’s not to mention those who have to stay in jail because they can’t afford bail, or people who put everything they have on bail and end up with nothing left when they’re released. This system of criminalization, policing and incarceration makes it hard for Black and Brown trans, queer and gender nonconforming people to be safe and have their needs met.

Nona knows this well: She’s been arrested several times. For her, surviving life’s circumstances sometimes felt like treading in quicksand. She didn’t have a safe home because of familial abuse, so she ran away. She couldn’t get a job or a home because she was Black and trans, so she did sex work and hustled to survive. She started getting arrested for surviving, leading to a criminal history, which made it even more difficult for her to get a job and a home. She had to rely on sex work even more to make ends meet. The quicksand thickened.

“There are things I need to get for myself. I need food, I need shoes, I need a heater for my apartment. These things cost money,” Nona said. “I’ve gone to sell sex to make some money, risking my freedom just so I could eat that night.”

Since so many survival sex workers enter the sex industry because they had few to no other options to make a living, treating them punitively fails to address the material needs they have that motivate them to enter the sex trade. And while some people are starting to understand the harms of criminalizing sex work, some worry that decriminalizing sex work would have unintended consequences of harming victims of sex trafficking. Even though sex work and sex trafficking are unique issues, criminalizing and stigmatizing sex work harms both groups by creating more dangerous situations in the sex industry and by discouraging people in the sex trade from speaking up about various abuses and harms.

A key difference between sex work and sex trafficking is that sex work is consensual, while sex trafficking is non-consensual or coerced. Sex workers should have autonomy over their bodies and how they use their labor. Since sex workers are immersed in the industry, they’re among the most likely to know who in the trade is being coerced, abused or exploited. However, due to the threat of arrest and police abuse, sex workers aren’t able to work with the appropriate agencies to ensure that victims of trafficking can get help. And when sex workers give resources to someone who is being trafficked to help them, like money or a place to stay, they can be accused of facilitating trafficking. Sex workers are also not able to report harms that they themselves experience — harms like rape, theft, stalking and attacks — because of the very real threat of police abuse and harassment.

The conflation of sex work and sex trafficking is not only dangerous for both groups — evidence shows that sex work criminalization in D.C. does little to address trafficking at all. According to D.C. police records, of the 2,582 prostitution-related arrests that police made between 2013 and 2017, only seven involved trafficking.

While sex work and sex trafficking are different, both the fight to decriminalize sex work and the fight to end sex trafficking should address poverty, homelessness and community if the goal is to keep everyone safe, supported and free from exploitation. Everyone needs a safe place to call home. Stories like Nona’s tell us this. The statistics tell us this. Sex workers (and those profiled as sex workers) have been telling us this for decades. Until we recognize the need to listen to sex workers, decriminalize sex work, and provide money and resources to those who need it the most, people like Nona will continue to be harmed.

Even though Nona is relieved to have a roof over her head — she’s currently renting out a living room in a house with a few other trans women — she continues to struggle financially. The hotel rooms were expensive. Transportation is expensive. Health care is expensive. The latter has been particularly costly for Nona lately: she’s still recovering physically and mentally from being stabbed nearly 50 times in 2017. Still, Nona is hopeful.

“I recently started full-time at my job at CASS,” Nona said, her speech gaining speed with excitement. “I could get an even better position there once I’m stably housed.” Although she loves the community she has with her roommates, she still dreams of having a space of her own one day. “I’d love to be stably housed. When I can wake up in the morning with energy and no worry.”

Nona believes that the day will come. The signs are all there. Her job, where she gets to flex one of her many talents — bartending — taps into her passions. The trans women she lives with, who play music, sing and dance around her, provide her with community. The messages of support that filter through her GoFundMe make her feel cared for. And being able to work with and advocate for trans women of color, people who do street-based sex work, and abuse survivors gives her hope. Similar to the hope that the trans girls on K Street gave her the night she ran away from home, all those years ago, when she was just a 15-year-old Black trans girl with $20 to her name, searching for a place where she’d be loved and accepted for who she is. A place where she’d feel safe.

“I’d love that,” Nona said. “I just really need help.”

To donate to Nona to help her afford housing and living expenses, please visit her GoFundMe.