In February 2019, nearly two years before the presidential election, candidates called their efforts “battle for america’s soul.” Sex workers and their loved ones, especially those who relied on the internet for work and/or community, were slowly trying to survive a year later. SESTA/FOST, a set of bills aimed at making it easier to fight online sex trafficking. Amid these changes, Kamala Harris – the Democratic sweetheart, presidential candidate and key architect of the legal system fall of back page who helped create the political landscape in which SESTA/FOSTA was born — declared his Support for the “decriminalization” of sex work. Specifically, she noted, “On the issue of finding a safe place for sex workers, I am a big advocate. I always was.”
But beyond those carefully crafted titles, designed for maximum sharing and discourse, what Harris actually endorsed was the Nordic model, also known as the equality and partial decriminalization model, which criminalizes the buyers of sex while decriminalizing the sale of sex. This was unsurprising to sex workers and abolitionist organizers, given Harris’ past as a “top cop,” dedicated to opportunistic pursuit of “justice”. The prospect of someone in a position of real power standing up for the survival of sex workers in a world determined to view them as disposable was exciting, but many were quickly disappointed.
Or maybe you’re like Aubrey*, who wasn’t disappointed because he’s never keen on electoral politics. Aubrey, a sex worker in Portland, Oregon, said the ballot wasn’t even worth watching because “there’s no point in voting”.
“Voting is not harm reduction and only serves to make people feel like they have a choice, which prevents them from pushing for other changes in other ways,” Aubrey said. , while adding that they wouldn’t even consider voting for a pro. -candidate for decriminalization unless they also support abolition because the first cannot meaningfully exist without the other. Stating that “abolition will never be on the ballot,” Aubrey chooses to redirect her time and efforts towards mutual aid.
Of course, not all sex workers are completely discouraged from participating in electoral politics. Ariana*, a sex worker in Los Angeles who tries to vote in every election, says she doesn’t particularly like Democrats, but she “hates them less than Republicans.” But despite their commitment to voting, Ariana admits they “almost don’t see the point” as they get older. HH*, a sex worker from Dallas, echoed the growing sense of disengagement as they age, saying, “I was encouraged to vote because my family forced me or made me feel guilty to do it, but I was never really thrilled to vote after I reached the age to do so.
But after decades of being told by politicians, policy makers, experts and the people that they aren’t even human, sex workers have learned to check and recheck the records of anyone who promises them real legislative power and support. Despite featuring prominently in politicians’ campaign promises leading up to the 2020 election cycle, the decriminalization of sex work is seen as political quicksand. After expressing nearly unanimous support for SESTA/FOSTA, most legislators are loath to admit that the golden idol of anti-trafficking lobbyists doesn’tyou work. The legislation did not end or curb the sexual exploitation of vulnerable people – it simply made it Stronger to find.
Social media sites and community forums have been forced to restrict free speech and limit adults’ ability to seek connections among affinity groups. Meta’s (formerly Facebook) terms of service have changed drastically to blatantly and implicitly prohibit recognize the existence of sex, sexuality and sexual desire. The unintended consequences were so devastating and profound that Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and the senses. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) introduces and reintroduces legislation study the impacts of SESTA/FOSTA on sex workers. This particular lineup of co-sponsors is interesting alongside the fact that Warren has long been seen as an enemy of sex workers for cut legislation she presented with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in 2018, it would limit their access to financial services.
Unfortunately, the sociopolitical minefield of being a sex worker in the United States does not begin and end with SESTA/FOSTA. Since its adoption in 2018, laws like BASED IN and TO WIN-THIS, which seek to reduce protections of privacy and autonomy under the guise of “protecting children” is gaining traction. And this despite calls from sex workers, privacy and technology experts, and researchers for lawmakers to see the reason. The lack of political goodwill seems to reflect an increasingly repressive social environment for anyone considered too deviant. Earlier this year, Pittsburgh’s first black mayor, Ed Gainey (D), was all too happy to pretend the approval of DecrimPApromising a comprehensive policy to decriminalize sex work in the city, only to finally drop the issue and redouble our efforts increasing funding for the same police department as admits trap drug addicts and sex workers in vice stings. In New York, Governor Kathy Hochul (D) has eluded clear answers on his support for real decriminalization during his re-election campaign, covering himself with promises to hear from “many defenders and people who have strong opinions”. Texas Governor Greg Abbott (R), also re-elected this year, went so far as veto protections for minors affected by human trafficking, allowing them to be prosecuted for prostitution.
Even now, the Supreme Court has launched a campaign to stamp out the few privacy rights and protections afforded to people in the United States, giving credence to nearly a decade of pleas for caution from women workers in the sex and organizers. To quote the Dobbs vs. Jackson majority opinion, “Attempts to justify abortion with appeals to a broader right to autonomy and definition of one’s ‘concept of existence’ prove too much… These criteria, at a high level of generality, might grant fundamental rights to the use of illicit drugs, to prostitution and to sex.” Despite the obvious threat to the health, well-being and privacy of those most affected by the reversal of Roe vs. WadeDemocratic politicians fell back on the old ways and began bombarding would-be voters with fundraising emails, reiterating broken promises to protect reproductive rights if only they got enough votes. Andy*, a sex worker and registered Democrat from Providence, Rhode Island, says she felt no change in her political commitments (or lack thereof) after the overthrow of Roe vs. Wade.
“My commitment to organizing remains the same, but I hope people who are radicalizing now learn from older women organizers instead of eclipsing non-intersectional feminism,” they said.
And this despite an almost pathological inability to follow through on other campaign promises like student debt relief, migrant protection and the fight against climate change. Unhappy with criticism for their inaction, the Democratic candidates and their staunchest blue wave supporters have redoubled their efforts the shame of voting the most deprived and demoralized. Mocking poor, southern and rural voters for the failures of their elected officials, despite gerrymandering campaigns and voter suppressionseems to be a particular favorite. For some politicians, like Beto O’Rourke, capitalize on the organizing power of sex workers is obvious, but only if they stick to a pre-sanctioned script that does not highlight the political establishment’s inability to meet their needs. Rarely, if ever, is that middle finger associated with concrete policy or action that addresses the needs of the same marginalized communities who are roundly chastised for disinvesting in the political system. For HH*, the constant cycle of broken promises has taken its toll. Even endorsing the decriminalization of sex work couldn’t get them to the polls because “vocal support from politicians means nothing in the grand scheme of things.”
RB*, a sex worker in Philadelphia, is on the ballot and contesting a mix of local and national elections, but feels no enthusiasm or encouragement to do so. Instead, she prefers to devote her time to local organizing efforts. Among sex workers forced to operate outside traditional funding and housing systems (especially migrants and formerly incarcerated people), this is common.
Trainings and workshops to share information on everything from self-managed abortion to knowing your rights as part of a crisis response that deprioritizes police intervention are popular with local advocacy groups who strive to fill gaps in needs overlooked by government systems and even other organizers. Milly*, a sex worker who spends her time with Filipino American communities in Long Beach, Calif., works to fill knowledge gaps for sex workers who left the DSA when the organization refused to take position on the decriminalization of sex work. Sex workers are no strangers to ostracism, but being left out has a slightly different impact when the leakers also claim to be your comrades in the political struggle. Forced to balance legislative overreach and an increasingly regressive society that oscillates between apathy for their plight and outright hostility to their existence, it’s no wonder that sex workers are especially discouraged to participate in a system that neither serves nor supports them. But far from lying down and accepting their situation, sex workers continue to organize for themselves and for others in order to harm reduction.