Decriminalizing sex work has slowly edged its way into the 2020 election—a talking point for Democratic candidates and one of the quickest ways to identify as hip and progressive. Yet just last year every Democratic frontrunner voted in favor of FOSTA-SESTA, legislation that is supposed to inhibit sex trafficking online but in reality strips sex workers of resources to book and screen clients, thereby creating a more dangerous work environment under the guise of protecting those same workers. So, this begs the question: How serious are these candidates, really?
Though it hardly qualifies as “in favor,” Elizabeth Warren threw her hat in with the progressives in recent comments made to the Washington Post. “I’m open to decriminalization. Sex workers, like all workers, deserve autonomy but they are particularly vulnerable to physical and financial abuse and hardship,” Warren said. “We need to make sure that we don’t undermine legal protections for the most vulnerable, including the millions of individuals who are victims of human trafficking each year.”
Sex worker activist Ginger Banks finds statements like these encouraging: “With bodily autonomy currently at the forefront of many social movements, it was only a matter of time before sex work decriminalization became accepted as well. I’m glad to see Democratic candidates realizing that ‘my body, my choice’ extends to a person’s choice to do sex work.”
On the heels of Warren’s statement, Bernie Sanders’ camp raced to issue a similar comment, saying that “decriminalization is certainly something that should be considered.”
Kamala Harris has made similar remarks of late about decriminalizing sex work but in the context of the Nordic model, which targets customers instead of escorts but still criminalizes the purchase of sex—just not those selling it.
But those pro-decriminalization comments seem far-fetched given Harris’ background as an attorney general prosecuting those involved with sex work and Warren’s joint effort with Florida Senator Marco Rubio in 2017 to introduce legislation that would enable banks to discriminate against sex worker, known as the “End Banking for Human Traffickers Act.” (Despite bipartisan support Warren and Rubio’s initiative was never voted on by the Senate, but the same bill has been reintroduced this year as H.R.295 - End Banking for Human Traffickers Act of 2019 and just passed the House Foreign Affairs Committee in March.)
Emma Evans, a sex worker, tweeted the following sentiment—which was shared by other members of the adult industry: “I don’t hate Elizabeth Warren. I like her the best of all the candidates. I know many of you like her too. But, I need you to press her on sex worker issues for me, because she supports some shit with Rubio that foreshadows us losing the ability to bank. Which is deadly.”
Actions taken against sex workers continue to outweigh the goodwill implied by the politicians’ statements, and until lawmakers can understand the material difference between what is consensual sex work and what is coerced sex trafficking, any offer to decriminalize sex work feels empty. Despite this, many in the adult industry remain hopeful that it’s nonetheless a step in the right direction—and some are even rooting for Warren thanks to a statement she made hinting that she may in fact see the difference between sex work and sex trafficking.
“What I hope we’re trying to look for is not the question about sex—sex is good—but the question of exploitation, and how fine the line that runs between those who have been taken advantage of, who are being trafficked, who are being abused, and those who are not,” Warren said.
Multi-award-winning actor James Bartholet is more skeptical of Warren’s newly acquired stance—and hopes this isn’t going to bring further complications to the adult industry: “If Elizabeth Warren and all the rest will push for the rights of sex workers, I applaud them for doing that. But will it really happen? The other danger will be putting us all in the conservative crosshairs.”
Meanwhile Carmen Valentina, the reigning 2019 HotMovies MVP (Most Valuable Pornstar), doesn’t have much faith in the empty promises of politicians. “I’m an independent and I don’t like voting blindly by party. I like politicians who are willing to meet in the middle, not ones on the far end of their party; we can accomplish more by give and take,” she said.
“I see why some people like Warren but I don’t think she’ll focus much on decriminalizing sex work if she’s elected, she’ll most likely forget about that promise,” Valentina continued. “Most politicians don’t care for sex workers and if they say they do they eventually forget about us because sex work is still a taboo that’s looked down upon, no matter how far we think we have come.”