Sex Workers’ Rights Are Officially a Mainstream Political Issue

2020 hopefuls like Kamala Harris and Cory Booker want to decriminalize sex work — but advocates are still skeptical

At the core of the years-long fight to decriminalize sex work in the United States lies a simple proposition: Those engaged in the trade should have the same right to work as any other person in America. “We are people who want dignity, who want humanity, who want to make money as we need to. We’re just providing services,” says Alex Corona, a board member of the California-based network Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA. “Any candidate who is not on the platform of decriminalizing sex work is not in a place to help sex workers.”

And for the first time, presidential candidates seem to be listening.

Several Democratic presidential contenders have voiced their support for removing at least some criminal penalties for selling and buying sex in the United States. (While sex work is regulated by local and state laws, the federal government has significantly contributed to criminalization through legislation and federal law enforcement agencies.)

Both Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard have called for fully decriminalizing the sale of sexual services. “The real question here is what will make sex workers safer and reduce exploitation,” Booker told BuzzFeed News in May, “and abundant evidence points to decriminalization.” That research shows that higher degrees of criminalization leads to sex workers facing more violence, more exploitation, and less access to health care and social services.

Sen. Kamala Harris was the first candidate this election cycle to talk about the issue; she supports criminalizing buyers and decriminalizing sellers — an approach commonly known as the “End Demand” or “Nordic model.” Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have said in recent months that they’re “open” to the idea of decriminalization, and former Housing Secretary Julián Castro has talked about asking law enforcement to stop prioritizing the enforcement of anti-prostitution laws. “I support de-prioritizing enforcement,” Castro said this month following a CNN forum on LGBTQ+ rights. He added: “I want to make sure that we’re not using the law in a way that’s making [vulnerable communities’] situation worse.”

Human rights organizations such as Amnesty International have called for the global decriminalization of sex work, but few nations have taken up their recommendations. In the United States, Nevada remains the only state where prostitution is legal, though only in counties with fewer than 700,000 residents. The industry is highly regulated.

For presidential candidates to even talk about sex workers as people worthy of government interventions beyond punishment and jail represents a massive shift. Sex workers interest groups have been around for decades but never before found any support for their ideas within the national political class. “[In the past], you could be a candidate and make a point by immediately shunning sex work and sex workers,” says Alexis Grenell, a political strategist at Pythia Public who works on the issue.

So, what changed? The movement of sex workers’ rights into the mainstream political conversation was triggered by two events: a new law that prompted a surge in activism, and the election of allies to state and local political offices in New York.

Many people point at the 2018 passage of FOSTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act) and SESTA (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) as a turning point.

“A single act of Congress destabilized the lives of people in every city across the country, literally overnight,” says Kate D’Adamo, a leading sex workers’ rights advocate. Decriminalization proponents say that while a lot of the commercial sex industry took place underground, it was nonetheless a relatively stable trade. But FOSTA/SESTA chucked away one of sex workers’ main harm reduction tactics: working on personal ad sites and marketplaces allowed them to vet their clients digitally.

We’ve been talked about, but now we’re being talked to.”

Now, many sex workers have been forced to return to an older, more dangerous model: street-based work or relying on pimps. “Closing down access to Backpage does not shut down the sex industry,” D’Adamo, the sex workers’ rights advocate, says. “People just move around.”

That shift combined with what critics call hyperpolicing of sex work, such as police stings disguised as “anti-trafficking” efforts, to cause widespread disruption. “This has made it worse for people who are among those who are the most vulnerable in the sex industry,” D’Adamo says, referring to workers from marginalized communities — including transgender people, women of color, and immigrants.

The activism that followed FOSTA’s passage found political support from women like socialist New York state Rep. Julia Salazar and state Assemblywoman Yuh-Line Niou, who introduced legislation this past summer to decriminalize sex work in the state of New York. “This is a reflection of the fact that in the Democratic Party, there’s rise of progressive women, particularly women of color, who are close to the issue,” Grenell says. “Their voices are not only prioritized, their voting power is also significant.”

Despite the increasing mainstream prominence of the sex workers’ rights conversation, many lawmakers still don’t understand the sex industry — or else actively oppose the advocates’ efforts. “When we talk about the horrors of human trafficking, we automatically connect that to sex work — but they are not the same thing,” says Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA’s Corona.

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who co-introduced SESTA, was recently asked whether she would ever support decriminalization. She replied that she was “concerned” about how it would impact young women — a widely shared fear among people outside the industry who believe keeping women from sex work has to be a priority along with reducing harm to those already in it. Combating trafficking has been one of Klobuchar’s legislative priorities, though she has used questionable statistics to make her case.

Those moderates who pay attention to the conversation argue that taking a pro-sex worker stance is a gamble at a time where the Democratic Party has to focus on defeating Trump in the 2020 election, and could alienate the suburban moderate women who were the key voters that helped lift Democrats to victory in 2018. “[The presidential candidates] have not done their homework yet,” says Toni Van Pelt, president of the National Organization for Women.

“They have fallen in line with everyone else who says they support this, but really don’t know and haven’t paid attention,” she adds. “This is the new wonderful thing, especially for liberal people who have this guilt trip going about everything that has happened on [impoverished] neighborhoods, instead of coming up with good solutions.”

Camille Rivera, partner at New Deal Strategies, a progressive political consultancy group based in New York, disagrees that betting on decriminalization could backfire. “I don’t necessarily think it’s politically risky. Like any other ideas in this country, it might look taboo in the beginning. When we talked about a $15 per hour minimum wage, people literally rolled their eyes. They told us, ‘This is never going to happen.’ But because of the pressure, it began an important conversation,” Rivera says. “Do I think decriminalization is going to be taboo in the general election? Of course. But we have to get out of the cloud that this is a moral conversation. This is about dignity at the workplace and what people define as work.”

Many other issues — marriage equality or the legalization of marijuana — also began with activism at the grassroots. “We’ve been talked about, but now we’re being talked to,” Corona says.

Nonetheless, D’Adamo remains skeptical of the extent to which candidates will truly commit to decriminalization. “A number of the candidates have said ‘decriminalization,’ but have left it undefined. Until they define what that means, especially when it comes to buyers and third parties, I’m not giving anyone credit for anything,” she says. “Julián Castro talked about de-prioritization or reduction in policing. Honestly I’m more excited hearing that than hearing someone who I know is pro-Nordic model say ‘decrim.’”

Advocates say there’s even more need to defend and protect these workers’ rights. “Every single [advocacy] campaign is really centering queer and trans people of color, impacted folks, the exact people who are the game changers in the decrim conversation,” D’Adamo says. “The long-term of this is not only about decriminalization. It’s about improving the lives of people who engage in commercial sex.”

For now, at least, they’d consider doing away with criminal penalties to be a sign of progress.

Journalist covering politics, elections, immigration, feminism, and more. Puertorriqueña.

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