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The Intercept, March 29, 2019

There isn’t much to recommend the current iteration of American presidential elections, which now begin some two years before the day voters go to the polls. One upside, though, is that it opens up policy conversations that are usually closed off. The result is the beginning of a public conversation about decriminalizing sex work.

Three Democratic contenders for the 2020 presidential nomination — Sens. Kamala Harris and Bernie Sanders and Rep. Tulsi Gabbard — have weighed in on the rights of sex workers. Harris and Gabbard have said they support the decriminalization of sex work, while Sanders was noncommittal in his response. The mere fact that presidential candidates are being asked about sex work, however, represents a shift in the public discourse on the sex work community. Yet there’s a ways to go: The Intercept reached out to the other congressional Democrats running for president — Sens. Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren, and former Rep. Beto O’Rourke — and got no response.

The sex workers’ rights movement was galvanized in 2018 in reaction to the passage of legislation known as SESTA-FOSTA, which purported to curb sex trafficking by holding online platforms legally liable for any content found to “knowingly assist, facilitate, or support sex trafficking.” All congressional Democrats running for president voted for SESTA-FOSTA.

Passage of the law resulted in the shutdown of prominent personal ad sites and marketplaces, forcing sex workers to resort to working on the streets or with pimps. It also led sex workers, who often feel abandoned by the progressive left, to organize and ramp up their activism. The urgency of the situation is pushing advocates to define what they actually mean by “decriminalization” and to push for policy changes at state, local, and national levels. The organizing has produced the most results in New York, where activists working with lawmakers have launched a campaign to decriminalize sex work in the state, and it’s also created tensions around the Democratic Socialists of America’s endorsement of Sanders for president.

“[The endorsement process] wasn’t looking for feedback. It was looking to tick a box and say DSA is endorsing,” said Kim Lehmkuhl, a member of Metro D.C. DSA. “That puts members who belong to marginalized communities, or who wanna be in solidarity with them, in a position where we’re now doing this very Democratic Party, liberal thing of throwing our comrades under the bus for political expediency. And that feels really gross and bad, and especially a year in advance, it seems not defensible to me.”

Politicians rarely address the underground industry, despite its intersection with criminal justice reform, labor rights, immigration, LGBTQ issues, and racial justice. When sex work — which refers to the willing exchange of money or goods for sexual labor, including sex-adjacent industry workers like pornography actors, erotic dancers, and webcam models — is discussed on the national level, it’s often conflated with sex trafficking, which involves coercing someone into sex work through violence or other means. This false comparison results from a refusal to recognize sex work as a labor issue.

The public seems to favor moving toward decriminalization, according to a recent poll, though it’s by no means a majority view. The survey, conducted by Data for Progress in partnership with YouGov Blue, found that the public favors sex work decriminalization 41 percent to 35 percent, while Democrats support it 49 percent to 23 percent.

Sex workers’ rights advocates are optimistic about the fact that policy questions about the underground industry are being asked of candidates, even if there’s a long way to go to secure rights and protections for people who trade sex. “I’ve never seen anything like this before, as far as a policy consideration,” said Kate D’Adamo, a longtime sex workers’ rights advocate and partner with Reframe Health and Justice.

Harris, a former prosecutor who has been criticized for years by activists for hostility toward sex workers, appears to be the first mainstream presidential candidate to have called for the decriminalization of sex work.

“I do not believe that anybody who hurts another human being or profits off of their exploitation should be admonished or free of criminal prosecution,” Harris said in a recent interview with The Root. “But when you are talking about consenting adults, I think that you know, yes, we should really consider that we can’t criminalize consensual behavior as long as no one is being harmed.”

“I was advocating [15 years ago] that we have to stop arresting these prostitutes and start going after the johns and the pimps, because we were criminalizing the women,” Harris added.

The statements were remarkable coming from a politician whose record includes opposition to a ballot initiative meant to end prostitution arrests, known as Proposition K, as San Francisco’s district attorney, as well as her role, as California attorney general, in shutting down websites sex workers used for advertisements and to safely screen clients, like

The sex work community, however, is skeptical of Harris’s shift, and in particular of her position that she supports an increased crackdown on “johns,” a term for the clients of sex workers. Nina Luo, a steering committee member of Decrim NY, a New York-based coalition that seeks to decriminalize sex work, said the California senator’s answer worries advocates, who have worked for several decades to build political education around decriminalization. What the candidate described, Luo said, is the Nordic model, which shifts the burden of incarceration to clients instead. For activists, true decriminalization is the removal of criminal penalties and interactions with the criminal justice system for any sex trade between adults, including patrons.

“That was incredibly disappointing, because that is a lot of people’s first interaction with decrim and it feels like a term that a lot of people have spent their lives working on is being co-opted,” Luo said. “I’d love to just see a little more nuanced discussion of just decrim versus legalization versus the Nordic model and why people trade sex and what they want.” ...
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