Throughout the world, being a sex worker is often equated with being vulnerable, but today sex workers are building movements to strengthen their rights, making steady progress that can be recognised today, International Sex Workers’ Day.
In Latin America, 14 countries have made sex work legal while criminalizing the management and organizing of sex work, while others have made local laws that criminalize sex work. But even in countries where it is legalized, labor rights have not been extended to sex workers, and sex work is still not recognized as work. This places sex workers at risk of abuse, limits their access to justice, and makes them more dependent on intermediaries. Many, for example, point to law enforcement and the police as the primary abusers and perpetrators of sexual violence. Many people migrate to Europe, where they are faced with even stronger anti-sex work regimes. In Spain, for instance, where there are approximately 200,000 sex workers, the current government introduced a bill for an Organic Law for the Abolition of Prostitution in 2022. If passed, this law would further drive undocumented migrant sex workers underground. On top of that, migrant, transgender, and queer sex workers are at increased risk of facing layered stigmas around their gender and sexuality, migration status, and sex work.
Migrant queer sex workers have had no choice but to self-organize and build autonomous alternatives in order to survive, leading to the birth of unions and workers’ collectives that are fighting for workers’ rights, dignity, and decriminalization.
These are not just stories of queer resistance; they are stories of re-existence. LGBTQIA+ people are transforming paradigms, redefining life and economies from a place of care, dignity, and self-determination.
OTRAS, the first sex workers’ union in Spain
OTRAS (Organización de Trabajadorxs Sexuales, the Organization of Sex Workers) obtained its legal status in 2021 after years of legal struggles. Today, it supports more than 600 members, the majority of whom are migrants, queer and/or trans. OTRAS works in a transparent, horizontal, and intersectional way, with a focus on anti-racism, human rights, and popular education.
Speaking of their successes on the ground, Sabrina Sanchez, one of the founders of OTRAS said to The Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID):
La mayor victoria del sindicato OTRAS es que el Tribunal Supremo de España haya reconocido nuestra existencia, no se obligó a que se desescribiera, no anuló el registro. Gracias a esto tenemos herramientas para luchar contra las violaciones de los derechos laborales …Otro de los logros fue el poder co-organizar con otras organizaciones un crowdfunding para fondos de emergencia durante la pandemia. También reparto de comida durante los 3 primeros meses de confinamiento total donde además vimos atropellos por las fuerzas de seguridad principalmente contra las compañeras trans. Servir a nuestras compañeras en un momento de emergencia fue lo que había que hacer, lo que nos pedían las compañeras.
The biggest victory of the OTRAS union is that the Supreme Court of Spain recognized our existence, it did not force us to deregister, it did not cancel the registration. Thanks to this, we have tools to fight against labor rights violations … Another achievement was to be able to crowdfund with other organizations for emergency funds during the pandemic. We also distributed food during the first 3 months of total confinement, where we also registered attacks by the security forces, mainly against trans women. Serving our sisters in a moment of emergency was what we had to do, what our sisters asked us to do.
A Latin American network for rights
Similarly, the Latin American and the Caribbean Women Sex Workers Network (RedTraSex) organizes workers across 14 countries in the region. The network, set up in Costa Rica in 1997, takes a feminist, rights-based approach to demand the recognition of sex workers as subjects of rights and decent working conditions and social protections. They have made inroads by engaging directly with policymakers in various jurisdictions, along with gains in community-based mobilizing.
Carlos Héctor Mesa, the Political Coordinator at RedTraSex, said to AWID:
Nuestra Red se conformo con mujeres cis, en estos 25 años logramos que compañeras trans, lesbianas, varones gay e identidades diversas logren sumarse a la lucha para que no se criminalice el ejercicio del trabajo sexual que es una problemática trasversal a cualquier persona que decida ejercerlo.
Our network was formed with cis women, and in these 25 years we have managed to get trans women, lesbians, gay men and people with diverse identities to join the struggle so that the exercise of sex work is not criminalised, which is a transversal problem for any person who decides take up this work.
Lucy Esquivel, President of RedTraSex says that this work happens with very little support, as mainstream unions led by cis men do not recognize them as workers, and anti-sex work groups (many of them under the umbrella of “abolitionist feminists”) are working with governments to undermine their work and agency.
Queer leadership shows the way
OTRAS and RedTraSex work in regions that are linked by historical and present-day colonialism, with a large flow of Latinx migrant workers performing informal work in Spain. They share common strategies — like negotiating with employers, organizing legal campaigns, and politicizing workers to join the struggle for less exploitation in the workplace — to counter the attacks of trans-exclusionary radical feminists and abolitionists.
Queer leaders in trade unions are fighting against all forms of discrimination in the workplace, to eliminate racial and gender gaps; to allow everyone access to health care, labor rights, economic rights and sexual health and reproductive rights, and to ensure better working conditions for queer and marginalized workers.
Mesa, from RedTraSex, explains the intersectional stigma faced by non-binary and transgender workers:
El estigma que vivimos quienes ejercemos el trabajo sexual es acentuado cuando provenimos de identidades no binarias y machistas patriarcales, es necesario poder despojarnos de conductas discriminadoras que no segregan y aíslan dejándonos expuestos a violencias y maltratos por no cumplir los requisitos que el sistema nos impone como ideales.
The stigma experienced by those of us who practice sex work is accentuated when we come from non-binary identities clashing with sexist and patriarchal norms. It is necessary to strip ourselves from discriminatory behaviors that segregate and isolate us, leaving us exposed to violence and abuse for not meeting the requirements that the system imposes on us as ideals.
El segundo anhelo es la decriminalización del trabajo sexual conforme a las trabajadoras, poniendo en el centro nuestras necesitdades y problemas. Que se legisle para que lo podamos resolver. Quizás nos tome muche tiempo, pero estamos ahí.
We also fight for the decriminalization of sex work in accordance with sex workers, putting our needs and problems at the center. We know it may take us a long time, but we are not giving up.
Unions hold a key role in ensuring safer working conditions for sex workers, while they fight to decriminalize sex work and countering the stigma, discrimination and exclusion workers face on a daily basis. The struggles and gains of sex workers’ unions are paving the way for protecting the rights of all marginalized and persecuted workers across the world.
Note: For more such stories of how feminist movements are bringing to life alternative economic models, see AWID’s series on the “Feminist Economies We Love”.