Activists want 2020 candidates to clarify support for decriminalizing sex work

Activists and survivors of sex trafficking are calling on 2020 Democratic presidential candidates to clarify their potential support for decriminalizing sex work, arguing that across-the-board policies could have unintended consequences.

White House hopefuls like Sens. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders: Netanyahu has cultivated 'racist nationalism' Former OMB pick Neera Tanden to serve as senior adviser to Biden Tensions mount among Democrats over US-Israel policy MORE (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenSanders: Netanyahu has cultivated 'racist nationalism' Tensions mount among Democrats over US-Israel policy Warren says Republican Party 'eating itself and it is discovering that the meal is poisonous' MORE (D-Mass.) have voiced their support for decriminalization, but activists argue that decriminalization as it pertains to sex workers often means different things to different people.


Speaking to reporters in Washington last week, advocates said many people don’t consider how decriminalizing sex work can end up legitimizing pimps and brothel operators. Activists argue that decriminalization should instead be limited only to sex workers themselves.

Bradley Myles, chief executive officer at the Polaris Project, which tracks trafficking in the U.S., argued that full decriminalization would not act as an effective deterrent for trafficking.

“I would say that the people that are advocating to decriminalize the full sex trade have not meaningfully consulted with sex trafficking organizations or sex trafficking survivors,” he said. “I think they don’t understand how sex trafficking operates and they don’t understand what it takes to stop it. So they have these kind of naive and myopic notions of what might stop sex trafficking, but they’re actually advocating for things that sex trafficking survivors are actively telling them would make it worse.”

Lauren Hersh, national director at World Without Exploitation, said candidates need to listen more to victims.

“I would hope that candidates take the time to really listen to the voices of survivors,” she said. “When we’re talking about this issue, there is nobody out there who understands this issue better than people who’ve lived it.”

Activists opposed to across-the-board decriminalization sent an open letter signed by more than 300 survivors of the sex trade to all 2020 candidates over the summer outlining their views.

An adviser to the Warren campaign told The Hill that Warren is open to decriminalization and pointed to a Medium post outlining her plans on LGBTQ issues.

The Sanders campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Neither campaign has specified to what degree they might support decriminalization. 

Yasmin Vafa, executive director at Rights 4 Girls, told reporters at an event on Friday in Washington that the issue of decriminalization in the sex trade is often incorrectly framed as “a black and white issue” with only two choices: the status quo or “full legal protection of the entire industry.”

Protections for the industry as a whole, activists argue, run the risk of increasing demand for sex workers, and that could lead to more trafficking.

The activists were in Washington, D.C., in advance of a D.C. Council hearing this week on legislation that would decriminalize all aspects of the sex trade other than trafficking.

One Democratic strategist aligned with the coalition of activists and survivors said presidential candidates should tread carefully on the topic.

“Candidates need to really dig into the issue. It’s very easy to echo one side of the argument, especially if they’re being pushed to do so by a very vocal camp,” the strategist wrote in an email to The Hill.

“This is not the time to try to out-woke each other. Lives are at stake,” the strategist added.