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The New Majority Behind Sex Work Decriminalization

An exclusive look at a groundbreaking policy transformation. There are lessons for the left to learn here.

Sex workers' rights advocates canvassed to elect New York State Assembly member Julia Salazar, who supports decriminalization, in August 2018. (Scott Heins)
Sex workers' rights advocates canvassed to elect New York State Assembly member Julia Salazar, who supports decriminalization, in August 2018. (Scott Heins)

When people have a real chance to say what kind of world they want, they tend to tell similar stories: safety for themselves and their families, dignified work, health care. Viewed this way, there is something almost intuitive about many left ideas. Which means the real trouble with building support for them isn’t so much the policies themselves—it’s getting away from what we’ve been told is realistic or possible. When it comes to connecting what people say they want with the laws and policies that can actually do what they want, the gap is enormous. 

For so long, the overwhelming narrative around sex work and human trafficking has had very little to do with the lives of actual sex workers or victims of trafficking. It was a story told again and again about heroic cops and depraved men, girls for sale in plain sight, pimps in grocery store parking lots, a monotonous evening news moral panic. It stacked the terms of the debate: to be against violence meant to be for the systems and institutions—law enforcement, penal welfarecapitalism-for-good—that were themselves sources of violence and exploitation. The challenge for organizers for sex workers’ rights, then, has been to go beyond correcting other people’s misinformation to build a community of concern. 

It has been slow and difficult work, but you can see some of that shifting tide in a poll to be released on Thursday by Data for Progress, which found that nearly two-thirds of Democrats support fully decriminalizing sex work, along with two-thirds of all voters under 45. Of voters of all parties, a slight majority—52 percent—said they “somewhat” or “strongly support sex work decriminalization.

With this, sex work decriminalization joins other allegedly divisive political issues, like Medicare for All, which are in fact very popular—if only voters are asked about them in a way that doesn’t preemptively cave to their opposition. 

The new poll provides a first-of-its kind national snapshot on the issue and also a model for left organizing that might help do the political work to actually turn data like this into social change. And it was sex workers’ rights advocates who saw the way.

Sex work is not a new progressive concern. The movement for sex workers’ rights emerged in the United States in the 1970s, alongside the women’s liberation and gay freedom movements. Sex work, too, has fueled movement work—with cash. Movement leaders Sylvia Rivera and Marsha P. Johnson “were doing sex work to take care of the community,” LaLa Zannell, manager of the American Civil Liberties Union’s Trans Justice Campaign, told me. “That is a part of our history. That is a part of this country’s history.” 

But it’s only in recent years that sex workers’ rights have been recognized as intersecting with other movements and shifted toward the mainstream. Since 2014, Nnennaya Amuchie, an organizer with Black Youth Project 100 as well as an attorney, told me that they see the genesis of that support building with and through other movements and political flash points: “You have the Movement for Black Lives, which squarely exposed the U.S. police state and the systematic targeting, harassing, incarcerating, and murders of black folks.” (BYP100 is part of DecrimNow, a coalition seeking to decriminalize sex work in Washington, D.C.) Then there was former Oklahoma City police officer Daniel Holtzclaw, added Amuchie, who was found guilty of multiple counts of rape and sexual assault. His defense argued the women he assaulted were not credible because they were drug users and sex workers. But that is why he could repeatedly target them in the first place: They were criminalized. They were black women.

People in these communities are increasingly making these connections, Amuchie said: “There is so much money going to these vice operations in the guise of keeping sex workers safe. And in our coalition, we have so many black women, particularly black trans women, who have been caught in these stings, who have been harassed and assaulted by police officers.” (Those stings are also unpopular: The Data for Progress poll showed that only 35 percent of respondents support funding such policing targeting sex workers.) 

“For the last two years we’ve canvassed, talked to hundreds and hundreds of people,” said Amuchie. “A large majority of those people are black people in D.C. … and overwhelmingly, whenever we talk to folks at the door or at the bus stop or what have you, black people support the decriminalization of sex work. The reason being, black people see the way police engage in their communities.” 

Similarly, the Data for Progress poll is also a matter of how we talk to each other about this issue: Before answering, respondents were asked specifically about New Zealand–style decriminalization, which was explained to them in detail: “This would remove criminal penalties for adults to sell and pay for consensual sex while also maintaining laws that criminalize violence.” This is the legal model supported by international human rights groups like Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, as well as the World Health Organization

Decriminalization is also backed in the U.S. by the ACLU, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Mijente, the National LGBTQ Task Force, BYP100, If/When/How, the Women’s March, and two dozen other groups that are releasing a shared policy platform on Thursday, in concert with the new polling data, detailing what they mean by sex work decriminalization in the U.S.  

Support from these groups, combined with the community-level work happening across the country, may help to counter a familiar disconnect, since just having the data and evidence isn’t enough to move people on its own. There are always studies to point to showing the failures of current systems—how anti-trafficking efforts don’t actually reduce violence, how the current for-profit health care system leaves people rationing their care or going without it, how police violence is a public health hazard—but it is hard to break through well-financed, decades-long campaigns that obscure this.  

“You can’t just decriminalize the selling of sex,” Anna Dardick, campaign strategist with the Trans Justice Campaign at the ACLU, told The New Republic ahead of the poll’s release. “You also have to address and decriminalize the buying of sex—both sides of the trade, or else you don’t get the benefits of decriminalization.” 

And the benefits of decriminalization are clear, and community-wide: When police crack down on sex work, a PLOS Medicine review found, sex workers are more likely to face violence from others, like clients and partners. The medical journal The Lancet endorses decriminalization because it found it could halt new HIV infections by as much as 46 percent. Sex workers in New Zealand report it is easier, after decriminalization, to refuse clients and challenge abusive management

The Data for Progress poll is just a single poll, of course, but to have just over half of its respondents say they support fully decriminalizing sex work is a significant landmark. Nina Luo, a founding member of Decrim NY and a Data for Progress fellow who authored the report on the poll, told me she sees this as a critical shift in political possibilities: “This issue for a long time has been considered ‘third-rail,’ or not that important, even if elected officials agree on the issue.” And it’s not an accident, Luo added, that this shift in attitude is happening now. “The left is more broadly gaining power, and there are a lot of conversations about, how do you support communities that have been left behind?” Along with that, a rising generation of progressive activists and legislators—and legislators who more openly identify with activists—have cleared the way for these “impossible” issues to get a fair hearing. 

Now, with the release of this shared policy platform, campaigns to decriminalize sex work are supported by groups that have long been in the fight for immigrants’ rights, reproductive justice, and freedom for LGBTQ people. Sex workers did the long-haul work to connect these issues, to show how their communities share fears and hopes and desires for a better world. Through that work, it became clear that just breaking things down into plain language makes a difference, creating a shared way to talk about what justice looks like.

Decriminalizing selling and buying sex would require changing laws at the city and state level, as advocates are attempting in Washington, D.C., and New York, as well as undoing years of destructive federal policy. But Congress has passed a significant number of laws over the last 20 years of the so-called War on Human Trafficking that further criminalize sex work. The most notorious of those laws is the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, or SESTA, and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or FOSTA; known as SESTA/FOSTA

Sex workers warned Congress this ostensible anti-trafficking legislation would largely target them, and before the president had even signed the law in April 2018, websites that sex workers relied on  to work more safely vanished from the internet. Every Democrat who ran for president and who was also serving in Congress at the time voted for SESTA/FOSTA. In its wake, sex workers’ opposition to SESTA/FOSTA received considerable media attention, and the movement for sex workers’ rights was reinvigorated across the country.

“Congresspeople watch Law & Order like the rest of us and so have internalized so many of those narratives, just as much as everyone else,” Kate D’Adamo, a partner at the harm reduction and criminal legal reform consulting collective Reframe, told The New Republic. D’Adamo was one of the first advocates to sound the alarm on SESTA/FOSTA two years ago. But lately, she has been visiting congressional offices in Washington, discussing a bill to study the impact of SESTA/FOSTA, introduced in December by Ro Khanna, Democratic representative from California, and Elizabeth Warren. 

This new poll, she said, could “let people know for the first time, myself included, that there is not just a conversation happening but a lot of support for recognizing the impact of criminalization on sex workers,” and it could let Congress members “come out of the closet” with their own support. “We asked senators, and we asked representatives to come out on something where we couldn’t tell them exactly what the response is going to look like—and that’s not true on guns, and it’s not true on abortion, but on sex work, it is.”

When SESTA/FOSTA sailed through Congress with just a handful of votes in opposition, “I was more of a lonely voice,” Representative Khanna told me. “There was a big fear in Congress at the time that voting against this bill would subject you to potential attack ads, that somehow you were defending or soft on sex trafficking,” said Khanna. “There was concern about the politics of it.” Then, sex workers told him no one in Congress would meet with them. But now sex workers have “completely shaped” his bill with Senator Warren to assess SESTA/FOSTA. The bill has by now been co-sponsored by 17 representatives, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Barbara Lee, and in the Senate, Bernie Sanders has signed on, along with Ron Wyden of Oregon.

Now with this polling, Khanna said in an emailed statement, “The national conversation on sex work is rapidly moving in favor of decriminalization, and it’s long past time for Congress to catch up.” Studying SESTA/FOSTA is a start, “[b]ut ultimately we must move toward decriminalization.”

It’s not unthinkable that they could catch up quickly. Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, too, moved from the margins to the campaign agenda for Democratic presidential candidates in 2020, largely through the same means currently building support for decriminalization: deep organizing, honest polling, and political leaders with strong connections to the grassroots. 

AlreadyDemocratic candidates in the 2020 presidential election have each been pressed to issue their opinion on decriminalization, but their answers are, even now, often too vague or unclear to reveal their position: The term “sex work” may be more widely understood and spoken, but the particulars of sex work policy are not. This is another barrier to overcome: If people are often confused about what they’re talking about when they talk about sex work, they are likewise confused by what decriminalization actually entails. 

Alongside grassroots organizing, the 2020 election has been a moment for advocates to try to challenge disinformation with specificity: Decriminalization means removing criminal penalties associated with selling and buying sex. It means running a sex work business is no longer a crime but being an abusive manager or boss certainly would be. It means removing past convictions from sex workers’ criminal records. It means decarceration, not diversion. It means dismantling vice units. And it means redirecting the significant resources being used now to fund law enforcement to housing, health care, and education, all of which helps sex workers keep each other and their communities safe.  

That may seem completely impossible. But in comparison with Medicare for All, a broadly popular policy with real movement legs behind it, the parallel polling numbers for decriminalization are close. (In a Kaiser Family Foundation November 2019 poll, 53 percent of respondents strongly or somewhat favored Medicare for All—a one-point difference from those in support of fully decriminalizing sex work in the November 2019 Data for Progress poll.) 

What many of these polls show is that simply defining what policies do is necessary for voters. A July 2019 Washington Post–Kaiser Family Foundation poll found that 59 percent of Americans said they didn’t know enough about the Green New Deal to have an opinion, but when its goals were described to them—a jobs guarantee, or zero emissions—a significant majority supported them. (In a March 2019 poll, also from Data for Progress, 59 percent of respondents said they strongly or somewhat support the Green New Deal.)

For our lawmakers to take up these issues, even tentatively, reveals a few things: They are going where we lead them, and they may be willing to take on other big fights in the future. But to get them there, we need support at the grassroots, and sex worker organizing has shown the way to do it. It’s talking to your neighbors, connecting struggles in plain language, and demystifying the things that for too long we’ve been told are impossible.