One by one they leap into the fray. Who will be the one to win the primary, dethrone Trump, and save us all from the hell we’ve been living since 2016? For my community of sex workers, there are no heroes—each addition to the roster of fighters is another name on a long list of politicians who have actively hurt us in their journey of power. Like many marginalized communities, we’ve been living in hell since long before 2016.
Every congressional Democrat running in the 2020 presidential primary voted for SESTA, legislation that supporters promised would end an “online sex trafficking crisis” (which research has shown to be largely “based on myths”) by criminalizing sex-related online advertising—but that actually put sex workers at far more risk. Unfortunately, it appears that either our candidates didn’t take the time to actually read what they were voting on—much less understand the full impact SESTA would have on vulnerable sex workers and trafficking victims—or they simply didn’t care.
Bernie Sanders is the most recent candidate to announce his run, probably falling squarely in the “ignorant” crowd. I volunteered for him in 2016, but he, along with Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Amy Klobuchar, and Elizabeth Warren in the Senate, voted for SESTA. Representatives John Delaney and Tulsi Gabbard voted for FOSTA, the companion bill in the House. Don't look to any help from the Republicans. Trump signed SESTA into law with much fanfare.
It doesn’t stop there: Elizabeth Warren introduced a bill about banking and trafficking that has some sex workers worried about their bank accounts (I’ve lost one myself). Amy Klobuchar, who co-introduced SESTA and has been fact-checked by the Washington Post for her alarmist trafficking rhetoric, has made the subject one of her congressional priorities. And Kamala Harris has been involved in a long history of legal cases against online advertising for sex workers.
As Harris has said herself, "From my earliest days as a prosecutor, I’ve led the fight against Backpage and other sex trafficking platforms." (Harris, like many prohibitionists, consistently refers to all sex work as trafficking.) She supported SESTA soon after her successful senate run, and worked behind the scenes with tech companies on the bill’s language, despite sex worker organizers in her constituency (myself included) attempting to contact her office. My concerns were met with prewritten form responses.
Even if ignorance is the explanation, it’s not an excuse, and it’s definitely not enough to let this vote go unaddressed in the upcoming primary.
It’s now clear that sex worker organizers were right to warn that the removal of safe online advertising would literally create trafficking and hurt everyone in the sex trade, abuse victims and consensual workers alike. Studies we cited alongside our lived experiences showed that the availability of online advertising for sexual services decreased fatalities among women overall nationwide. We explained that workers using the internet could cut out middlemen (or pimps) and tend to their own safety, creating internet blacklists and even complex screening databases and matching systems. In a reality messier than prohibitionists like to acknowledge, we often use sex work to save our own lives, as a response to sudden homelessness after being kicked out by a parent because of our sexuality or to escape an abusive partner. Now, more people are working in less safe conditions, like on the street, or are having to rely on a manager or live with a client—situations advocates of the bill often describe as trafficking.
In addition, many people who work to combat actual instances of trafficking day to day have found that the political exercise of SESTA has had a direct negative impact on their ability to help people. Jean Bruggeman, the executive director at anti-trafficking organization Freedom Network USA, told me prosecutors are having a harder time finding the evidence they need to prosecute the worst offenders: “What I’ve heard from prosecutors is that a lot of online marketplaces were actually quite responsive to their subpoenas when trafficking did occur on their sites.”
In San Francisco, where Kamala Harris gestated her political career and started her campaign against Backpage’s sexual advertising section, police are reporting an alarming 170 percent increase in reports of human trafficking in the year since SESTA. It’s also worth noting that while Harris was focused on online sex ads as Attorney General, dozens of police officers from her prior jurisdiction were implicated in the trafficking of an underage girl.
You can’t be upset at people for being single-issue voters when that issue is their literal survival.
This isn’t a surprise to sex workers. Studies show that increased criminalization of sex work leads to increased violence, and abuse by police themselves is a daily reality for sex workers worldwide. Research published in the Journal of Crime and Justice shows that the most vulnerable often “stand the risk of being victimized by both the sex trafficking industry and the criminal justice system.” As sex worker advocate Phoenix Calida told me, criminalization backers often don’t understand how these laws play out, “They don’t realize that people who are trafficked get arrested. They don’t realize that migrant workers get deported.”
Supporting research results have lead to a long list of health and human rights groups recommending decriminalization policies. The build-up to the bill, however, ignored the empirical research by organizations like Amnesty International, instead focusing on celebrity campaigns and groundless scare numbers.
SESTA is hardly the first time that congress has passed legislation in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence against it. But even if ignorance is the explanation, it’s not an excuse, and it’s definitely not enough to let this vote go unaddressed in the upcoming primary. While it’s too early to tell how important of a political bloc sex workers are, we’re undeniably still people, and every person deserves basic dignity and human rights.
In the Democratic party, we should be judging our candidates not by how proudly they campaign as a hero on trafficking, but by how their actions actually impact people. As we pick someone to run against a con artist continuously reinventing his own reality, it’s imperative we look towards truth, science, and the real, hard work of solving complex societal issues.
A Democrat who believes in increased criminalization will sign the death warrant for countless sex workers.
We have to ask our candidates if their definition of justice is purely punitive—lock the “bad guys” up, take a victory lap, and walk away—or if it’s about actually helping as many people as possible. Do our candidates support carceral policies, or will they join us in prioritizing harm reduction?
At the very least, as impacted parties and as constituents, we deserve a response. In the past couple weeks, I’ve seen sex workers told to avoid criticizing candidates in the interests of “Democratic Unity.” But if you’re interested in social justice, you can’t be upset at people for being single-issue voters when that issue is their literal survival. If Democratic volunteers are worried about our complaints, they would be better served by making sure there is better policy around sex work in the Democratic platform than by asking sex workers to stop fighting for their survival. We are asking to stop the bleeding. Hell, we are asking for people to even acknowledge the wound.
This shouldn't be considered a high bar, and it’s not a far left purity test. A Democrat who believes in increased criminalization will sign the death warrant for countless sex workers. A Democrat willing to examine their mistakes and work towards decriminalization, decarceration, and destigmatization will help just as many people survive.
In the next few months, I anticipate many conversations with volunteers eager to get me involved with their candidate. I’ll be telling them this: “I’m glad you’re excited, but I won’t be able to give any time or money to a candidate until they’ve addressed their vote on SESTA, the impact of the bill, and their position on human rights for sex workers.”
I hope you’ll tell them the same, because we’re not going to get an answer without your help.