Salvadoran transgender sex workers stand by the roadside while waiting for clients. Picture Credit: Jan Sochor/Getty Images

Why is prostitution being pushed on young trans people?

The feminist fix: Stop pretending that the sex trade is a world of queer self-expression

Artillery Row

“Why is prostitution being pushed on young trans people?” is the latest article in Julie Bindel’s online column for The Critic, “The feminist fix”, which explores feminism’s answer to today’s challenges. The previous article, on knowing when to admit you got it wrong in a world of cancel culture, can be read here.

I am well used to the defence of prostitution, or “sex work” as the apologists refer to it, on the basis that it is women’s “choice” or even “empowering”. But there is another way that the buying and selling of human bodies for one-sided sexual pleasure is sanitised, and that is by the so-called Queer Community.

Nothing is starker a promotion for prostitution than young trans-identified females being encouraged to sell sex to pay for surgery and hormone treatment. Welcome to CliniQ, a sexual counselling service for transgender people, based at Kings College Hospital in London. CliniQ, which receives NHS funding, has, until recently, peddling a guide aimed at young trans men (i.e. biological females) in which it is stated that being a “sex worker”, “can be useful and sometimes empowering. It can help us pay for parts of our transition.”

Pro-prostitution lobbyists regularly tap into support from the transgender lobby

There is also advice on how transmen visiting sex parties and gay saunas can obscure the fact that they are in fact female by giving men blowjobs and not exposing their own genitalia. Not only is this encouraging a criminal offence of “sex by deception”, it is putting these young women in potential danger. Entitled Cruising: a Trans Guys Guide to the Gay Sex Scene, this pamphlet focuses on sadomasochism and bondage, encouraging sex in public spaces, offering advice as to how to circumvent the public gaze.

Following exposure in the national press last weekend, the guides have since been withdrawn since a national newspaper picked up the story last weekend, with a statement describing the documents as “out of date”. CliniQ’s pinned tweet reads:

It is nothing short of a disgrace that so-called “queer health” services target such propaganda at young, vulnerable women, whether trans or not. And ironically, there is only a brief mention of pregnancy in the pamphlet, which, strangely enough, female bodied trans-identified people are susceptible to when engaging in sexual activity with men. 

The rise of transgender identity politics has brought with it a strident attempt to merge the identities of prostitution and the ubiquitous, increasingly meaningless queer identity. There are several arguments used to claim that the experience of being transgender and being prostituted are very similar, if not the same thing. 

One is that many trans people are excluded from regular employment or need ready cash in order to pay for surgery, and therefore turn to the sex trade. Another is the argument that we are all part of one big happy rainbow alliance and “sex workers’ rights”, trans rights and queer rights are one thing. What this argument loses is an analysis of men’s power in relation to women. In fact, aside from transwomen, women are excluded from the equation altogether. 

The sex trade has as much to do with sexual freedom and pleasure as Jimmy Savile does for child protection

The recently constructed acronyms even lend to my theory that the transgender and “sex workers’ rights” issues have become amalgamated to the point where you literally cannot support one without supporting the other. SWERF (Sex Worker Exclusionary Radical Feminists) and TERF (Trans Exclusionary Radical Feminists) handily rhyme. Both groups seem to realise how important merging their interests is. Pro-prostitution lobbyists regularly tap into support from the transgender lobby and vice versa. 

But the view that prostitution is somehow liberating is as bad for trans people as it is for anyone else. The very first transwoman I became friends with told me about how she had worked in strip joints and been involved in prostitution in order to earn a living following her sex change surgery. One day, a punter who suspected that she was in fact a natal male threatened to shoot her, and she was forced to make a hasty retreat from his flat.

I have heard innumerable similar stories, despite the fact that in the new, queer world, prostitution is often described as a sexual identity. Take Janet Mock a transgender activist who catapulted into the public arena with the publication of her memoir about growing up transgender, Redefining Realness: My Path to Womanhood, Identity, Love & So Much More in 2014. 

In the video accompanying the book, Mock appears to celebrate children’s involvement in the sex trade: “I was 15 the first time I visited Merchant Street, what some would call ‘the stroll’ for trans women involved in street-based sex work. At the time, I had just begun medically transitioning and it was where younger girls, like my friends and myself, would go to hang out, flirt and fool around with guys and socialise with older trans women, the legends of our community.”

Mock goes on to explain how she “idolised” the prostituted transwomen in the area, including those who were used in pornography and in strip clubs. “These women were the first trans women I met and I quickly correlated trans womanhood and sex work”, says Mock, explaining that she came to understand the role of the sex trade as a “rite of passage” for trans “girls”. 

In recent decades, the pro-prostitution lobby have conflated gay identity with sexual exploitation. Gay youth can be extremely vulnerable to sexual predators, which is why feminists, including myself, have a strong critique of any normalisation of the buying and selling of peoples bodies.

Queer-identified liberal faux feminists also often see prostitution as sexual identity. These women give credence to the arguments put forward by trans rights activists. That “sex workers” are sexual (or gender) outlaws. But prostitution is not a sexuality. There is a clear difference between a sexual preference or identity and commercial sexual exploitation driven almost exclusively by male demand.

Feminists recognise this, and as someone who came out as a lesbian as a teenager in the 1970s and who has experienced sexual assault, I understand the difference very well. The feminist fix for the crazy notion that prostitution can be empowering for trans men? Name it for what it is: abuse and exploitation, whether the person being bought and sold is female, male or transgender. The sex trade has as much to do with sexual freedom and pleasure as Jimmy Savile does for child protection.

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