A poll published Thursday by Data for Progress shows that 52% of voters across all demographics believe engaging in sex work should not be a criminal offense. The strongest support is found in voters between the ages of 18 and 44, and Democratic voters.
Titled “Decriminalizing Survival: Policy Platform and Polling on the Decriminalization of Sex Work,” the report found that 59% of Democrats, 40% of Republicans and 38% of independents support decriminalization. The survey involved 1,048 people and has a margin of error of 3.8%.
"It's very simple, decriminalizing sex work is the future," report author Nina Luo, a Data for Progress fellow and an organizer with the group Decrim NY, said in a statement. "One, real wages haven't risen, 13% of Americans know someone who has died because they couldn't afford health care, and we have a $1.5 trillion student debt crisis. The economy is leaving people behind."
"Two, not only do young people see that, we understand that police and criminalization are not effective strategies for dealing with issues," she continued. "Three, this movement is organizing, and it's organizing fast. Electeds and candidates seeking office should get with where the public is and move decriminalization and the defunding of vice policing forward, or you'll be voted out."
Decriminalization initiatives have arisen in several states in recent years, including a hotly contested initiative in Washington, DC, that the city council tabled last November. US Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA) also recently noted he was in the process of drafting legislation that would “pave the way to repealing” the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), a pair of laws passed together in April 2018 that have severely frustrated the attempts of sex workers to ply their trade online. Sex workers have noted that without the ability to safely screen clients before meeting them, their work has become much more dangerous.
"The conversation on sex workers' health and lives has reached new heights in the last few years," Kate D'Adamo of Reframe Health and Justice told Common Dreams. "This polling shows us something we have known all along - when you center the voices of people trading sex to speak from their experience and share the policy changes that would dramatically and drastically change their lives, decriminalization becomes an obvious choice."
"The criminalization of people's bodies, and by extension of our sexual and reproductive lives, is rooted in white supremacy, misogyny, and queer- and transphobia," Sara L. Ainsworth, legal and policy director at If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice, told the outlet. "Decriminalizing sex work and dismantling police units that target and often abuse sex workers, along with the other vital recommendations in this report, are priorities that come directly from communities most affected."
Black women and trans people are among those who stand to gain the most from decriminalization. A 2015 report by the Red Umbrella Project (RedUP) and the National Center for Transgender Equality found that 11% of transgender people have engaged in sex work at some point, including nearly 4 in 10 black trans people surveyed. A 2014 report by RedUP noted that 94% of all prostitution charges in New York were against black women both cis and trans.
Further, a 2014 report by Columbia University found that LGBTQ youth and trans women of color “are endemically profiled as being engaged in sex work, public lewdness, or other sexual offenses.” Trans people use the euphemism “walking while trans” for this profiling, the Huffington Post notes.
However, opponents of decriminalization argue that without police suppression of sex work, human trafficking networks would be free to expand. At Washington, DC’s hearing on the decriminalization bill in October 2019, National Organization for Women (NOW) President Toni Van Pelt worried the bill would let people abduct children with impunity and denounced prostitution as a form of gender-based violence. Other speakers worried decriminalization would spoil sexual assault cases against non-sex workers.
However, it should be noted that existing decriminalization plans would not legalize prostitution, they would merely remove criminal penalties for engaging in it. Legalization, by contrast, would involve state regulation of prostitution as an industry, such as the licensed brothels that operate in Nevada.
Others advocate for what they call the “Nordic model,” modeled after laws in Sweden and Norway that criminalize “Johns,” or sex work patrons, rather than the sex workers themselves.