Some sex workers and their allies are feeling left behind by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren, who have both unveiled wide-reaching policy platforms on criminal justice reform this week that don’t include a single mention of decriminalizing sex work.
The senators are two of just five 2020 Democratic candidates with a public position on sex work. Though shortly after his campaign launch, Sanders said he didn’t “have an answer” to questions about whether he supports decriminalization, in June, a spokesperson for Sanders told VICE that he believes “decriminalization is certainly something that should be considered.” The statement came within 24 hours of a statement from Warren, who has said she’s “open” to the policy. It was the first time either of them expressed openness toward the “decriminalization” framework sex workers have been calling for. (Senators Kamala Harris and Cory Booker, as well as Representative Tulsi Gabbard, have said they support decriminalization outright.)
But as sex-work decriminalization becomes an issue quickly entering mainstream political discussion—including among presidential candidates—advocates for decriminalization say it’s not enough to simply be “open” to the idea or to consider it. They want to see concrete policies that take workers and advocates seriously as a constituency, and address the ways they say their community is under near-constant attack from the criminal justice system.
“Politicians are going to act like they’re supporting us, and learn to mouth the right rhetoric,” said Kristen DiAngelo, the executive director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) Sacramento. “But the fact that Sanders and Warren left decriminalization out of their plans tells me that they don't believe we’re a strong enough constituent base to worry about—we’re not a big enough of a concern them, or it would’ve been addressed.” (Neither the Sanders nor the Warren campaign have returned VICE’s requests for comment.)
DiAngelo said it's a mistake to underestimate the political influence of sex workers. The movement for sex-work decriminalization—which calls for an end to criminal penalties for both sellers and buyers of sex—has gained unprecedented momentum over the last year. In New York, a new coalition of current and former sex workers, trafficking survivors, and advocates lobbied for the introduction of three pieces of legislation in the statehouse, one of which spelled out a path toward full decriminalization in New York. Members of the D.C. council have also reintroduced decriminalization legislation, and feel optimistic that the public opinion on the issue has shifted enough that the bill might come to a vote by the end of the current legislative session.
“Sex workers are organizing in places and doing things that no one ever imagined could take place five years ago,” said Alex Andrews, the cofounder of SWOP Behind Bars, a Florida-based organization that advocates for incarcerated sex workers. "Everyone has skin in this game.”
But others say they understand why 2020 candidates have yet to tackle decriminalization head on. Decriminalizing sex work primarily involves repealing, amending, or passing state laws, which can make it difficult for a candidate for federal office to determine what role they would play in ending criminalization.
“For these campaigns, the challenge is understanding what to do on the federal level to really implement decriminalization in a meaningful way so it’s not just a talking point,” said Kate D’Adamo, a partner at Reframe Health and Justice, a consulting firm that develops policies to address social inequalities. “Figuring out what that looks like is going to be hard.”
Still, D’Adamo sees a few places to start. Every current member of the House and Senate running for president, Sanders and Warren included, has voted for FOSTA/SESTA, anti-trafficking legislation that sex workers say made it more dangerous to do their jobs. D’Adamo said a concrete discussion about what can be done on the federal level to decriminalize sex work could easily begin there, by changing their stance on the legislation and calling to reverse it.
And to their credit, D’Adamo said, Sanders and Warren are both already addressing many issues in their campaigns that affect sex workers’ lives, like attacks on undocumented immigrants and the LGBTQ community. She argues that if these candidates took the extra step to consider how sex workers might be affected by these attacks, it would add complexity and nuance to their existing policies, and make them more effective if they’re enacted.
“Until we have an intersectional understanding of these issues, we’re just going to be chipping away and taking little divots out of the issue...rather than getting to the root of them,” D’Adamo said.
For groups and individuals advocating for the rights and safety of people in the sex trade, it’s particularly frustrating for sex workers to be left out of discussions around criminal justice reform. Many of the criminal justice issues Sanders and Warren promise to remedy—racial profiling, “broken windows” policing, and abusive police practices, to name a few—can disproportionately impact sex workers, who are more likely to be people of color and members of the LGBTQ community.
“The over-policing of marginalized communities has always had a heightened impact on sex workers,” Andrews said.
One of the state-level criminal statutes recent efforts have focused on, for example, is a section of the penal code that makes it a crime to “loiter for the purposes of prostitution.” Advocates have dubbed this law the “walking while trans ban,” because they say it encourages police officers to target trans women, and particularly trans women of color, simply for being in public. And following a major victory in California, where a new law will ban the use of condoms as evidence of sex work, decriminalization organizers say their next mission is to end the police practice of coercing sex workers into having sex with officers in exchange for avoiding arrest—another form of abuse that affects trans people of color most.
“The kinds of police violence sex workers experience is largely sexual assault and sexual violence,” said Audacia Ray, a director at the Anti-Violence Project and member of Decrim NY's steering committee. “That really needed to be highlighted.”
D’Adamo too agreed that it would be powerful to hear a 2020 candidate discuss sex work more openly, even if it’s just to admit that they still have a lot of learning to do. “Presidential candidates set a tone: for the party, for the states, and for municipalities,” she said. “If you’re going to be a leader in this country, you don’t wait until something is politically solvent. You’re brave enough to say those things out loud first.”
“If you’re going to be a leader in this country, you don’t wait until something is politically solvent. You’re brave enough to say those things out loud first.”
Many are still skeptical about politicians’ desire to get serious about decriminalization: DiAngelo said presidential candidates are going to do what they need to do to win their party’s nomination, and eventually, the White House. But when she considers what it would mean for one of the 2020 contenders to, as D’Adamo said, take a decisive stand for decriminalization, DiAngelo gets hopeful.
“It would be huge,” DiAngelo said. “It would add power and validity to the fact that we’re a labor force and beginning to be recognized as such. Even if the candidate didn’t win—oh my god, we’d go crazy.”
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