We are still here: the Backpage shutdown and 4 ways to show up for sex workers.


By xoai pham

It’s been a week since Backpage‘s adult section was shut down.

Backpage is a website like Craigslist where people post ads for all kinds of products and services, some of which involve sex work. For many sex workers, it’s the most accessible venue for finding clients. There is no fee to post ads and it is often the entry point for those who are new to the industry.

Backpage has been a source of income and relief for trans girls like me trying to make it by with shit wages. It was survival for so many people, and the fact that it was shut down is a crisis.

This is an attack on the livelihood of sex workers, which means it’s incredibly urgent. But it’s been both disheartening and enraging how few people comprehend this urgency.

Several writers have already produced important analyses on why it will only further endanger sex workers. Among the main points are that Backpage’s adult section was a resource where sex workers can screen clients for their own safety, and that the shutdown could lead them to test more dangerous avenues in order to make their income.

For trans people, who are among the most vulnerable of sex workers, these realities can become even more magnified. Transfeminine people of color, in particular, face the intersecting forms of violence that arise out of transmisogyny, white supremacy, capitalism, and ableism. We may find ourselves doing sex work to fund our health care, pay our bills, or buy things that make us happy—because the girls deserve to be happy.

I’m not surprised the government cornered Backpage into facilitating more violence against sex workers because the government’s criminalization policies are a huge reason why so many sex workers are already being killed. And the government sure doesn’t give a shit about sex workers who are trans.

But what was jarring to me, although it’s something I’ve always known, is how rarely sex workers are thought about when people envision liberation and revolution. It hurts to know that even the people who are committed to some form of activism either stay willfully ignorant or possess some savior complex that hurts more than helps. It’s painful and frustrating to admit that even “social justice” circles rarely care for sex workers’ issues.

Are you thinking about the hookers and hoes when you and the brocialists have your circle jerk? Is there a place for us in your revolution?

Trans sex workers experience a special kind of alienation. The feeling that the general population hates you and thinks you’re scum, on top of the constant fear that you might be murdered any day now, all mixed in with the fact that those who are supposed to advocate for you don’t give a fuck and would rather forget you exist so that their platform is more palatable.

I’m here to tell you that those advocates are absolute trash. Why?

Because they are accomplices to the state.

Most people, whether they’re involved with so-called social justice or not, really don’t understand the implications of sex work criminalization and stigma. They love hoes in music videos but think those same hoes are asking for assault because of their line of work. Sex workers are abused by “the system,” abused by clients while trying to navigate this system, and then abused by law enforcement when they seek support. They face barriers getting healthcare to protect themselves from or treat STIs, especially if they’re trans patients. They are then shamed by their friends, family, and community members along the way. And while you’d think they’d be central to justice movements, you’d be hard-pressed to find a platform that produces a nuanced understanding of how sex work is connected to racial justice, gender justice, LGBTQ justice, and every other kind of damn justice in the world.

This is not to say that all sex workers have the same relationship to their work. There’s the pervasive trope that their lives are filled with seedy men cheating on their wives. People assume sex workers must be suffering at all times and that they need to be saved from their misery. This trope leads to the kind of “advocacy” that makes things worse. It means people are often trying to ban sex work thinking it’ll solve our problems, when that course of action only results in more criminalization. In fact, sex workers come from all kinds of economic backgrounds, and not all clients are scandalous and violent. The stigma against both those in the sex trade and their clients is what nurtures violence and exploitation. Those tied to the sex trade aren’t just victims and perpetrators by default. The issue here is the disappearance of a major resource that sex workers used to do their work on their own terms.1)Paragraph added 1/18/17

A 2015 study on trans people in the sex trade found that 39.9 percent of Black trans people have done sex work in the past. Why isn’t this addressed by racial justice organizations? Why aren’t LGBTQ coalitions placing Black trans sex workers at the center of their platform?

Where are the marches and rallies and vigils? When will people know the names of murdered trans sex workers other than on Trans Day of Remembrance, a single day out of the year?

Where are the think pieces? Where are the calls to action? Who will protect us other than our own selves?

I’m tired.

I want people to take steps to ensure that my siblings and I thrive. I want trans sex workers to be loved and nourished and safe. I want us to heal if we need healing.

Since I can’t retroactively leave all the fake-as-hell activists in 2016, I’m offering four key ways to shift paradigms and actually show up for sex workers:

  1. Stop assuming people you meet are by default not sex workers. People in the sex trade are all around you and look like everyone else. Normalize the presence of sex work rather than marginalizing it as something shameful.
  2. While you’re hoeing around for free, remember that sex workers are doing sexual acts for money. Why does that mean they deserve less protections? You can pay a cover charge to shake your ass at the club while still being worthy of respect and safety; sex workers deserve the same respect and safety while doing the same thing for cash.
  3. If you really want to keep sex workers safe, stop trying to involve the police. The police, the law, and the government, are not our friends. They are colonial institutions built on terrorism and slaughter. Instead, seek to abolish police, prisons, and immigrant detention centers. Abolition removes the institutions that endanger marginalized communities and offers alternatives for justice. We can learn to protect one another beyond the state.
  4. Sex work is often called “the world’s oldest profession.” Meaning the sex trade is not new, and neither is your vapid opinion about sex workers. Instead of offering tired solutions that are not in the slightest interesting to anyone, listen to sex workers and cut them those checks. Provide material, tangible support.

Ignorance and vitriol against sex workers has real, lasting implications. It only strengthens the walls built by the American settler state that entrap sex workers, ensuring that their bodies are under attack at every turn.

Sometimes, we survive. Sometimes, we don’t.


xoài phamxoài pham is a vietnamese trans girl carrying on a long lineage of women warriors. she is happiest when eating fruits on the beach. you can support her by donating at PayPal.me/AlexQuanPham.

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1. Paragraph added 1/18/17

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