Only Tulsi Gabbard Wants to Decriminalize Sex Work, but Other Dems Show Signs of Progress on the Issue
"If a consenting adult wants to engage in sex work, that is their right," Gabbard says.
A majority of Americans now favor "removing criminal penalties for adults to sell and pay for consensual sex," with support particularly high among Democrats and younger voters but also crossing party and age lines. Yet most of the Democrats running for president prefer to keep quiet about sex work issues, and only one remaining candidate—Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D–Hawaii)—has publicly expressed support for decriminalizing prostitution.
"If a consenting adult wants to engage in sex work, that is their right, and it should not be a crime," Gabbard said in a statement this weekend to Reason. "All people should have autonomy over their bodies and their labor."
Gabbard is the only one to get a good grade on a recent report card put out by the group Decriminalize Sex Work (DSW). "Gabbard supports the full decriminalization of sex work, which removes criminal and civil penalties from adults engaged in consensual acts of prostitution," the group reports.
DSW gave Gabbard an A-. She didn't get a perfect score because she voted for FOSTA, which made hosting content that facilitates prostitution a federal crime. FOSTA and the federal war on websites like Backpage have made sex work more dangerous and made it harder for police to find people who do need help, according to preliminary evidence. All of the Democratic presidential candidates in Congress voted for FOSTA, with Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar signing on a co-sponsor of the Senate companion bill (SESTA), as did former presidential candidates Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Kirsten Gillibrand.
Recently, though, Rep. Ro Khanna (D–Calif.) introduced legislation that he sees as a potential first step to FOSTA's repeal—and the bill's Senate companion was introduced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D–Mass.) with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I–Vt.) as a co-sponsor. (Ron Wyden of Oregon, the only Democrat in the Senate to vote against FOSTA in the first place, is also a co-sponsor.)
"As lawmakers, we are responsible for examining unintended consequences of all legislation, and that includes any impact SESTA-FOSTA may have had on the ability of sex workers to protect themselves from physical or financial abuse," said Warren in December, when the SAFE SEX Workers Study Act was introduced.
Warren tweeted last July that she's "open to decriminalization" of prostitution. But she's also fond of financial regulations that make it harder for people in sex workers (even in legal industries) to get bank accounts or use online payment processors.
DSW gave Warren a C+ and Sanders a C, the same grade given to Pete Buttigieg.
The former South Bend, Indiana, mayor has made few statements about the issue. (His campaign did not respond to Reason's request for comment.) He told Out magazine in May 2019 that he was "not ready to make policy news on this yet." But he also sounded at least amendable to changing in a sex-worker-rights-friendly direction some day.
"We now understand that [FOSTA] harmed vulnerable people," Buttigieg told Out last year. "This needs to be part of a larger conversation about how we treat sex workers and all of the reasons why this society hesitates to embrace the idea of sex work. I don't think all of those ideas are wrong."
That candidates are routinely being asked about sex work this election is itself noteworthy. "In the last campaign cycle, there were not candidates talking about sex work," says Melissa Sontag Broudo, general counsel for Decriminaize Sex Work and co-founder of the Sharmus Outlaw Advocacy and Rights Institute.
"Just to see this conversation happening on this level is, I think, huge," she adds.
"It's the first time sex work has become an issue in a presidential election—that's historic," says Bella Robinson, who has been doing sex work for more than three decades and leads the Rhode Island chapter of Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics. After FOSTA passed, Robinson's group worked with the Sex Workers Outreach Project to study the effect on sex workers. (See highlights from their research here.)
Robinson is wary of proposals like the Warren and Sanders-sponsored sex work study bill and accuses the candidates of merely paying "lip service" to sex worker rights. "I agree we could use more research," she says. "But why would we trust the government?"
Robinson's group has tried to reach out to the Warren and Sanders campaigns, with little luck, she tells me.
Broudo and others at Decriminalize Sex Work attempted to talk with someone on the campaign of all of the remaining Democratic candidates, though some were more receptive than others. "Repeated attempts to contact [Andrew] Yang's campaign went unanswered," according to Kaytlin Bailey, communications director for Decriminalize Sex Work. The same went for Joe Biden's campaign. (Yang's team responded to me promptly, but only to say he has no comment.)
One campaign that did respond to the group was Klobuchar's, and the representative was polite and seemed open to hearing them out, according to Broudo. She says she considers even open-mindedness from candidates like Klobuchar something of a success, and "a pretty big signal" that the conversation around sex work is shifting.
Klobuchar has a history of spouting crazy sex-trafficking myths and backing the bad policies that stem from them. She now "appears to support the Suppression Model," says the Decriminalize Sex Work report card (which gives her D+), as does Yang (who got a D).
The Suppression Model is also known as partial criminalization, the Nordic Model, the Swedish Model, and—in a recent rebranding attempt—the Equality Model. Under this approach, prostitution is still a crime and paying for sex still totally illegal, but offering paid sex in certain circumstances is not.
The idea has become popular among European feminists and well-funded U.S. advocacy groups. But public health and human rights organizations—including Amnesty International and the World Health Organization—tend to favor full decriminalization.
Decriminalization differs from legalization, the prostitution regulatory scheme seen in some European countries and in a few counties in Nevada. Legalization refers to a scheme where prostitution is permitted in limited and highly regulated circumstances, but exchanging sex for something of value outside these circumstances will still get you thrown in jail.
The method most of the U.S. abides by now is full criminalization, in which paying for or offering paid sexual services is a criminalized, along with a host of otherwise legal activities if they're done in service of a sex worker.
Mike Bloomberg, who enthusiastically embraced full criminalization during his time as mayor of New York City, was the only Democratic candidate given a failing grade on the DSW report card. "Arrest rates for prostitution were 30% higher during Bloomberg's tenure as mayor," the DSW report states, citing data from the New York Division of Justice Services and noting that "the spike in arrest rates almost exclusively targeted black New Yorkers."
Since prostitution is not a federal crime, talking to presidential candidates about decriminalization may seem strange. But presidents pick federal justice officials and help set the tone for law enforcement priorities, and the feds fund and incentivize a lot of local prostitution stings around the country. There are many ways a president could make a difference on sex worker rights and the enforcement of laws against them.
Last summer, Cristine Sardina, director of the Desiree Alliance, spent the month of July in Iowa talking to Democratic candidates about issues including criminal justice reform, immigration, and sex worker rights. "I saw most of them at various rallies, private homes, and bars/restaurants," she tells me in an email.
Sardina also made a fact sheet titled "Consensual Sex Work Versus Sex Trafficking" and "presented it to most of their interns or the candidate directly. The interns were mostly young and all grasped the idea of [sex work] decrim enthusiastically," she writes. "Now, if we could only get the candidates to say that."