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Sex-Work Decriminalization Is Becoming an Issue For 2020

Presidential candidates are being asked about sex-worker rights — can they come up with good answers?

FOLEY SQUARE, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2019/02/25: LGBTQ+, immigrant rights, harm reduction and criminal justice reform groups, led by people who trade sex, launched 20+ organization coalition, Decrim NY, to decriminalize and decarcerate the sex trades in New York city and state. Senate Labor Committee Chair Ramos and Womens Health Committee Chair Salazar and Assembly Health Committee Chair Gottfried announced intention to introduce comprehensive decriminalization bill this session. (Photo by Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Since anti-trafficking bill FOSTA-SESTA passed, sex-worker rights has increasingly become part of the national conversation.

Erik McGregor/Pacific Press/LightRocket/Getty Images

To put it in standard public relations parlance, sex-work decriminalization is having something of a moment. New York lawmakers Julia Salazar and Jessica Ramos have announced plans to introduce a bill making New York the first state to decriminalize sex work, and last month a California senator introduced a bill making it easier for sex workers to report violent crimes. And the country’s most famous sex worker, Stormy Daniels, has in part used her new platform as a way to advance the cause, tweeting about sex workers’ rights issues and speaking at multiple sex workers’ rights rallies across the country.

Given the newfound visibility of sex workers’ rights, and the overlap the movement has with women’s rights and workers’ rights as a whole, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are in the position of having to address an issue that has previously been on the margins of the national conversation. But it’s unclear how many of them plan to do that.

Case in point: Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who, in a recent interview with The Breakfast Club, was asked whether he supported sex work decriminalization. “That’s a good question and I don’t have an answer for that,” he said.

Sanders’ response was telling, in part because he is not the first 2020 Democratic candidate to be asked about this issue. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), a former prosecutor who previously opposed a 2008 measure to decriminalize prostitution in San Francisco, also recently made headlines for seemingly reversing her stance on the decriminalization question. “I think so. I do,” the former prosecutor replied when asked in an interview with the Root if sex work should be decriminalized, adding that, “on the issue of providing a safe place for sex workers — I am a huge advocate for that, always have been.”

Puzzlingly, in the same interview, Harris also managed to double down on her support of SESTA/FOSTA, a bill that sex-workers called out as discriminatory and potentially harmful. “The people who were running Backpage basically thumbed their nose at us and kept doing it, making money off of the sale of youth, and so I called for them to be shut down,” she said, referring to Backpage.com, a website that hosted sex-worker classifieds. “And I have no regrets about that.” And while many sex-workers’ rights advocates are far from convinced by her response for this reason, the mere fact that both Sanders and Harris are being asked about decriminalization on the national stage speaks volumes, says Nina Luo, a member of the steering committee for Decrim NY, the coalition pushing for sex work to be decriminalized in New York state. “It’s becoming a national discussion,” she says, pointing out that “journalists pick these questions because…they know more people are talking about this issue.”

Harris’s about-face on the issue of decriminalization speaks volumes about the increasing prominence of sex workers’ rights on the national stage, says Jessie Sage, a sex columnist for the Pittsburgh City Paper, an organizer with the advocacy group SWOP Pittsburgh and a cohost of the Peepshow Podcast, which covers the sex industry. “The sex work community doesn’t trust Harris or have a clear sense of what she means by [her stated support of decriminalization],” Sage says. “But I do think that the fact that she would find it politically advantageous to say this is important, and tells us something about changing attitudes.” And these changing attitudes are supported by hard numbers: a 2016 Marist College poll found that 49 percent of Americans supported sex work being legal, while six out of 10 respondents said they opposed prosecution of those arrested for sex work.

So why is sex work decriminalization — a movement that activists have been working on for decades — finally gaining national attention now? And will Democratic candidates finally feel emboldened to take a public stance in favor of decriminalization?

A major driving force behind this increased visibility has been the backlash to SESTA/FOSTA, a controversial piece of legislation that was intended to combat sex trafficking on websites like Backpage. While the bill was ostensibly intended to protect women from being trafficked against their will, many sex workers have argued that it ultimately had the opposite effect. “For community members, many of them had to just go back to the streets to do sex work, which is not as safe,” says Cecilia Gentili, a former sex worker and member of the steering committee for DecrimNY. 

Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris

Bernie Sanders has said that he doesn’t have a stance on decriminalizing sex work; Kamala Harris has come out in support. Photo credit: Pete Marovich/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock, Elise Amendola/AP/REX/Shutterstock

Although the bill may have contributed to sex work being driven underground, Sage believes that it had the unintended effect of bringing sex workers’ rights to the mainstream. “I think that in the wake of FOSTA-SESTA, sex workers have mobilized and organized in ways that are unprecedented,” she said. “Such organizing is changing the national discourse around sex workers and pushing sex workers right onto the center stage. As a result, major publications are now printing stories about the impact of harmful legislation on sex work communities, and are also publishing pieces by sex worker writers themselves. This will make it very difficult for candidates to ignore addressing sex worker issues as they campaign.”

The introduction of Daniels onto the national stage may also have helped usher sex workers’ rights into the public discourse, especially in light of how vocal she has been about promoting sex workers’ rights in the media. Most recently, Daniels penned an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in opposition to California’s Dynamex ruling, which she argued undermined the rights of exotic dancers to be treated as independent contractors — an issue that arguably never would have gotten mainstream attention without Daniels’ platform. “I don’t think people are conscious of the effect of [Daniels on the sex workers’ rights] narrative,” Gentili says. “Stormy is someone who works in the sex industry. [Her power] is somehow a symbol to what the sex industry is.”

Even with all of this newfound attention on the sex workers’ rights movement, Sanders’ remarks to The Breakfast Club indicate that there is still some level of apprehension associated with aligning oneself with such a taboo subject. “I think he deems it to be politically risky,” Luo says. Gentili agrees: “[The thinking is], ‘If we’re gonna get all the Long Island housewives’ votes by not talking about sex work, then lets do it,’ and that’s fucked up. It is time for candidates to understand that avoiding communities to win over other communities is not gonna get them anywhere.” 

But for former sex workers like Gentili, the mere fact that sex work is being openly discussed in public represents a huge shift in the national discourse. “Ten years ago I was coming out of jail for being detained for sex work, and I always thought, ‘This is not right,'” she says. “I never imagined we would be having this conversation about sex work, and that’s a wonderful thing.”

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