This contribution to Q2 is a discussion of the urgency of addressing the ongoing criminalization of sex work in the current historical moment. The article links the myriad issues related to the stigmatization and criminalization of sex work to the theoretical origins of queer of color critique and considers the implications for rights to bodily autonomy.

In thinking about the lived contours and political commitments of queer of color critique, I want to turn, indeed return, our attention to sex work. The figure of the Black transgender sex worker was at the very center of Rod Ferguson's 2004 field-defining text, and in this moment, I want to remind readers why queers, and indeed all of us committed to the project of social justice and sexual freedom, should care about the ongoing criminalization of sex work and be invested in the rights to bodily autonomy that are the center of these feminist debates.

In some ways, I have been writing about sex and racialized sexuality my entire career. In Queer Latinidad (2003), I wrote about AIDS and Latinx activism and my sexual adventures in online communities; in Sexual Futures (2014), I wrote about race and Daddy play, BDSM, and kink's connection to sexual politics. And in my new book, Puta Life: Seeing Latinas, Working Sex (2023), I return to the subject to consider the visual archive that surrounds Latina sexual labor. In fact, as a scholar of sexuality, I have profited in unexpected ways for my willingness to speak publicly about sex, including my own. This too, could be considered a form of sex work, a way of working sex; pleasurable, profitable, and sometimes risky in different ways and to different degrees.

It is the differences that matter. Because I have never been economically dependent on criminalized work, I have been sheltered from a wide range of consequences of my own sexual labor. I have never had to fear being arrested for doing my job. I have never been denied employment, housing, citizenship, or state benefits; I have never had my bank account or social media accounts closed because I was suspected of engaging in illicit activity or had my assets seized because they were procured through illegal means; I've never been deemed legally unfit as a parent because of my work or had to worry that my adult son could be arrested for procurement or pimping because he benefits economically from my labor. I don't have to worry that in helping a friend stay safe, I could be charged with pimping and listed as a sex offender for the rest of my life. These are some of the current realities faced by sex workers in the United States, made more pernicious and obscene through laws such as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), passed in 2018.

You might remember that in 2018, the Feds shut down BackPage, the website synonymous with ads for escorts, erotic massage, and other forms of sexual labor. At the time, it seemed that for some gay men that was the first time they realized that exchanging sexual favors for money was actually illegal. When that bust happened, the mainstream gay press expressed considerable concern about how the arrest would impact these young men working hard to fund their college education. Once that discourse moved into the mainstream, it exposed a clearly gendered divide where men are imagined to be capable of being sexual agents, capable of negotiating sexual contracts and earning the economic benefits associated with it, and women are only ever positioned as sexual victims needing rescue.

Rather than make anyone safer, SESTA-FOSTA succeeded in putting increased pressure on Internet platforms to surveil and censor their users, leaving those who rely on sex work as their primary form of income without many of the digital tools they had once used to screen clients, form community, and keep themselves safe. Instead of providing protection, SESTA-FOSTA and other forms of criminalization accentuate the vulnerability of sex workers seeking out independently controlled income, resulting in more dangerous working conditions for all involved in the industry. Moreover, like canaries in the mine shafts, digital surveillance and social-media censorship practices first exercised against sex workers are getting expanded to censor sex-worker advocates, organizers, and artists and increasingly are used to restrict other forms of political organizing and dissent. For those who rely on these sites for advertising and promoting events, even a temporary shadow ban can prove devastating.

Sex work is work, but unlike so many other shitty jobs out there, sex workers are not afforded even the most basic forms of legal protections. In fact, women engaged in sex work face the most dangerous, indeed murderous, occupational environment in the United States (Potterat et al. 2004: 784). The danger is not just from bad clients; because sex work is criminalized, sex workers are continually susceptible to the harassment and violence of the police. In fact, one study found that “prior assault by police had the strongest correlation with both sexual and client perpetrated violence against female sex workers” (Shannon et al. 2009: 444). Criminalization allows police to stop, question, extort, and violate sex workers or anyone suspected of working sex, with near impunity. Therefore, the criminalization of sex work becomes the legal mechanism for police to stop and harass folks for “walking while trans” or “walking while Black.” Because even though all kinds of people engage in sex work, we know that it is racialized and immigrant female and transfemme sex workers who are surveilled and targeted the most, and most harmed by ongoing criminalization.

It seems relevant to note that queers are some of the most enthusiastic consumers of all kinds of erotic labor, some legal, some not. Lots of us love watching porn, or soaking up the sexual energy of go-go dancers or fetish content creators. As a community, we consume a lot of sexual labor. We should care about the human rights and working conditions of these erotic workers, especially when so many in our community are involved in different aspects of the business. And that has been true historically; queers of all genders have long been part of sex-worker economies and the social movements around them. Moreover, as educators, we know that many of our students are engaged in sex work. We have already heard of cases of folks having their professional careers ruined because their work history includes sex work (see Mistress Snow 2019). Imagine working on a dissertation for years and then having your advisor refuse to write you recommendation letters because she didn't like what you were doing to support yourself through an underfunded grad program. It is time for decriminalization of sex work to be at the center of every progressive LGBT and feminist political platform.

Sex work is also a care issue; for those of us who love sex and value sexual touch and perverse pleasures, addressing the stigma that surrounds sex work is also about addressing the stigma of those willing to pay the price for someone else's sexual labor. What might it mean to imagine that sexual touch might be something that those of us who are female or femme can also purchase, that those poorly equipped to navigate sex in the marketplace of normative desirability might also have a right to access? Decriminalizing sex work is about destigmatizing diverse sexual needs. It is about disability rights, about access to sexual pleasure as we age, and about the labor rights of all those who work to care for our bodies.

As a community, queers have long relied on our ability to negotiate the terms of our sexual and affective relationships outside of the structures of monogamous marriage, skills we have learned from BDSM and sex-worker communities. I need queers to care about the ongoing criminalization of sex work because the right to sell access to our bodies and our sexual labor is core to our rights of self-determination and bodily autonomy—an autonomy that is connected to our rights to abortion, gender-affirming care, drug consumption, and consensual BDSM relationships.

Just as Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists have attacked the rights of transgender people in order to “protect real women,” those same feminist factions argue that in order to protect women, we must criminalize sex work to ensure that none of us have the right to enter into consensual economic relationship structured around sexual labor. Let's be clear: the criminalization of sex work does nothing to free us from capitalist exploitation or misogyny, it only makes everything bad about sex work worse. Criminalization is just religious morality and sexual stigma made law. Instead, what has been demonstrated time and time again, in every country, and in every context, is that laws that criminalize sex work put those involved at increased risk of a variety of harms. That's why Amnesty International, the Human Rights Watch, and the World Health Organization all support the decriminalization of adult sex work worldwide. And while we might understand that our ability to consent exists only within an available horizon of possibility, to suggest that adults should not be allowed to use their own bodies for profit, or consent to the extraction of their own labor, jeopardizes our ability to consent to a whole range of activities that the state (and some feminists) might deem harmful, from kink to drug use.

Be warned, the new wave of sexual panic travels under the sign of trafficking. As social projects of reform, rescuing sex workers always seems more compelling than addressing the everyday harms that femininized bodies and others are subjected to—domestic violence, police violence, state violence, or the everyday harms of poverty. Today in doctor's offices, airports, schools, and bus shelters, we see posters that invite us to spot the signs that someone might be trafficked. Those “signs” include things like avoiding eye contact or social interaction with authority figures or law enforcement; lacking official identification documents; appearing destitute or lacking personal possessions; or my favorite, making references to “Daddy,” which get equated with street slang for pimp. Today, trafficking discourse gets marshaled to train Karens in spotting and reporting suspicious behavior, to “help” victims, yet it does nothing to encourage Karen to start paying her immigrant nanny a living wage because so often, the number to call if you suspect someone is being trafficked is the Department of Homeland Security, the same department responsible for deportations.

If the moment of thinking that we might be able to fuck our way into sexual liberation has passed, the current political climate should remind scholars and others engaged in queer of color critique why sex still matters. Conservative efforts to limit, monitor, censor, and criminalize sexual expression are codified into every aspect of public life, beginning most forcefully with the criminalization of sex work. As activists, we need to recognize how the right to abortion, the right to gender-affirming health care, and the right to negotiate the terms of our sexual labor are bound together, united in refusing the authority of the state to determine what we can do with our bodies. When queer politics refuse to take up issues of sex and its regulation, we perpetuate a discourse that locates sex within the confines of a privileged domestic sphere, to which few have access. It's time for queers, feminists, and all committed to projects of radical social justice to join the struggle to decriminalize sex work and demand our right to own our bodies.

References

Ferguson, Roderick A.
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Potterat, John J., Brewer, Devon D., Muth, Stephen Q., Rothenberg, Richard B., Woodhouse, Donald E., Muth, John B., Stites, Heather K., and Brody, Stuart.
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Shannon, Kate, Kerr, T., Strathdee, S. A., Shoveller, J., Montaner, J. S., and Tyndall, M. W.
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Prevalence and Structural Correlates of Gender Based Violence among a Prospective Cohort of Female Sex Workers
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Mistress Snow
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2019
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I Told My Mentor I Was a Dominatrix
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Chronicle of Higher Education
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