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Here's Where the 2020 Democrats Stand on Sex Work

A guide to how candidates like Bernie Sanders to Joe Biden view the issue.

by Rex Santus
Jun 11 2019, 4:01pm

2020 Democrats are practically tripping over each other to show solidarity on picket lines and win the favor of union leaders and rank-and-file workers, but there’s one big labor issue that these presidential hopefuls would rather not talk about: sex work.

Even those who've made labor their hallmark issue — like front-runners Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders — have remained mostly mum about whether sex work should be a crime.

One area where several candidates have made their views known is FOSTA-SESTA, the controversial set of laws that censors and deletes sex work advertisements on websites like Craigslist and Backpage—every lawmaker and ex-lawmaker who was able to vote on these laws voted in favor. But, sex workers, broadly speaking, oppose the bills.

While proponents of the laws say they're meant to prevent trafficking, opponents say FOSTA-SESTA undermines sex workers’ ability to do their jobs safely, and there’s plenty of research and evidence to show that platforms like Craigslist actually keep sex workers safer than having to take their work underground or to the streets.

To try and clear things up regarding where 2020 Dems stand on this issue, here’s a guide to what the high-polling candidates (as well as those in Congress) are saying about sex work. Specifically: Do they support FOSTA-SESTA (the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, respectively), and do they believe sex workers should be arrested for their work?

Candidates in the Senate

Bernie Sanders

FOSTA-SESTA: Supports

Decriminalization: Unclear

Sanders is campaigning heavily on labor solidarity. To give just a few examples: He publicly shamed Walmart’s shareholders for paying workers “starvation wages” and became the first presidential candidate in history to recognize a staff union. The famous progressive, however, has been notably more tepid about supporting sex workers. He unambiguously dodged a question about whether sex work should be decriminalized during a recent interview with The Breakfast Club. “That’s a good question, and I don’t have an answer for that,” he said.

Elizabeth Warren

FOSTA-SESTA: Supports

Decriminalization: Unclear

Warren has not publicly called for sex work decriminalization and did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment. She did, however, introduce a proposal that sought to crack down on the bank accounts of traffickers that advocates say could result in sex workers themselves losing their accounts.

Kamala Harris

FOSTA-SESTA: Supports

Decriminalization: Supports

Harris has a somewhat infamous record when it comes to sex work. She once gloated that she has, from her earliest days as a prosecutor, “led the fight against Backpage and other sex trafficking platforms.” But as pressure has grown for candidates to speak out about sex worker rights, Harris has softened her rhetoric — and even came out in support of decriminalization.

“There is an ecosystem around [sex work] that includes crimes that harm people, and for those issues I do not think that anyone who hurts another human being, or profits off of their exploitation, should be free of criminal prosecution,” Harris said in February to The Root. “But when you’re talking about consensual adults, I think that, yes, we should really consider that we can’t criminalize consensual behavior as long as no one is being harmed. But, at the point that anyone is being harmed or exploited, we have to understand that’s a different matter.”

Cory Booker

FOSTA-SESTA: Supports

Decriminalization: Supports

Although he voted for FOSTA-SESTA, Booker told BuzzFeed News last month that he unequivocally supports decriminalization.

“Yes, sex work should be decriminalized,” Booker said.

Kirsten Gillibrand

FOSTA-SESTA: Supports

Decriminalization: Unclear

Gillibrand’s campaign did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.

Amy Klobuchar

FOSTA-SESTA: Supports

Decriminalization: Unclear

Klobuchar was not just a supporter of FOSTA-SESTA in the Senate, she was a co-sponsor of the bill, and the centrist senator is known for her exaggerated rhetoric about sex trafficking. She has not commented publicly about decriminalization and did not respond to VICE News’ numerous requests for comment.

Michael Bennet

FOSTA-SESTA: Supports

Decriminalization: Unclear

Bennet’s campaign did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.

Candidates in the House

Tulsi Gabbard

FOSTA-SESTA: Supports

Decriminalization: Supports

Gabbard, despite voting for FOSTA-SESTA, told BuzzFeed that she supports decriminalization — and she even acknowledged that sex work is a labor issue.

“If a consenting adult wants to engage in sex work, that is their right, and it should not be a crime,” Gabbard, a representative from Hawaii, told BuzzFeed. “All people should have autonomy over their bodies and their labor.”

Seth Moulton

FOSTA-SESTA: Supports

Decriminalization: It’s complicated

Moulton, a representative from Massachusetts, voted for FOSTA-SESTA, but he told BuzzFeed that he supports decriminalization — only, he thinks people who purchase sex workers’ services should face big criminal penalties.

“Yes, sex work needs to be decriminalized, but [anyone] soliciting prostitution should face stiff criminal penalties,” Moulton told BuzzFeed. “By focusing on the criminalization of soliciting prostitution, we would keep the market for sex work small while helping sex workers.”

Eric Swalwell

FOSTA-SESTA: Supports

Decriminalization: Unclear

Swalwell, a representative from Texas, has not gone on the record about sex work, and an aide indicated to VICE News that he probably wouldn’t any time soon.

“If Eric does comment on sex work, we’ll be sure to get back to you about that,” the Swalwell staffer said.

Candidates not in Congress

Joe Biden

FOSTA-SESTA: Unclear

Decriminalization: Unclear

Former vice president and current 2020 frontrunner Joe Biden, who’s courting big union leaders for endorsements as his major campaign strategy, hasn’t touched the issue of sex work, and didn’t respond to VICE News’ request for comment. The Obama administration, however, was not the most friendly to sex workers. Obama’s Justice Department, for example, instituted Operation Choke Point in 2013, which some porn performers said resulted in their bank accounts being shut down. The initiative was supposed to discourage banks from working with payday lenders and gun retailers but also listed the pornography industry as “high risk.” (The initiative was scrapped in 2018.)

Pete Buttigieg

FOSTA-SESTA: Unclear

Decriminalization: Unclear

Mayor Pete seems to be all-around clueless about FOSTA-SESTA, at least when he’s commented publicly, but he’s said it seems like a bad idea.

“It doesn’t sound like a good idea,” he told Out in February. “But I need to get more educated on it.”

As for decriminalization, Buttigieg has not specifically stated his support for it, but he has indicated that he believes sex workers deserve his — as well as the broader religious left’s — support.

“[Religion] teaches us to reach out to others, to humble ourselves, to take care of others,” Buttigieg said on “Morning Joe” in March. “The immigrant, the prisoner, and, frankly, the sex worker — literally! Jesus spends his time with sex workers, among others, lepers.”

Buttigieg’s spokeswoman did not return a phone call from VICE News.

Beto O’Rourke

FOSTA-SESTA: Supports

Decriminalization: Unclear

O’Rourke is no longer a member of the House, but he voted in favor of FOSTA-SESTA while he was a lawmaker. His presidential campaign did not immediately respond to VICE News’ questions about decriminalization and whether O’Rourke stood by his vote.

Mike Gravel

FOSTA-SESTA: Opposes

Decriminalization: Supports

Gravel, the former Alaska senator who’s made a name for himself in 2020 with a standout social-media strategy involving teenagers, stands out in another big way. He is the only 2020 candidate who is on the record in total opposition to FOSTA-SESTA. He even said that the laws endanger the lives of sex workers.

“Sex workers are workers, and they deserve the dignity and respect that every worker deserves,” he tweeted in May. “For too long, we've denied them that. It's time to repeal SESTA/FOSTA and decriminalize sex work. Sex workers, not politicians, should lead the way in crafting sex work policy.”

Andrew Yang

FOSTA-SESTA: Unclear

Decriminalization: Unclear

Yang’s campaign did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.

Julian Castro

FOSTA-SESTA: Unclear

Decriminalization: Unclear

Castro’s campaign did not respond to VICE News’ request for comment.

Cover Image: Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris speaks during the Iowa Democratic Party's Hall of Fame Celebration, Sunday, June 9, 2019, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)