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Decriminalizing Sex Work Is Popular Among Democrats And Independents

New polling shows a majority of American voters support decriminalizing sex work.

Nearly half of voters surveyed supported ending the policing of sex work and a majority said they somewhat or strongly support decriminalization, according to a January poll administered by Data For Progress and YouGov Blue.

Sixty-four percent of Democrats, 55 percent of independents, and 37 percent of Republicans indicated they support decriminalization.

In particular, Democrats and independents in suburban areas, as well as young people across the ideological spectrum, showed solid support for such reform.

A comprehensive approach to decriminalization would involve amending laws that criminalize sex workers, their clients, and their support networks, including laws that permit police profiling. It also means providing labor protections and other necessary services to sex workers.

None of the Democrats currently running for the presidential nomination have claimed the mantle of decriminalization. This is unfortunate not only because it is the right thing to do but also because their base and target voters support it overwhelmingly.

Among the candidates vying to challenge President Donald Trump for the White House in 2020, all either supported the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) in April 2018—or the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA)—or they have not made their positions clear.

The controversial law claimed to want to help “victims of sex trafficking.” Instead, it pushed sex workers off the internet and back onto the street, increasing their vulnerability to poverty and violence.

As of this writing, an aggregate of national polls show former Vice President Joe Biden, Senator Bernie Sanders, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and Senator Elizabeth Warren as the top four contenders for the nomination.

Michael Bloomberg and Joe Biden are unlikely to support decriminalization. In fact, it would not be unreasonable to assume they might even ramp-up criminalization.

Bloomberg was the only candidate to receive an “F” grade from Decriminalize Sex Work. The organization cited his “degrading public remarks and punitive policies,” as well as that showed a spike in arrests for prostitution almost exclusively among Black sex workers during his tenure as mayor of New York City.

Biden told voters in Nevada last year that he would not support decriminalization, though he would not interfere in state regulation.

Meanwhile, Sanders and Warren have run on platforms emphasizing labor rights, yet both voted for the legislation. Warren, in particular, has co-sponsored “anti-trafficking” legislation with Senator Marco Rubio that advocates say could cause sex workers to lose access to their bank accounts.

While decriminalization’s absence is disappointing for campaigns that say they are focused on racial, gender, ability, and class oppression (all of which intersect with sex work), there is hope that both candidates may come around.

At the end of 2019, Sanders and Warren signed on to a bill introduced by Representative Ro Khanna (CA-17) that would study the efficacy of SESTA-FOSTA and its impact on sex work.

Warren and Sanders told reporters they were considering decriminalization after backing Tiffany Cabán’s campaign for Queens district attorney, but it remains to be seen whether they actually will declare support.

Sex Work For Survival

The polling is part of a new report called “Decriminalizing Survival.” Written by Data For Progress fellow Nina Luo in partnership with several groups that support sex worker rights, it provides a comprehensive analysis of sex work and why decriminalization is the best path for safety, stability, and justice for those engaged in it.

Sex work is a highly stigmatized and criminalized form of labor. Criminalization is not easy to disassemble because it is not a result of one law or policy; it is the product of a patchwork of legislation, institutions, and actors in government.

“With other forms of labor, people trade sex for reasons that exist on a spectrum of choice, circumstance, and coercion,” the report states.

Most people trade sex for survival because they have been excluded from the formal economy due to discrimination.

The precarity of sex work, enhanced by stigma and criminalization, means sex workers who experience traumatic sexual violence often have little-to-no recourse or support.

“I started [sex work] when I was 15 because I had a child and I needed to pay for all kinds of expenses to take care of my child—diapers, clothes, transportation, toys, doctors appointments,” said Tamika Spellman. She’s the Advocacy Director for HIPS, an organization working to end the policing and criminalization of trans people.

When Spellman was 20 years old during the Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell era, she joined the military, where she was sexually assaulted. When she tried to report it, she was interrogated by her supervisor for being gay and discharged from the military. She said she’s been raped by police in multiple cities to avoid going to jail.

“There were times I tried to stop doing sex work and tried to just work a straight job, but bills would start piling up again,” Spellman added. She faced gender discrimination, like when she worked at McDonald’s but was refused certifications, raises, and promotions.

Sex work helped Spellman survive during periods of homelessness and unemployment.

“This is only the second time in my life where I’ve been paid enough at a job, where I don’t need to do sex work to survive,” Spellman said. “From 1988 to now, that’s more than 30 years apart between times when I’ve had a living wage job in my life.”

Sex work criminalization spans jurisdictions and is comprised of a multitude of charges, including: prostitution, soliciting, promoting prostitution, pandering, brothel-keeping, and even permitting or loitering for the purposes of prostitution.

According to the report, as a result, “Anyone who lives with, works with, or provides services to sex workers is vulnerable to criminalization.”

That criminalization also “entirely discredits them as ‘victims’ so that they are often not believed when reporting rape or violence to the police.”

Sex work policing is accurately described as “stop-and-frisk policing for women and trans and gender non-conforming communities.” Loitering statutes empower police to “profile, harass, and arrest women of color, especially trans women of color, for existing in public spaces even when they’re not engaging in sex work.”

The ensuing criminal records “prevent people from accessing housing and employment and further entrap people in cycles of poverty and isolation.”

Bianey Garcia, the TGNCIQ Justice Organizer for Make The Road, said they were arrested four times for prostitution. “Only once was I actually doing sex work. The other three arrests were just profiling because I’m a trans woman.”

“One time, I was walking and holding hands with my boyfriend and the police arrested me. Another time, my friends and I were waiting for some of our other friends outside a bar and two police officers jumped out of a van, pushed our faces against the wall, and searched our purses. They found condoms, which was apparently enough for them to charge us with loitering for the purposes of prostitution.”

“It’s ridiculous that people have to carry their marriage certificates with them to prove that the person walking next to them is not a client,” Garcia asserted. “It’s ridiculous that trans women can’t occupy public space without getting arrested and sent to jail.”

Debunking Popular Sex Work Reforms

The report debunks the strategies behind some of the more popular responses to sex work.

“Anti-trafficking” campaigns, for example, have become a common subterfuge for policing voluntary sex work in recent years.

Forced sexual exploitation makes up only 20 percent of trafficking cases and most people who sell sex are not trafficked. Yet law enforcement use it to justify sting operations, busts, and mass arrests of sex workers while targeting relatively few operations that can be accurately described as trafficking.

In reality, decriminalization is the best anti-sex trafficking policy because it allows sex workers to report abuse and exploitation. It breaks down the false dichotomy between sex worker and survivor, and doesn’t disrupt support networks and communities that provide safety.

By diminishing stigma and generating economic and social stability, it reduces the vulnerability upon which real sex traffickers prey.

Coercive diversion programs are another popular approach. Typically, a small number of arrestees are offered participation in diversion programs. Even fewer “graduate” and benefit from them. But that participation is often grueling and punitive, and constitutes a different shade of criminalization.

For example, in New York’s Human Trafficking Intervention Courts, “People experience arrest, jail, arraignment, vulnerability to ICE, and then several months to years of court appointments and mandatory counseling sessions.”

Layleen Polanco Xtravangza, a Black trans sex worker, died in solitary confinement on Rikers Island while held on a $500 bail for missing HTIC appointments.

Another popular approach known as the Nordic Model targets demand but also works to “make the sex industry so dangerous and violent that it ends.”

Decriminalization, on the other hand, would liberate cisgender and trans women and gender-nonconforming people from the jaws of the criminal legal system.

“Decriminalization does not call for arrest-based diversion programs or courts, increased investment in ‘community-based policing’ of sex work, rescue raids, or increases in prosecutor budgets, discretionary power, or staff size,” the report proclaims.

“[It] does not call for repealing one prostitution-related statute while maintaining or building a complex web of laws that criminalize sex workers, their clients, and anyone who lives or works with sex workers,” the report further contends “Decriminalization does not call for creating a legal system of sex work that is so restrictive that it excludes and still criminalize the vast majority of participants.”

A Lynchpin Of Oppressions

Sex worker criminalization is, in many ways, a lynchpin of oppression disproportionately harming marginalized communities. As it stands, so many impacted people turn to the informal economy for survival because of discrimination. And so many of those individuals suffer police contact and surveillance as a result.

Decriminalization is, therefore, an intersectional strategy that advances racial justice, LGBTQ+ justice, gender equity, immigrant rights, labor rights, and health care rights.

Criminalization “interferes with efforts to prevent and treat HIV/AIDS and other health conditions in several ways.” Stigma prevents sex workers from accessing and being transparent with health care providers. And it fuels the overdose crisis because many sex workers use opioids, disrupting access to treatment and harm reduction strategies.

Sex workers’ rights are workers’ rights. Without them, sex workers rely on whisper networks and other methods of community support instead. But those are also currently criminalized as enabling or promoting prostitution.

It stands to reason that if the Democratic Party sees itself as a party of justice for workers and marginalized people then supporting sex work decriminalization would go a long way toward advancing those struggles.

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Brian Sonenstein

Brian Sonenstein

Publishing Editor at Shadowproof and columnist at Prison Protest.