The fact that many LGBT people end up as a sex worker is an issue often overlooked rather conveniently by many activists and charities. Sex work is still talked about in moralizing terms, and the LGBT community has sought to paint the picture of LGBT identities as being respectable as a way to win rights such as marriage.
The image of the LGBT world in recent campaigns has been that of white cisgender gay people in long term relationships, often with children. It’s a one dimensional idea that aims to show queer people as heteronormative and matching the moral virtues of conservative bigots. That kind of tactic does little to recognize the humanity of LGBT identities and it also leaves a lot of people behind.
Over one-quarter of homeless youths identify as LGBT, and many more live in poverty or face discrimination from employment, particularly if they are transgender. The lack of options due to the prejudices of society means that LGBT people are more likely to depend on sex work as a form of income, particularly trans people.
“It is simply hypocritical for LGBT activists to fight for bodily autonomy but deny it to sex workers.”
Arguments for the criminalization of the trade are quick to dismiss the basic fact that any laws against sex work would simply punish the most vulnerable further. It would not tackle the basic issues such as poverty and discrimination that LGBT people are at greater risk of experiencing. It certainly would not stop abuse and exploitation but would merely drive sex work underground and make it incredibly difficult for sex workers to access support if they were harmed during the course of their work.
LGBT people in poverty and with limited options in life aren’t going to give up their one form of income, they’ll just be in danger from being arrested, too.
In terms of ideology, the two movements are not so far apart. The heart of the demand for LGBT rights is the idea that all people should be granted autonomy over their lives and bodies, that anyone should be allowed to sleep with who they choose and that it only concerns the people in the relationship and not the government or bigots. The very same idea is at the core of the fight for sex workers. Why should they not be granted the same freedom? Why should they not be allowed to have sex with who they choose?
People enter into sexual relationships for all kinds of reasons. It is rarely a fairytale of two people falling in love. Sometimes it is for fun, but many engage in survival sex of some form, whether it be to keep a roof over their head or to not face crushing debt alone. Many have sex because it’s simply a way to shut their partner up. The list is endless and every reason is valid. The only issue is that the people having sex are consenting to it and anything else is an arbitrary moral judgement which no one has the right to make.
“If we want to be free then we must support the right of all consensual sex.”
Sex work and LGBT rights battles are about the liberation of our bodies. It is simply hypocritical for LGBT activists to fight for bodily autonomy but deny it to sex workers, and given the huge numbers of people within the community who engage in sex work it also throws a lot of LGBT people under the bus.
While prejudice remains over who people choose to have sex with then we have not obtained sexual freedom and it also wavers on the edge of perpetuating prejudice for LGBT lives and relationships. If we want to be free then we must support the right of all consensual sex. If we want to protect sex workers then we need to listen to them and work out what will be effective and keep them safe.
Sex work is as old as LGBT identities and it isn’t a form of trade that is going to stop any time soon. It’s as futile as the war on drugs so the choice is clear: either we put punitive ideologies first or people.