Sex work has stepped into the spotlight in recent years — but many of the 2020 presidential candidates are still reluctant to weigh in on the issue. As sex workers and advocates continue to push for decriminalization, it's hard not to wonder: Why is it so hard for politicians to talk about it?
Ahead, we explain why sex work has been in the news, what we know so far about the candidates' positions, and what they could stand to learn.
Why is sex work a hotly debated topic?
Between porn star Stormy Daniels becoming a feminist icon of sorts and Cyntoia Brown being granted clemency, the public seems to have become more sympathetic to, or at least more aware of, sex workers’ experiences. Both women’s legal battles helped bring sex work and sex trafficking into mainstream conversation.
Sex work decriminalization edged its way into mainstream discourse when a set of bills called FOSTA-SESTA — a House bill titled “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act” and a Senate bill titled the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” — was signed into law last summer and sex workers protested, arguing the bills would put their lives in danger.
“The passing of FOSTA-SESTA has been a bit of a turning point for online-based sex workers, who were previously less impacted by policing, which targeted the most marginalized communities of color on the street or in street-visible massage parlors,” Kate Zen, an organizer with Red Canary, a grassroots organization that supports migrant sex workers, told Refinery29. “After FOSTA-SESTA, so many sex workers who were previously safe from policing have come out of the woodwork and joined the movement.” (Zen requested the use of a pseudonym in order to protect her identity.)
On a state level, sex workers’ issues are also stepping into the limelight, with a number of states, including New York, Maine, and Washington, D.C., currently considering decriminalization bills. (To clarify, decriminalization removes laws and regulations on the occupation — not to be confused with legalization, which would invite government regulation.)
Meanwhile, the #NYCStripperStrike, started by Gizelle Marie in October 2017 in response to the colorism, racial discrimination, low wages, and unfair labor practices at strip clubs, has gained national attention — as did similar strikes in Hollywood at the beginning of this year.
Grassroots organizers and local politicians are leading the way.
Sex workers have long engaged in political activism and human rights advocacy — Marsha P. Johnson and Sylvia Rivera, two transgender sex workers of color, were instrumental in the Stonewall Inn uprising in 1969 — although their lives are often left in the margins and their contributions erased.
It was local advocacy groups, such as DecrimNY, that pushed New York lawmakers to introduce the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act on June 10, which could make the state the first to largely decriminalize sex work.
“This organizing was always happening, it just wasn’t as lifted up in media,” Nina Luo, DecrimNY steering committee member and organizer with VOCAL-NY, told Refinery29. Luo also credits local politicians like New York State Sen. Alessandra Biaggi who won their 2018 elections with sex workers’ rights as part of their campaign platforms. Meanwhile, more established politicians like NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio (who announced his presidential bid in May to no fanfare) have spoken against decriminalization.
Where do the 2020 candidates stand on sex work decriminalization?
BuzzFeed News recently asked every 2020 candidate whether or not they think sex work should be decriminalized. Four Democrats — Sen. Kamala Harris, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, Sen. Cory Booker, and Mike Gravel — said “yes.” Refinery29 also reached out to several candidates; most did not respond.
Booker, the only candidate to respond to request for comment, stated that he supports decriminalization. “As a general matter, I don't believe that we should be criminalizing activity between consenting adults, and especially when doing so causes even more harm for those involved,” Booker said in a statement provided to Refinery29. “The real question here is what will make sex workers safer and reduce exploitation, and abundant evidence points to decriminalization."
Harris and Gabbard vocalized their support early on after announcing their presidential runs. “If a consenting adult wants to engage in sex work, that is their right, and it should not be a crime,” Gabbard told BuzzFeed in March. “All people should have autonomy over their bodies and their labor.” The Hawaiian representative said she would take action on a federal level to decriminalize.
“When you are talking about consenting adults,” Harris told The Root in February, “we should really consider that we can’t criminalize consensual behavior as long as no one is being harmed.” In an op-ed for the Washington Post, Melissa Gira Grant, who has covered the sex work beat for over a decade, pointed out the former prosecutor still supports criminalizing the purchase of sex. In the same interview, Harris stated that she advocates for the arrest of “the johns and the pimps” rather than sex workers. “Targeting customers is not a novel approach. It’s sometimes called the Nordic model or End Demand,” and some human rights groups say it still harms sex workers, Grant wrote.
After endorsing the pro-sex work Queens District Attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán, Sen. Elizabeth Warren told The Washington Post she is “open to decriminalization.” “Sex workers, like all workers, deserve autonomy, but they are particularly vulnerable to physical and financial abuse and hardship,” she said. “We need to make sure we don't undermine legal protections for the most vulnerable, including the millions of individuals who are victims of human trafficking each year." Since Sen. Bernie Sanders, who previously said he had no answer on decriminalization, also recently endorsed Cabán, the Post's Dave Weigel got an update from the Sanders camp, who said the candidate “believes that decriminalization is certainly something that should be considered."
A lesser-known candidate, former Sen. Gravel of Alaska, seemingly has the most progressive pro-sex worker platform. It calls for the repeal of FOSTA-SESTA and encourages states and municipalities to decriminalize all commercial sex work. Although DecrimNY says it will not endorse any candidates, Luo said, “Gravel’s responses indicate the most amount of consulting with people who trade sex, but we also haven’t seen real platforms put forward by others.”
Candidates will need to address their FOSTA-SESTA votes.
Every Democratic candidate who served in Congress last year — including Booker, Gabbard, Harris, Sanders, and Warren — voted in favor of FOSTA-SESTA, which aimed to curb online sex trafficking. Its passage was immediately met with scrutiny, and sex-trafficking experts said the law negatively impacts both sex workers and trafficking victims. After the seizure and shutdown of platforms like Backpage and Craigslist Personals, sex workers who would normally have screened clients online were suddenly unable to.
“Women now having to walk the streets just to get clients and being put in dangerous circumstances that they never had to deal with before. This bill is killing us,” Lexi, an escort from Florida, told HuffPost.
The candidates, especially those who have verbalized their support for sex workers, will likely be asked questions about their votes during the 2020 election cycle.
Many conflate sex work with sex trafficking.
The consequences of the passage of FOSTA-SESTA make the bill a prime example of the ways anti-trafficking work often ends up targeting consensual sex workers, whether unintentionally or not. One of the most common misconceptions about the industry, which sex workers and advocates are constantly trying to correct, is the conflation of consensual sex work with sex trafficking. While the former is an exercise of bodily autonomy, the latter is unwilling and/or coerced. Sex work advocates also point out that there is a difference between being sex-trafficked and engaging in survival sex — trading sex for basic survival needs like food and shelter.
According to research from the Yale Global Health Justice Partnership, there is a trend of painting sex workers as victims in courtrooms, while treating and prosecuting them as criminals. We saw this in the Robert Kraft case — the sting operation that got the New England Patriots owner caught for soliciting prostitution, which targeted massage parlors like Orchids of Asia (where Kraft went) under suspicion of sex trafficking. There was no evidence of sex trafficking, which prosecutors finally conceded. But not before they, along with police, told the media that human trafficking was an element in the case, which was widely reported.
Similar raids have happened recently in New York, with arrests in Long Island and massage parlor shutdowns in Queens, which targeted primarily migrant Chinese women engaging in sex work under the guise of curbing sex trafficking, while no human trafficking charges have been made. Instead, women have been locked out of their places of work or arrested for prostitution.
Sex work criminalization predominantly hurts marginalized communities.
As Zen said, policing and criminalization of sex work most harm marginalized communities of color, including transgender people, women of color, and undocumented immigrants. Studies show that criminalizing sex workers increases the likelihood they will experience physical or sexual violence by 300%. “In marginalized communities, such as Black and Brown people, transgender people, and other groups who are denied access to the same resources, education, and employment afforded to white people, for some, sex work is the only form of survival,” Alex Corona wrote in an op-ed for USA Today. “I, myself, found sex work because my employment opportunities were limited as a transgender Latina woman.”
Candidates will need to frame their policy platforms for sex work with other issues in mind, such as LGBTQ+ rights, poverty, and undocumented immigrants’ rights, Luo said, pointing out that sex work is an issue that “cuts across so many communities.” Trans and gender-nonconforming New Yorkers, for example, experience significant employment discrimination, which can lead to survival sex work, she added. Sex workers living with HIV also risk higher amounts of prosecution under laws that criminalize HIV transmission, exposure, and non-disclosure, according to research from the Center for HIV Law and Policy and the National LGBTQ Task Force.
“How do you support trans people with more housing and resources, while at the same time decreasing the amount of criminalization in their lives?” Luo said. “How do you stop the policing of sex work so that [migrant sex workers] no longer have prostitution records, which could trigger [deportation]? Tying all those issues together would indicate a deeper understanding of the issue, that I think will speak to community members who are directly impacted.”