Rights, not rescue

Sex Work Is the World’s Oldest Profession. Are Americans Finally Ready to Decriminalize?

Support for decriminalizing sex work has boomed ahead of the 2020 elections. Here, we dig into indications that “the country is ready to have this conversation.”

In 2018, sex worker, educator, and writer Elle Stanger felt in her gut that the controversial sex-trafficking bill package—Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA)—would pass.

“Something is about to happen and this is going to change things,” Stanger recalls telling her friends before the legislation was signed into law.

The authors of SESTA-FOSTA claim they intended to curb sex trafficking. But the bill package—which further criminalizes consensual sex work by targeting websites where users discuss sex work and related topics—has accomplished little more than making the trade much more dangerous for people like Stanger, and inadvertently pushing sex workers into the streets by preventing them from communicating online. However, the legislation had another unintended consequence: Making the decriminalization of sex work an electoral issue.

Sex worker, educator, and writer Elle Stanger. Photos courtesy of Elle Stanger.

In January, Data for Progress released a poll showing that the majority of American voters (at 52 percent) now support decriminalizing sex work. This is a 7 percent increase from Data for Progress’s last poll, where 45 percent of voters indicated support for decriminalization. Young people — across the political spectrum — are overwhelmingly supportive, with two-thirds of voters ages 18-44 favoring decriminalization. Another poll conducted by Public Policy Polling found that more than half of Washington, D.C. voters “think that prostitution between consenting adults should be legal,” according to a press release from Decriminalize Sex Work (DSW).

“SESTA-FOSTA really devastated people’s lives and a lot of people did organizing against that, started local decrim campaigns, and raised sex work as an issue in electoral campaigns,” Nina Luo, author of Data for Progress’s report, tells Supermaker in a phone call. “When an issue is not well-known, and you move to a lot of public education on it, you are going to see polling shift—and shift positively.”

“SESTA-FOSTA really devastated people’s lives.”

Justice Rivera, a consultant with Reframe Health and Justice — one of many partner organizations on Data for Progress’s report — agrees that the fallout of SESTA-FOSTA helped attract greater support for decriminalization.

“People saw it in their neighborhoods, the fact that there were five times more sex workers out working the streets than before,” Rivera says in a phone conversation. “I think people are starting to recognize that, just like how we have a movement for safe consumption spaces for drug use in this country, if people don’t want to see it, then we need to give people their rights.”

Yet Sex Workers Outreach Project’s Alex Corona, a Wisconsin resident, cautions putting too much trust into polls. “There is good movement, but there is still pushback because if I talk to a smattering of people in Milwaukee, I still feel there is [an] anti-sex work [sentiment] embedded in our culture,” Corona says. “People hear ‘sex work’ and are automatically turned off to it.”

While all Democratic presidential candidates in Congress voted for SESTA-FOSTA, the growing trend in public support has reflected in these candidates’ changing positions. Rep. Tulsi Gabbard is the only candidate to say she supports full decriminalization, but others are slowly evolving on the issue. Both Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders co-sponsored the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act, a bill introduced in December to study the effects of SESTA-FOSTA on sex workers.

"We have to convince them that their constituents won’t revolt if they suggest we shouldn’t arrest people for engaging in the world’s oldest profession.”

Politicians’ sharp reversal could be the result of greater activism surrounding sex work. Stanger believes her and other sex workers’ social media presence helped foster more acceptance by mobilizing their followers to engage with politicians, legislators, and celebrities about sex work. “Before Kamala Harris dropped out [of the presidential race], she completely flipped-flopped her stance after years of proudly prosecuting people. I think that’s only because of public response,” Stanger says over the phone. “Social media helped a lot because people could see a little bit about the women [sex workers] besides the fantasy. If I post a photo of my kitchen and folks are like ‘Oh wow, she buys the same coffee as me,’ I am more humanized.”

“We are putting a face on what it means to be a sex worker,” adds Corona, who notes that sex workers are now being invited to the legislative table.

With the growing public support, sex work decriminalization bills have been introduced across the country, including in Vermont and New York. And DSW plans to run a ballot initiative to decriminalize sex work in D.C. for November.

Photo courtesy of Kaytlin Bailey.

“A lot of elected officials are with us on this issue, but they are afraid. They don’t believe that their constituents will support them in taking this radical position,” DSW’s communications director, Kaytlin Bailey, says, adding that ballot initiatives are a good way to give legislators courage. “We have to convince them that their constituents won’t revolt if they suggest we shouldn’t arrest people for engaging in the world’s oldest profession.”

While pushing for more progressive legislation is needed, sometimes waiting until the time is right is more pragmatic in the long run. Stanger decided against pursuing a decriminalization measure for Oregon’s ballot this year when her lobbyist friend advised that next year would be better because more Democrats might be seated in the state’s capital then. “I don’t think we’re ready, I think we’re almost ready,” she says. “If a bill like this goes to vote and it doesn’t pass, it’s going to set us back five, 10 more years, whereas if we wait until next year when more people are educated and more officials understand why we’re doing it and it’s not just pandering, we’ll have a better chance of passing.”

Bailey, on the other hand, believes the time is now. “The country is ready to have this conversation. The presidency and the Me Too movement are all part of the willingness to think of radical new solutions to old problems.” With a stronger left emerging and a new generation of voters heading to the polls this year, perhaps the moment for change is already here.

Jessica Buxbaum is a freelance journalist currently based in Los Angeles with published work in The Independent, Prospect Magazine, and several other publications.

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