Understanding Some of the Common Legal Needs of Sex Workers

Updated: Jul 27, 2021

LGBTQ+ people overrepresented in the field, while underserved and sometimes not fully understood by those providing legal help. By Derek J. Demeri in New Jersey Lawyer Magazine

Historically, the connection between the LGBTQ+ community and sex workers has always been strong. It was transgender sex workers of color like Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera who ignited and led the Stonewall Riots. When the HIV/AIDS epidemic began, and since then, LGBTQ+ sex workers have been at the forefront, often unnoticed, of the public health response. Even today, many of those who advocate for LGBTQ+ equity, often without any compensation, rely on sex work as a source of income.

For a number of reasons, LGBTQ+ people are overrepre- sented in sex work. For some LGBTQ+ people, rampant employment discrimination means they are excluded from forms of employment other than sex work. For youth who are homeless, a population which is disproportionately LGBTQ+, engaging in sex work for food, housing, or income may be the only means of survival. Additionally, LGBTQ+ people experience higher rates of poverty than their cisgender or heterosexual counterparts and may contribute to the need to seek out alternative sources of income.

While “sex work” has been defined many different ways, the term, as used here, should be understood broadly as the exchange of sexual services for something of value. This could include prostitution, domination or submission work, escorting, sugar babying, adult film performance, exotic dancing, web-camera performance, erotic massage, and many other activities. Some types of sex work are criminalized, such as prostitution, and other types are not, such as exotic dancing or pornography.

The concept of sex work is as much a term that can be defined as it is a term of identity.1 Importantly, the people that engage in sex work are as diverse as our society is, irrespective of class, race, gender, or other social classifications. At its core, sex work is just another classification of people’s labor.

Recent public discourse has used the terms sex work and sex trafficking interchangeably. This should be avoided to prevent poorly crafted policy with staggering human costs. Human trafficking has a legal definition under the law of New Jersey, which partly incorporates the definition of prostitution along with several other elements or factors. Furthermore, to suggest that all sex workers are “forced” into sex work is a gross misrepresentation of the reality and denies people the autonomy to self-identify their own situations. As used here, sex work talks about one’s labor rather than the mindset or agency of a person involved.

Engaging in sex work requires a minimum of two par- ties—the one performing the labor and the client of those services. Occasionally, it can involve third parties that facilitate the performance of services, such as drivers, security, photographers, management, bookkeepers, website designers, and so on. There is nothing inherently violent about the involvement of third parties and, in many cases, can increase the safety of the sex worker.

This article will attempt to provide a brief overview of some of the civil legal needs of sex workers under New Jersey law. Of course, there are many other legal issues that sex workers experience, particularly in relationship to criminal4 or federal law, which this article does not address.

Sexual Harassment

Sexual harassment on the job is an ongoing problem for many sex workers—likely due to the myth that all sex work- ers either invite sexual assault because of their line of work or that it is impossible for the law to distinguish between the labor of sex work and sexual harassment.