CW/TW: *Given the ongoing criminalization of sex work in the U.S., all sources have been made anonymous to protect their identities as a vulnerable population. Some quotes have been edited for length and/or clarity.
In February 2019, almost two years before the presidential election, candidates described their efforts as a “battle for the soul of America.” Sex workers and their loved ones, particularly ones who relied on the internet for work and/or community, were slowly figuring out how to survive one year after SESTA/FOSTA, a set of bills aimed to make it easier to cut down on online sex trafficking. Amidst these shifts, Kamala Harris—the Democrat darling, presidential candidate, and key architect in the legal downfall of Backpage that helped create the political landscape that SESTA/FOSTA was born in—stated her support for the “decriminalization” of sex work. Specifically, she noted, “On the issue of finding a safe place for sex workers, I’m a huge advocate. I always have been.”
But beyond these carefully crafted headlines, designed for maximum shareability and discourse, what Harris had actually endorsed was the Nordic Model, also known as the Equality Model and partial decriminalisation, which criminalizes sex buyers while decriminalizing the sale of sex. This was unsurprising to sex workers and abolitionist organizers, given Harris’ past as a “top cop,” dedicated to the opportunistic pursuit of “justice”. The prospect of someone in a position of actual power committing themselves to sex workers’ survival in a world determined to see them as disposable was exciting, but many were quickly disappointed.
Or maybe you’re like Aubrey*, who wasn’t disappointed because they’re never excited about electoral politics. Aubrey, a sex worker in Portland, Oregon, said the ballot wasn’t even worth looking at because “there’s no point in voting.”
“Voting is not harm reduction and only serves to make people feel as if they have a choice, causing them to not push for any further change in other ways,” Aubrey said, while adding that they wouldn’t even consider voting for a pro-decriminalization candidate unless they also support abolition because the former cannot meaningfully exist without the other. Asserting that “abolition will never be on the ballots,” Aubrey chooses to redirect their time and efforts to 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 they don’t particularly like Democrats, but they “hate them less than Republicans.” But despite their commitment to voting, Ariana admits that they “almost don’t see a point,” as they get older. HH*, a sex worker from Dallas, echoed the sentiment of growing disengagement as they get older, saying, “I was encouraged to vote due to my family forcing me or guilting me into doing so, but I was never actually excited to vote after I came of an age to do so.”
But after decades of being told by politicians, policymakers, pundits, and the people alike that they aren’t even human, sex workers have learned to check and double check the records of anyone promising them real legislative power and support. Despite featuring heavily in the campaign promises of politicians leading up to the 2020 election cycle, decriminalization of sex work is considered political quicksand. After expressing near unanimous support for SESTA/FOSTA, most legislators are loathe to admit that the golden idol of anti-trafficking lobbyists didn’t work. The legislation didn’t end or curb the sexual exploitation of vulnerable people—it just made it harder to find.
Social media sites and community forums were forced to curb free expression and limit the ability of adults to trawl for hookups amongst affinity groups. Meta’s (formerly Facebook) terms of service agreements changed drastically to blatantly and implicitly forbid acknowledging the existence of sex, sexuality, and sexual desire. The unintended consequences were so devastating and far-reaching that Reps. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) and Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) and Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) introduced and re-introduced legislation to study the impacts of SESTA/FOSTA on sex workers. This particular lineup of co-sponsors is interesting alongside the knowledge that Warren has long been considered a foe to sex workers for joint legislation she introduced with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) in 2018 that would limit their access to financial services.
Unfortunately, the sociopolitical minefield of being a sex worker in the U.S. does not begin and end with SESTA/FOSTA. Since its passage in 2018, legislation like SISEA and EARN-IT, which aim to narrow privacy protections and autonomy under the guise of “protecting the children” is gaining support. This is despite pleas from sex workers, privacy and tech experts, and researchers alike for legislators to see reason. The lack of political goodwill seems to mirror an increasingly repressive social environment for anyone deemed too deviant. Earlier this year, Pittsburgh’s first Black mayor, Ed Gainey (D), was all too happy to claim the endorsement of DecrimPA, promising a comprehensive policy on the decriminalization of sex work in the city, only to abandon the issue and double down on increasing funding for the same police department that admits to entrapping drug users and sex workers in vice stings. In New York, Gov. Kathy Hochul (D) has evaded clear answers on her support for true decriminalization during her reelection campaign, hedging with promises of hearing from “many advocates and people who have strong opinions.” Texas Gov. Greg Abbott (R), also up for reelection this year, has gone so far as to veto protections for minors affected by human trafficking, allowing them to be prosecuted for prostitution.
Even now, the Supreme Court has embarked on a campaign to eradicate the few rights and privacy protections afforded to people in the U.S., giving credence to almost a decade of cries for caution from sex workers and organizers. To quote the Dobbs v. Jackson majority opinion, “Attempts to justify abortion through appeals to a broader right to autonomy and to define one’s ‘concept of existence’ prove too much … Those criteria, at a high level of generality, could license fundamental rights to illicit drug use, prostitution, and the like.” Despite the clear threat to the health, well-being, and privacy of those most affected by the overturning of Roe v. Wade, Democratic politicians have fallen back on old ways and begun bombarding potential voters with fundraising emails, reiterating unfulfilled promises protecting reproductive rights if only they get enough votes. Andy*, a sex worker and registered Democrat from Providence, Rhode Island, says she hasn’t felt any shift in her political commitments (or lack thereof) following the overturning of Roe v. Wade.
“My commitment to organizing stays the same, but I hope folks now being radicalized learn from elder organizers instead of overshadowing with non-intersectional feminism,” they said.
This is despite an almost pathological inability to follow through on other campaign promises like student debt relief, protection of migrants, and combating climate change. Unhappy with criticism for their inaction, Democratic candidates and their staunchest blue wave supporters have doubled down on vote-shaming the most disenfranchised and demoralized. Mocking poor, Southern, and rural voters for the failures of their elected officials, despite long-term campaigns of gerrymandering and voter suppression, seems to be a particular favorite. For some politicians, like Beto O’Rourke, capitalizing on the organizing power of sex workers is a no-brainer, but only if they stick to a pre-approved script that doesn’t highlight the political establishment’s failure to meet their needs. Rarely, if ever, is this finger-wagging paired with concrete policy or action that serves the needs of the same marginalized communities being roundly scolded for their disinvestment in the political system. For HH*, the constant cycle of broken promises has taken its toll. Not even endorsement for the decriminalization of sex work could 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 a registered voter and participates in a mix of local and national elections but feels no real enthusiasm or encouragement to do so. Instead, she prefers to spend her time involved in local organizing efforts. Amongst sex workers forced to operate outside of traditional systems of finance and housing (especially migrants and formerly incarcerated people), this is common.
Teach-ins and workshops to share information on anything from self-managed abortion to knowing your rights in a sting to crisis response that deprioritizes police intervention are popular with local advocacy groups working to fill needs gaps neglected by government systems and even other organizers. Milly*, a sex worker who spends their time engaged with Filipino American communities in Long Beach, California, works to fill knowledge gaps for sex workers who left the DSA when the organisation refused to take a stance on the decriminalisation of sex work. Sex workers are no strangers to being ostracized, but being left out hits a little different when the people doing the shunning also claim to be your comrades in the political struggle.Forced to balance legislative overreach and an increasingly regressive society that hovers between apathy for their plight and outright hostility at their existence, it’s no wonder that sex workers are particularly discouraged from participating in a system that doesn’t serve or support them. But far from lying down and accepting their circumstances, sex workers continue to organize for themselves and others as a way of harm reduction.