Presidential candidates are being asked about sex-worker rights — can they come up with good answers?
To put it in standard public relations parlance, sex-work decriminalization is having something of a moment. New York lawmakers Julia Salazar and Jessica Ramos have announced plans to introduce a bill making New York the first state to decriminalize sex work, and last month a California senator introduced a bill making it easier for sex workers to report violent crimes. And the country’s most famous sex worker, Stormy Daniels, has in part used her new platform as a way to advance the cause, tweeting about sex workers’ rights issues and speaking at multiple sex workers’ rights rallies across the country.
Given the newfound visibility of sex workers’ rights, and the overlap the movement has with women’s rights and workers’ rights as a whole, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates are in the position of having to address an issue that has previously been on the margins of the national conversation. But it’s unclear how many of them plan to do that.
Case in point: Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who, in a recent interview with The Breakfast Club, was asked whether he supported sex work decriminalization. “That’s a good question and I don’t have an answer for that,” he said.
Sanders’ response was telling, in part because he is not the first 2020 Democratic candidate to be asked about this issue. Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), a former prosecutor who previously opposed a 2008 measure to decriminalize prostitution in San Francisco, also recently made headlines for seemingly reversing her stance on the decriminalization question. “I think so. I do,” the former prosecutor replied when asked in an interview with the Root if sex work should be decriminalized, adding that, “on the issue of providing a safe place for sex workers — I am a huge advocate for that, always have been.”
Puzzlingly, in the same interview, Harris also managed to double down on her support of SESTA/FOSTA, a bill that sex-workers called out as discriminatory and potentially harmful. “The people who were running Backpage basically thumbed their nose at us and kept doing it, making money off of the sale of youth, and so I called for them to be shut down,” she said, referring to , a website that hosted sex-worker classifieds. “And I have no regrets about that.” And while many sex-workers’ rights advocates are far from convinced by her response for this reason, the mere fact that both Sanders and Harris are being asked about decriminalization on the national stage speaks volumes, says Nina Luo, a member of the steering committee for Decrim NY, the coalition pushing for sex work to be decriminalized in New York state. “It’s becoming a national discussion,” she says, pointing out that “journalists pick these questions because…they know more people are talking about this issue.”