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