How anti-sex work laws are anti-LGBTQ

I once had a professor proclaim in class that the word ‘whore’ was a perfectly acceptable word to use. Given reports of increasing numbers of college students turning to sex work to make ends meet, I wondered if this professor was aware how likely that term was to apply to one of the students present in that class.

A lot of discussion has taken place in which black activists and scholars have drawn a clear connection between the war on drugs and white supremacy while also showing how anti-drug laws are used specifically to target and incarcerate people of color.

I have not seen as much discussion showing a similar link between anti-sex work laws and the LGBTQ community, but in my research into queer history, such a link has become exceedingly obvious to me.

In broad terms here’s what I know. Anti-sex work laws have been used to increase monitoring of gay cruising sites, bars and hangouts. Media depictions of gay men or lesbians are almost automatically labeled as pornographic and treated as such, even if such depictions include little more than kissing or holding hands between same sex couples. Transgender people in general, but expecially transgender women of color, are frequently targeted by law enforcement due to police officers automatically stereotyping them as sex workers.

How sexual exploitation typically occurs is almost never shockingly violent but rather simply mundane. Take the following commonplace scenario. An LGBTQ child or youth comes out to their family, resulting in that individual being rejected and subjected to abuse by their own family. So, they run away from home. In order to survive, the LGBTQ youth turns to sex work to obtain money for food and shelter. This is how systemic homophobia and transphobia ends up leading to a long drawn out cycle of abuse for many LGBTQ youth.

In another commonplace scenario, the LGBTQ youth moves in with an adult that they knew prior to running away and that adult winds up coercing sexual favors from them in order for them to continue to stay at the adults home.

It’s well documented that anti-sex work laws do little to actually protect victims of sexual exploitation and human trafficking. One problem being the broad way that consensual sex work between adults winds up being problematically conflated by anti-trafficking rhetoric and legislation. This conflation between sex work and human trafficking in turn frequently leads to victims of human trafficking and sexual exploitation being further harmed by the criminal justice system.

Ultimately, it must be said that anti-sex work laws and anti-trafficking legislation, as they currently exist, are never intended or designed to address the fundamental roots of our society’s most serious problems. Anti-sex work laws are never going to address the numerous systemic issues, such as sexism, anti-LGBTQ bigotry, and poverty, that ultimately lead people to being sexually abused and exploited.

If we really wanted to end sexual violence and exploitation, we would look at the root causes and address them directly, not write laws that only further exacerbate and promote sexual violence and exploitation.

Write to Jeremy Redlien at

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