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Chicago Police misclassifying trans women of color in the sex trade as “johns” in its “end demand” initiative

Date: June 6, 2012

In “Mug Shots: Transgender ‘Johns’,” research methodologist Rachel Lovell reveals that a large number of people whose mug shots have been posted by the Chicago Police Department as individuals arrested for soliciting for prostitution (i.e. buying sex) appear to be transgender women of color.

According to Lovell, Chicago Police Department has been posting mug shots and personal information of people who were arrested as “buyers” of sex online in 2005. Public posting of the mug shots of people arrested as “buyers” of sexual services has been a cornerstone of many “end demand” campaigns targeting the “johns” throughout the country.

Her research center, Social Science Research Center at DePaul University, began collecting the published information since 2010, and she almost immediately noticed a curious trend: a significant portion of mug shots seem to show individuals wearing clothes, hair, makeup, and accessories that are clearly feminine in presentation, despite the fact they are categorized by the police as male “buyers” of sex. In fact, over 10% of the mug shots published in the two-year period from March 2010 to March 2012 show faces of trans women.

Those who consider trans women as “men in disguise” might jump on such finding as an evidence supporting their prejudice, while the rest of us instinctively get the feeling that there is something wrong with the notion that over 10% of individuals who have been arrested as “johns” are trans women. Further analysis by Lovell and her team indicate that there is, indeed, something unusual going on.

According to her breakdown of arrest data, there are stark differences between non-transgender men who are arrested as “johns” and trans women who were arrested for the same offense, beyond their gender identity and presentation. Trans women who were arrested as “johns” tend to be overwhelmingly (92.7%) Black, compared to less than half of non-trans arrestees; they are much younger too.

Young trans women of color are not known to patronize prostitutes in droves. But they are known to be more likely to engage in prostitution to survive, more so than any other group I can think of. In fact, any young trans woman of color is vulnerable to be profiled and arrested as prostitutes even if one is not engaging in the sex trade. This is also the group most often targeted for hate crimes, and for police harassment and brutality. Lovell is probably right to assume that these women are far more likely to be sellers, not buyers, of sexual services.

It is not clear to me if they are actually arrested under false premise as “johns,” or the Chicago Police Department is simply publishing names and photos of any legally male individuals arrested for prostitution (since many laws do not distinguish buyers and sellers–which is another discussion). But regardless, there is no question that they know exactly what they are doing: maliciously punishing and humiliating women for their race, gender, gender identity, and class for daring to survive.

This intentional mislabeling of trans women of color as “johns” by the Chicago Police Department of course reminds me of the recent case of CeCe McDonald, a Black trans woman who has just been sentenced to serve 41 months for defending herself against violent assailants. In McDonald’s case, too, she is not just punished for doing what she had to do to survive, but on top of that she is misclassified as a male perpetrator: she will spend her sentence in a men’s prison. The message is clear: for trans women of color, survival is a crime.

There has been a huge war of words over a radical feminist conference in the U.K. that excludes trans women from attendance over the last couple of weeks, but that exclusion does not occur in a vacuum. The same radical feminists who disregard trans women’s lived realities of womanhood under the patriarchy are also behind the punitive/criminalizing approaches to prostitution including “end demand” initiatives (e.g. Sheila Jeffreys who has been banned from the venue of the radical feminist conference for hate speech against trans women before the venue canceled the conference altogether is the Australian representative of Coalition Against Trafficking in Women).

Trans women of color know that this is not just an issue about some obscure conference of close-minded folks: transphobia, racism, and the persecution of women and other people in the sex trade are inseparable, and the violence of trans exclusion and misclassification, racial and gender profiling, hate crimes against trans women of color, and State violence are all connected and constantly present in the lives of trans women of color.


  1. […] none of whom have, in general, been able to rely on a fair hearing in court. For instance, “a large number of people whose mug shots have been posted by the Chicago Police Department as indivi…“, i.e laws that are supposed to tackle “demand” are being used against ethnic […]

    Pingback by Dear Stella, | A Glasgow Sex Worker — June 15, 2012 @ 4:54 pm

  2. […] Chicago Police misclassifying trans women of color in the sex trade as “johns” in its “end dem… — article on how the police manage to turn a anti-procurers-of-prostitution campaign into a campaign to arrest, out, and shame poor trans women of color […]

    Pingback by A kitteh and a link dump « Jadehawk's Blog — June 20, 2012 @ 12:21 pm

  3. […] [i] Too many examples of this to list here, but for a local, Chicago, example check out Rachel Lovell’s (sociologist at DePaul) recent research, and Emi Koyama responding blog post, […]

    Pingback by Structured Vulnerabilities: The Problem With Mandatory HIV Testing For Sex Workers In Greece « In Our Words — June 26, 2012 @ 10:03 pm

  4. […] agree with Emi Koyama at Eminism—as far as we know, no studies have demonstrated that a large proportion of transgender women are […]

    Pingback by Mug Shots: Why Are So Many Transgender Women Arrested for “Buying” Sex? | re/search — June 28, 2012 @ 8:38 am

  5. […] In Chicago, the ‘end demand’ approach that claims to target clients sees the arrest a disproportionately large number of transgender women of colour – who are then mis-gendered and accused of buying sex. (A particularly vile irony, given that […]

    Pingback by Our Bodies, Our Selves. | A Glasgow Sex Worker — November 27, 2012 @ 8:03 am

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