SEXHUM United States

The United States are the most criminalized context of the SEXHUM project as all forms of sex work and all parties involved are criminalized (except in some small counties in Nevada). In the US the complex relationship between migration, sex work and trafficking is framed by a carceral regime that has become increasingly repressive during the Trump administration. In this context sex work has been targeted specifically through sexual humanitarian interventions aiming to stop all sex work through criminal law (Hoefinger et al., 2020). The criminalization of online sex work was intensified in 218 with the bipartisan passing by Congress of the SESTA/FOSTA ‘anti-trafficking’ legislation, which pushed sex workers offline and exposed them to increased precariousness and vulnerability to abuse, including by law enforcement, by making websites accountable for third party advertisements for sexual services on their platforms.

The context of the US is characterised by sexual humanitarian dynamics of ‘penal welfare’ (Gruber et al. 2016) whereby the arrest of sex workers and victims of trafficking becomes part of their referral to social services of court supervisions. This process encompasses the establishment in 2013 of Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs) in NYC which offer people (mostly cis women) charged with prostitution the possibility of having their charges dismissed or sealed provided they complete mandatory service sessions and they do not get-rearrested within 6 months. 

Our findings confirm that the long court processes and social service sessions do not match the economic needs and priorities of sex workers and that the (sexual) humanitarian ethos of HTICs is structurally embedded in the enforcement of criminalizing anti-prostitution laws (Ray and Catarine 2014; Yale GHJP 2018). Although HTICs do not exist in LA there are similar Law Enforcement Assisted Diversion (LEAD) programs, which are overseen by the LA County Sheriff’s Department Human Trafficking Bureau. In LA too, sexual humanitarian understanding of victimhood focused on the experience of cis women tend to exclude trans people from being recognised as victims of trafficking and from the associated forms of humanitarian protection (Fehrenbacher et al. 2020).

SEXHUM findings also show that the limited forms of sexual humanitarian control, protection and support provided by HTICs and LEAD programmes were eroded by the anti-migration measures introduced by the Trump administration. In 2017 we witnessed the intrusion of ICE officers inside the buildings of the Queens County Criminal Justice Court, where many undocumented migrant sex workers and victims of trafficking were defending their cases. In this context of ‘extreme bordering’ (Mai et al. 2021) we focused on the trans Latina population as they are specifically affected by carceral sexual humanitarian interventions while also being neglected by the protective services offered to victims of trafficking (Fehrenbacher et al 2020; Hoefinger et al 2020). Our data in NY and LA show that a large number of trans Latina sex workers were arrested by anti-prostitution law enforcement as they were assumed to be sex workers for being out in the street: simply for ‘walking while trans’. Many participants were detained by immigration, in prisons and jails where they were misgendered and ridiculed for speaking Spanish and discriminated against in relation to their gender identity. Some of them experienced sexual assault, torture-like treatments, and were denied hormonal therapies.

At the same time some initiatives seem to respond well to the priorities and needs of migrant sex workers. Health-related initiatives such as the Community Health Network in New York take a de-stigmatizing approach to sex work and focus on harm reduction and prevention. Community-based projects that provide direct services for legal assistance, such as Legal Aid Society and the Sex Work Project at the Urban Justice Centre in NY also support the priorities and needs of migrant sex workers by helping migrants secure asylum, T-Visas, and U-Visas. Community-focused legal groups such as the SOAR Institute support well trafficking survivors by trying to expand Vacaturs Law allowing them to clear their criminal records, reduce stigma and secure employment and housing. Finally, community-based peer support, such as the Trans Latina Coalition in Los Angeles and the TRANSgrediendo Collective, Lysistrata, Red Canary and GLITS in New York provide a key safety net and act as buffers against the onslaught of repressive legislation and general deteriorating conditions for sex workers in the US in times of ‘extreme bordering’. These peer-support groups played a key role in supporting the most precarious members of their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, which was key to their survival as many of our trans research participants explained that they resorted to sex work because they were excluded from mainstream legal forms of employment for being trans.

The experiences of our respondents show the negative economic and health consequences caused by the ‘extreme bordering’ of sexual humanitarian, anti-trafficking interventions and by the criminalization of sex work. They also strongly suggest the need for sexual humanitarian and anti prostitution law enforcement interventions to be defunded and for peer-based health, legal and community initiatives to receive broader public health support and funding instead (Hoefinger et al. 2020).

Overall, the US was the setting were the highest number of trafficking experiences were reported by SEXHUM respondents, together with the heaviest forms of racial profiling and racist abuse of both migrant and national BPOC sex workers, particularly transgender females by authorities. The vast majority of respondents had experiences of incarceration and detention. Across racial, migration status and gender differences, US respondents reported the highest levels of exploitation, violence and physical abuse by third parties as well as by law enforcement and immigration agencies (therefore the least access to police and justice when being victims of crime). 

Migrant transgender sex workers of colour faced structural exclusion from the provision of support by anti-trafficking initiatives, whilst they are particularly targeted by police repression, violence and murder. Community Peer organisations engage in filling the gaps in lack of services and financial and health aid provisions (including financial help during COVID-19 crisis) but are chronically underfunded. Sex workers are actively and directly excluded from COVID-19 government stimulus packages and benefits.