The International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers is held annually on December 17 by sex workers, their advocates, friends, families and allies. Originally conceived as a memorial and vigil for the victims of the Green River Killer in Seattle Washington, United States (US), it has evolved into an annual international event.
The day calls attention to hate crimes committed against sex workers worldwide, as well as the need to remove the social stigma and discrimination that have contributed to violence against sex workers.
What is sex work?
According to the UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work, sex workers are adults of all genders who receive money or goods in exchange for sexual services that they have consented to provide, either regularly or occasionally. The settings in which sex work may take place range from brothels to street sex work venues, massage parlours, hotels, bars, restaurants, and private homes, and may be recognisable or hidden. We use the terms “sex work” and “sex worker” in our Sex Work Policy as we recognise sex work as work and that many people who sell sexual services find the word “prostitute” stigmatising.
What legal framework does TGEU support?
TGEU supports the full decriminalisation of sex work. Sex workers’ demands for the decriminalisation of sex work and the recognition of sex workers’ rights are supported by several United Nations agencies, including the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), the United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women (UN Women), United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA), the World Health Organisation (WHO), the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), several human rights organisations, e.g. Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, and anti-trafficking organisations, such as La Strada International and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women.
These agencies have repeatedly voiced their concerns about sex workers’ vulnerabilities to violence and HIV and pointed to the criminalisation of sex work, repressive sex work policies, and the stigma and discrimination faced by sex workers as the main factors contributing to increased risks of HIV infections and violence among sex workers. Contrary to criminalisation of sex workers, clients, and third parties, sex work decriminalisation promotes health and human rights for sex workers by reducing police violence and abuse and increasing access to police protection and justice, safe working conditions, and health services.
Is decriminalisation the same as legalisation?
Decriminalisation and legalisation are often conflated in debates around sex work. In a legalised environment, specific laws and policies that regulate sex work are designed to control and limit sex work; the laws are often enforced by the police, which can lead to many sex workers operating outside of these regulations. Decriminalisation opposes all forms of criminal and other laws that oppress sex workers and aims to remove all laws that prohibit any operational aspect of sex work itself.
What is the ratio of trans people among sex workers?
There is very limited research and data available on trans sex workers’ engagement in sex work. The majority of research focuses on cisgender female street-based sex workers, thus creating a limited understanding of the issues faced by LGB and trans sex workers.
TAMPEP’s mapping report from 2009 states that 6 percent of all sex workers in Europe are transgender persons, while 7 percent are cisgender male. However, these figures could be higher as there are very few projects working with cisgender male and trans sex workers.
The proportion of trans people among sex workers is context-specific, as TGEU’s Transrespect versus Transphobia (TvT) project shows. According to the TvT Survey on the Social Experiences of Trans and Gender-diverse People (TvT Survey), 99 per cent of survey respondents in Colombia, 76 per cent in Turkey, 68 per cent in Venezuela and 47 per cent in the Philippines, but only 21 per cent in Tonga and 14 per cent in Serbia, stated that they earn their living by sex work.
The large number of sex workers in certain countries is likely to relate to the high level of discrimination in the labour market, as well as to the extremely worrying degree of exclusion, violence, and discrimination faced by trans and gender-diverse people at school.
Why do trans people engage in sex work?
Trans people engage in sex work for a variety of reasons, most commonly because they live in a transphobic environment and face structural barriers to education and employment, and thus have limited economic and employment opportunities. The lack of quick, transparent, and accessible legal gender recognition is a further driving factor. Bullying in educational settings could, at least partly, be fended off by identification documents with the name and gender matching gender identity or expression. Without this recognition, school drop-out rates, underperformance, and suicidality remain a reality for many trans people in education.
In a number of countries, the low level or lack of education and the perceived difference between a person’s gender expression and data in personal documents also put legal employment and fair payment out of reach for many trans people. As a result, they are exposed to poverty, homelessness, and inadequate access to healthcare, including the inability to finance gender reassignment. These factors all contribute to the large number of trans people among sex workers in several contexts.
What are the most pressing human rights threats against trans sex workers?
Criminalisation manifesting in laws and other legal measures is a serious threat to many trans sex workers. Various aspects of consensual sex work are criminalised globally, and even in legalised environments, state actors use other means to fine and harass sex workers, e.g. nuisance and public moral laws and non-sex work related administrative offences. Similarly, the criminalisation of ‘crossdressing’ and ‘gender reassignment surgery’ is still enforced in some countries in the Global South and East, along with anti-homosexuality laws that also frequently target trans women who are perceived as gay men by law enforcement and the judiciary system.
Trans sex workers therefore are burdened by laws that are transphobic and anti-sex worker simultaneously, and being under extreme economic pressure they are unable to escape persecution. At the same time, non-sex worker trans people are still oftentimes perceived as sex workers and their social inclusion and acceptance are undermined by whorephobia.
Trans sex workers’ right to health is also frequently violated. They are hit hard by HIV globally due to criminalisation of trans identities, homosexuality, and sex work, punitive environments, social marginalisation, and continuing stigma, discrimination, and violence, and the lack of affordable, confidential, and respectful HIV and health services. Frequently, trans sex workers are targeted by abusive interventions, such as mandatory or forced HIV and STI testing and treatment. Condoms used as evidence to press charges against sex workers, including street based trans sex workers, for prostitution related offences have also been documented worldwide and in the European region.
What forms of violence are experienced by LGBT sex workers?
Trans sex workers are threatened with a myriad of abuses, including rape, beatings, extortion, police maltreatment, forced eviction, deportation, and discrimination, including exclusion from health services.
They are disproportionately affected by police harassment in most countries. In the TvT survey, all trans sex workers in Colombia reported having experienced police harassment, as did 97 per cent in Venezuela and 79 per cent in Turkey. In TGEU’s ProTrans project, in the recorded transphobic incidents that involved physical and sexual assault and psychological violence at the hands of the police, the majority of the victims were trans-women sex workers.
Violence against trans people may overlap with other axes of oppression prevalent in society, such as anti-sex worker and anti-migrant sentiments and discrimination, resulting in trans sex workers being exposed to multiple forms of abuse. TvT research suggests that trans and gender-diverse murder victims are often migrants in Western and Southern Europe– as in Germany, Italy, Portugal, and Spain – or sex workers – as in Albania, France, Germany, Italy, Portugal, Spain, Turkey, and the UK – and often both.
To what extent are violent cases against sex workers reported to the police?
Violence against trans sex workers, similarly to violence against non-sex worker trans people, largely goes unnoticed, unchallenged, and unreported.
In TGEU’S ProTrans project, 55 per cent of recorded violent transphobic incidents were committed against sex workers in Serbia. All of the sex worker survivors refused to report the incidents to the police as in most of the cases, police officers were the perpetrators themselves.
According to a survey of Red Umbrella Sexual Health and Human Rights Association, 42 per cent of all respondents who experienced physical violence did not report these incidents to the police or to a prosecutor’s office in Turkey. Of the incidents that were reported, only 11 per cent resulted in cases in which perpetrators received an appropriate sentence. In the other cases, either the police ignored the complaint or judges acquitted the perpetrators or decreased their sentences.
In what ways does Transgender Europe address the situation of sex workers?
Transgender Europe raises awareness of the human rights situation of and violence against sex workers in its research, violence documentation, and advocacy.
In order to fill the gap in documenting violence against trans people, in April 2009 TGEU launched its Trans Murder Monitoring (TMM) project, a systematic collection, monitoring, and analysis of reported killings of gender-variant/trans people worldwide. The Transgender Day of Remembrance 2015 update revealed a total of 1,933 reported killings of trans people in 64 countries worldwide from January 1st 2008 to September 30th 2015. Out of the reported trans murders, 65 % of victims with known occupation were trans sex workers.
In order to give detailed analysis of structural and direct violence, TGEU also researches the social experiences of trans and gender-diverse people, including sex workers in various countries in the framework of its Transrespect versus Transphobia Worldwide project. The TvT Survey on the Social Experiences of Trans and Gender-diverse People data sample consists of 863 analysed survey questionnaires from 8 countries in 4 world regions: Colombia, India, the Philippines, Serbia, Thailand, Tonga, Turkey, and Venezuela.
In Europe, TGEU works with partner organisations to record discrimination, hate speech, and hate crimes and offer community-based support for victims/survivors of violence in the framework of its ProTrans project. In Kyrgyzstan, Turkey, and Serbia, project partners reached out to trans sex workers to document their experiences of violence and to legally challenge abuse against them.
TGEU also participates in the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, which is held annually on December 17 by sex workers, their advocates, friends, families, and allies. TGEU calls attention to hate crimes committed against sex workers worldwide, as well as the need to remove the social stigma and discrimination that have contributed to violence against sex workers. 
Who is working on improving the situation of sex workers?
Besides numerous TGEU member organisations working to improve the situation of sex workers, the below networks focus on the human rights situation of sex workers:
Global Network of Sex Work projects (NSWP): http://www.nswp.org/
International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe (ICRSE): http://www.sexworkeurope.org/
Sex Workers’ Rights Advocacy Network (SWAN): http://swannet.org/
 TGEU is aware of the fact that minor trans people also engage in sex for compensation and considers them
as important part of our community. However, this policy explicitly refers to sex worker adults.