Less than 24 hours after Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren said she would be "open" to decriminalizing sex work, the Bernie Sanders campaign told VICE the candidate believes it's a policy that "should be considered."
"Bernie believes that decriminalization is certainly something that should be considered," Deputy Communications Director Sarah Ford said in an email Thursday morning. "Other countries have done this and it has shown to make the lives of sex workers safer."
In May, Sanders said he would consider "legalizing prostitution," but this is the first time he's used the "decriminalization" framework sex workers themselves are advocating for. When asked in March about his thoughts on the matter, he told hosts of the radio show The Breakfast Club, "That's a good question and I don't have an answer for that."
Both Warren and Sanders have both endorsed Queens district attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán, who has made sex work decriminalization core to her campaign. If elected, Cabán has said she wouldn't prosecute sex workers or their clients, nor would she prosecute anyone charged with "promoting prostitution."
“This is literally how they put food on their tables,” Cabán said at a debate last week.
Members of Decrim NY, a coalition made up of sex workers, trafficking survivors, and their allies, told VICE they feel their cause is buoyed by the new statements from Warren and Sanders, both frontrunners in the 2020 Democratic race.
But they're still looking for specifics from candidates, especially considering that some of the Democratic contenders who have so far spoken out in support of decriminalizing sex work—or at least have said they would consider the idea—voted for FOSTA/SESTA, federal anti-trafficking legislation that sex workers said made it more dangerous to do their jobs.
Advocates want to see politicians continue to educate themselves about the difference between sex work and sex trafficking, and acknowledge that decriminalization would not exacerbate trafficking.
"I feel encouraged by Elizabeth Warren’s language affirming sex workers, and I hope that we’ll see this statement backed by a new approach," said Jessica Raven, a member of Decrim NY's steering committee. "Specifically, I want to see her keep engaging in dialogue with people in the sex trade so she can better understand that sex workers and trafficking survivors are not two distinct communities—those most likely to be exploited or trafficked in the sex trade are people who are already working in the sex trade, and criminalization hurts all of us."
Audacia Ray, another member of Decrim NY's steering committee, said it's important to push the conversation further and talk about what decriminalizing sex work "actually looks like."
"It must include decriminalizing clients and workers collaborating for safety," Ray said. "We need to ensure alignment around what decrim actually is."
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Correction 6/20/2019: This story has been updated to reflect the fact that Sanders discussed his stance on prostitution in May with NPR.