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Demonstrators chant in support of decriminalizing sex work during a rally held Las Vegas, on June 2, 2019.
Demonstrators chant in support of decriminalizing sex work during a rally held Las Vegas on June 2, 2019.
John Locher/AP

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The movement to decriminalize sex work, explained

Sex workers have been fighting for decriminalization for generations. Now politicians are starting to listen.

Anna North is a senior correspondent for Vox, where she covers American family life, work, and education. Previously, she was an editor and writer at the New York Times. She is also the author of three novels, including the New York Times bestseller Outlawed.

“Everybody has sex,” says Tamika Spellman. “The only difference is that we charge for it.”

Spellman has been a sex worker in Washington, DC, for more than 30 years. In that time, she’s faced a stream of abusive behavior from police.

“I’ve had them call me names, tell me that I was stupid, that whatever happened to me out there, I deserved it for being out there,” she told Vox.

Officers have made comments like, “it would be all right if you were out here working, so long as I get lunch,” Spellman said, essentially forcing her to buy them a meal to avoid being arrested.

She’s also been sexually assaulted by officers, she told Vox. “This is something that you can find across the board with sex workers,” she said. Police “take advantage of us.”

Then there is the financial toll of criminalization. Repeated arrests and fines for doing sex work have driven Spellman further into poverty. She’s currently homeless.

Criminal penalties can take a toll on sex workers’ families too. Spellman’s children are grown now, with children of their own — she even has a great-grandchild. But when they were young, she said, “those arrests really took away from my babies.”

The solution, for Spellman and other sex workers’ rights advocates, is decriminalization: the removal of criminal penalties for selling and buying sex. Advocates say getting rid of those penalties is the only way to keep sex workers safe from police harassment and the damaging effects of arrests and fines — and to guarantee them full human rights as workers in America.

Supporters gather for a “Sex Workers Rise Up for Safety” rally organized by DecrimNOW in Washington, D.C. on June 2, 2018.
Courtesy of DecrimNOW

Activists have been pushing for decriminalization worldwide for years, and they’ve had some successes: New Zealand removed criminal penalties in 2003, and Amnesty International called on all countries to do so in 2016. But in the United States, where buying and selling sex is illegal everywhere except for a few counties in Nevada, decriminalization has been a tougher sell.

That’s starting to change, though, thanks to a combination of sex worker activism, increased attention to racial justice and workers’ rights and, perhaps, backlash to the 2016 election. Recently, legislation to decriminalize sex work has been introduced in both DC and New York state, and several presidential candidates, including Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, have said they support some degree of decriminalization.

The decriminalization effort has a lot of work ahead of it — most states have yet to make any moves on the issue. But sex workers are closer than perhaps ever before to winning the right to do their jobs without fear of arrest.

“It needs to happen,” says Spellman, who also works with the service and advocacy organization HIPS. “It deserves to happen.”

The movement for decriminalization is far from new

Sex workers face stigma and prosecution in the US and around the world. As Molly Smith and Juno Mac write in their 2018 book Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, tens of thousands of people are “arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated, deported, or fined” for sex work-related offenses in the US every year. In a 2003 survey of street-based sex workers in New York City, 80 percent said they had been threatened with or experienced violence, and many said the police were no help. In fact, 27 percent of respondents in the survey said they had experienced violence from police officers.

“If I call them, they don’t come. If I have a situation in the street, forget it,” one respondent said. “After a girl was gang raped, they said, ‘Forget it, she works in the street.’”

These problems are longstanding, and people who sell sex have been advocating for their rights in America for generations. In 1917, for example, more than 200 prostitutes marched on Central Methodist Church in San Francisco to protest an anti-prostitution campaign led by the church’s pastor. In the 1960s, sex workers were part of the Compton’s Cafeteria riot and the Stonewall uprising, landmark events in the fight for LGBTQ rights.

But the sex workers’ rights movement as it exists today has its roots in the 1970s, with the founding of groups like COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) that advocated for an end to laws targeting sex workers, journalist Melissa Gira Grant writes in her book Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work.

“The usage of the term ‘sex work’ marks the beginning of a movement,” wrote activist Carol Leigh, who coined the term in 1978. “It acknowledges the work we do rather than defines us by our status.”

Over time, “sex work” started being used by health and advocacy organizations, as well as the media, according to the Global Network of Sex Work Projects. Today, it’s used to describe sex as a form of labor, Smith, who’s also a sex workers’ rights organizer, told Vox. “It’s about situating it within a framework of workers’ rights,” a framework under which workers advocate together for economic, racial, and gender justice, she explained. (Some sex workers use the term “prostitute” to refer to themselves, while others do not.)

Carol Leigh, director the San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival, speaks to participants in “Whores College,” a day of classes for sex workers on May 4, 2005, in San Francisco.
Carol Leigh, director of the San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival, speaks to participants in “Whores College,” a day of classes for sex workers on May 4, 2005, in San Francisco.
Noah Berger/AP

A major part of the fight for sex workers’ rights has been a push for decriminalization, or removal of criminal penalties for selling and buying sex. In general, “prostitution remains illegal and criminalized across the country,” Kate Mogulescu, an assistant professor of clinical law at Brooklyn Law School, told Vox. But there is no federal law banning sex work, and laws vary from state to state and even city to city, says Mogulescu, who also directs a clinic focused on representing people charged with sex work-related offenses.

In some states, such as Arizona and Florida, repeated arrests for doing sex work can result in a felony conviction and prison time. Until 2011, some people arrested for doing sex work in Louisiana were forced to register as sex offenders. In other states, like New York, sex work-related offenses are misdemeanors, punishable with fines and other penalties. But even then, people arrested on sex work charges may be jailed until trial if they can’t make bail, as Mac and Smith note in Revolting Prostitutes. They also point to one county in Virginia where a jail was forced to bring in 200 rollout beds to accommodate a crackdown on prostitution.

The only state where sex work is legal in some counties is Nevada, but the counties must have fewer than 700,000 residents — this excludes Clark County, where Las Vegas is located. Even in the legal counties, the sector is highly regulated — sex workers can only work in licensed brothels and must be tested regularly for sexually transmitted infections.

Mistress Matisse, a dominatrix and writer, described working in a Nevada brothel as a restrictive experience. “You had to be in the brothel 24/7,” she told the New York Times in 2016. “It was like a cross between summer camp and a women’s prison.” Most prostitution in Nevada still takes place illegally, outside the brothels, the Times reported.

Meanwhile, some draw a contrast between laws against sex work and those around pornography, which often requires people to have sex for money on camera. Though authorities in the past have tried to charge pornography producers under anti-prostitution laws, a 1988 California Supreme Court case found that pornography did not violate those laws.

“We have a very robust porn industry,” Spellman said, “but then we still have restrictions on selling sex. Is that not the same thing?”

Advocates say criminalization puts sex workers in danger

Sex workers’ rights advocates have long argued that “criminalization of sex work makes people who are in the commercial sex industry less safe,” as Mogulescu puts it. In particular, criminalization forces sex workers “to move their work or structure their work in such a way as to avoid police contact,” she explained.

Avoiding police might mean sex workers need to go to more remote locations, which can be more dangerous. Working in the same space can help sex workers stay safe, but some anti-prostitution laws make that illegal, or even expose workers who share space to more severe charges like promoting or profiting from prostitution, Mogulescu said.

Criminalization of sex work also puts sex workers at risk of police violence, according to Jessica Raven, a steering committee member with the New York advocacy coalition DecrimNY. In one 2008 study, nearly one in five sex workers and people profiled as sex workers said they had been asked for sex by a police officer, and one respondent said she had been “made to perform sexual favors to avoid being charged with prostitution.”

People of color are significantly more likely to be arrested for sex work-related offenses than white people. According to Amnesty International, nearly 40 percent of adults and 60 percent of youth arrested for prostitution in the US in 2015 were black, even though black Americans only make up about 12 percent of the US population.

Supporters gather for a “Sex Workers Rise Up for Safety” rally organized by DecrimNOW in Washington, D.C. on June 2, 2018.
Courtesy of DecrimNOW

Trans women are also especially likely to be arrested on sex work charges, even if they’re not doing sex work, advocates say. A law against “loitering for the purpose of engaging in prostitution” in New York state has been nicknamed the “walking while trans” law, because advocates say trans women are routinely arrested under the law for doing nothing more than walking in public. In certain areas of New York City, “you cannot be a trans woman of color standing on the street without risking arrest,” Mogulescu said.

In addition to exposing people to police violence, sex work arrests can take a toll on workers’ ability to support themselves and their families. “A lot of times the courts are imposing fines and restitution on someone that’s already impoverished,” Spellman said. In Washington, DC, fines can be as much as $500 for a first offense.

Being convicted of sex work–related offenses also gives sex workers a criminal record, which can make it hard to find housing or non–sex work employment. This falls especially hard on trans women of color, who already face employment discrimination. In a 2015 survey by the DC Trans Coalition, more than 40 percent of trans respondents said they’d been denied a job because of their gender identity, and 55 percent of black trans respondents were unemployed.

“If I could get a normal job as a black transgender woman that paid me sufficiently, that would make a bit of difference,” Spellman said. But “our government has chosen to continue to criminalize people instead of increasing resources, expanding opportunities, and giving people the ability to thrive.”

Sex workers’ rights movements have had some successes abroad

The sex workers’ rights movement worldwide has had a few wins. In 2003, for instance, New Zealand decriminalized prostitution, removing penalties for buying and selling sex. A 2008 study found that after decriminalization, sex workers felt more comfortable reporting abuse to police and more able to insist on safer sex practices and refuse unwanted clients.

Other countries have adopted what is known as the “Nordic model,” which eliminates criminal penalties for selling sex but retains penalties for buyers. Sweden took such an approach in 1999, and several other countries, including Norway, have adopted the model since then.

Catherine Healy, the national coordinator of the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective, was honored by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II for her work advocating for sex workers on June 5, 2018, in Wellington, New Zealand.
Catherine Healy, the national coordinator of the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective, was honored by Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II for her work advocating for sex workers on June 5, 2018, in Wellington, New Zealand.
Nick Perry/AP

While some feminist groups support Sweden’s approach, sex workers’ rights groups say the Nordic model still hurts sex workers. Because it keeps the sex trade underground, criminalizing the buying of sex exposes workers to many of the same harms as criminalizing the sale, Mogulescu says. And Nina Luo, a steering committee member at DecrimNY, says that Nordic-model countries have enacted a number of policies that are harmful to sex workers, like campaigns to evict them from their homes.

“When you claim to decriminalize the sex worker but are still criminalizing everything else in their lives, you are still making their lives dangerous,” Luo said.

Increasingly, global health and justice groups are calling for full decriminalization of sex work. In 2012, the World Health Organization recommended that countries work toward decriminalization. Amnesty International made a similar recommendation in 2016.

The United States, however, saw little movement toward decriminalization for years. In fact, 2018 federal legislation known as FOSTA-SESTA (a combination of two bills, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act) has been criticized by many sex workers’ rights groups. The law is meant to penalize websites for hosting content linked to sex trafficking, but in practice, it limits sex workers’ ability to advertise their services online, forcing them into more dangerous street-based work, Raven said.

Now decriminalization is becoming an election issue

However, things are beginning to change. A bill to decriminalize prostitution in DC was introduced in 2017. It didn’t pass, but it’s since been reintroduced, and advocates expect it to get a hearing in the fall.

Earlier this year, Democrats in the New York state legislature also introduced bills, backed by DecrimNY, to decriminalize prostitution and repeal the state loitering law. The bills didn’t pass, but DecrimNY expects them to be reintroduced in the next legislative session, Luo said. The legislation also got significant media attention, with coverage in the New York Times, the New Republic, and elsewhere.

Some feminist and anti-trafficking organizations have criticized the New York bill. Sonia Ossorio, president of the National Organization for Women’s New York City chapter, told Vox the group supports decriminalizing the selling of sex, calling it “ground zero for everybody who works in human rights.” But she voiced concerns about decriminalizing buying. “A movement to fully decriminalize the sex trade so that we normalize male entitlement to sex is not a model of equality,” she said. “It’s not a future that most people want or a future that parents want for their children.”

Sex workers’ rights groups, along with other progressive activists like Women’s March co-chair Bob Bland, have pushed back on NOW’s position. When NOW and other groups held a protest against the New York bill earlier this year, sex workers staged a counterprotest. “It’s important for us to be here because we are consensual sex workers, and the idea that sex work can never be consensual is just wrong,” one of the counterprotesters told the Daily Beast.

Meanwhile, political candidates are starting to run on platforms that include decriminalization. New York state Sen. Julia Salazar made the issue part of her winning 2018 primary campaign to unseat incumbent state Sen. Martin Malave Dilan, as Matt Cohen reports at Mother Jones; she is one of the sponsors of New York’s decriminalization bill. Tiffany Cabán ran for district attorney in Queens this year on a platform including decriminalization, and garnered the endorsement of New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez; after a recount, Cabán’s opponent was declared the winner, but Cabán is challenging the results.

Sidewalk chalk in support of decriminalization of sex work in New York City.
Sidewalk chalk in support of decriminalizing sex work in New York City.
Courtesy of Jessica Raven

And five Democratic presidential candidates — Sens. Booker and Harris, Reps. Seth Moulton and Tulsi Gabbard, and former Sen. Mike Gravel — have said they support at least partial decriminalization, according to BuzzFeed News. (Some greeted Harris’s comments with skepticism given her history of opposing decriminalization, and she has not yet said whether she supports removing criminal penalties for buyers.) Several others, including Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, have said they are open to such a policy.

The issue has entered the political mainstream in a few short years thanks to a confluence of factors, advocates say. “I think we got here through the rise of social justice movements and the left,” said DecrimNY’s Luo. She credits the longstanding advocacy of sex workers’ rights groups as well as the more recent rise of progressive movements like Black Lives Matter. “If you’re a young woman of color who’s worked in immigrant rights, reproductive justice, or labor spaces,” Luo said, “you already get it” on decriminalization.

Raven adds that “after the 2016 election, people were mobilized in a way I’d never seen before.”

“The fact that people are more likely to resist Trump’s policies helped us in a way,” she said.

As the presidential campaign continues, Raven calls on Democratic candidates “to be specific about supporting decriminalization, not partial criminalization, and to recognize that criminalizing buying sex hurts sex workers.”

Spellman wants to see the same. For those who haven’t heard much about decriminalization before, she has a message: “I am not a nefarious person. I’m just your ordinary next-door neighbor.”

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