Sometimes, especially in reactionary times like the one we are living in in the US at this moment when social progress seems to be in retreat under a determined assault from Donald Trump and his Republican party and supporters, it is easy to become discouraged. At such times, I remind myself that major social changes on race and gender and sexuality have been achieved in my own lifetime and these are irreversible because they involve changes in social attitudes.
Natasha Lennard reports on another area in which a major change has been quietly occurring and that is with the move to decriminalize sex work.
AS RECENTLY AS spring 2018, every single Democratic presidential candidate who was then in Congress — from progressive Sen. Bernie Sanders to conservative Sen. Amy Klobuchar — voted for a bill that expanded the criminalization of sex work and imperiled sex workers nationwide. The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, later combined with the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act to form the pernicious FOSTA-SESTA legislative package, sailed through both the Senate and the House with bipartisan support. The voices of sex worker organizers, who correctly stressed that the law would deny sex workers crucial online resources and networks while failing to end trafficking, were roundly ignored.
Fast forward nearly two years and the Democratic consensus around the criminalization of sex work has, thankfully and finally, seen a most dramatic shift. As a report published today by a coalition of organizations, including Data for Progress, the American Civil Liberties Union, Mijente, and the Human Rights Campaign noted, “For the first time in presidential primary history, 2020 candidates have competed for a progressive position on the sex trade.” While the issue has arisen as more a talking point than a clear policy proposal for the candidates, the positioning away from criminalization is marked.
The report, released on Thursday alongside two new national polls, does not just focus on sex work decriminalization as an electoral issue — it also surveys and commends a significant shift in public support, especially among young people, for seeing sex work decriminalized.
National polling carried out by Data for Progress and YouGov Blue found that two-thirds of voters aged 18 to 44 support the full decriminalization of sex work; two-thirds of Democratic voters of all ages agree, compared to 37 percent of Republicans and 55 percent of independents. “Fully 52 percent of voters somewhat or strongly support decriminalizing sex work,” noted the report, authored by Data for Progress fellow Nina Luo, who is also an organizer with Decrim NY, a coalition pushing for decriminalization, the decarceration of sex workers, and the destigmatization of the censured industry. In a similar poll taken just seven month earlier, 45 percent of overall voters supported decriminalization; support among Democratic voters has increased from 56 to 61 percent.
Sex work decriminalization should not be considered a fringe issue. It intersects many of the most urgent political struggles of our time: the fight to end mass incarceration, racial profiling, and transphobic police violence; the demand for a social safety net; and robust and protections for all workers. To fight for the decriminalization of sex work is to fight for and with society’s most vulnerable and marginalized communities, in particular women of color and of immigrant backgrounds, especially trans women who often rely on sex work when discriminated against in other industries. Black women account for 94 percent of people arrested for the absurd and capacious charge of “loitering for the purposes of prostitution” in the New York City boroughs of Brooklyn and Queens. Thus, to ignore the struggle for sex workers’ rights is de facto to allow their lives not to matter.
As Lennard points out, with many social justice issues, it is never in isolation but has ripple effects that spread across many other issues. Whenever any group, however small and marginalized, obtains greater justice, all groups benefit.