Note: At its recent retreat in Monticello, New York, the leadership of Social Democrats USA voted unanimously, with a proper quorum present, to endorse the decriminalization of sex work throughout the United States.
During the past decade and throughout this presidential year, the issue of sex work has emerged, making its mark via unprecedented mainstream media coverage. Nationwide advocacy groups such as the Sex Workers Outreach Project and “DeCrim” activists working in major US cities have also drawn the attention of the Democratic Left in general and progressive elected officials in particular.
In New York State, State Senators Julia Salazar and Jessica Ramos authored and introduced Senate Bill 6419, which calls for the decriminalization of sex work for all consenting adult citizens as well as for adult migrants looking for a path to citizenship. Currently residing in committee, this bill, if passed, would be the first of its kind in a nation where most aspects of sex work are illegal and sex workers are marginalized and oppressed, sometimes brutally. Democratic Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders have each lent a sympathetic ear to the concerns of sex workers. Warren stated in 2019 that “I am open to decriminalizing sex work. Sex workers, like all workers, deserve autonomy and are particularly vulnerable to physical and financial abuse.” Sarah Ford, Sanders’ deputy communications director, declared that “Bernie believes that decriminalization is certainly something that should be considered. Other countries have done this and it has shown to make the lives of sex workers safer.” Both Warren and Sanders endorsed democratic socialist candidate Tiffany Caban for district attorney of Queens, NY, who made sex work decriminalization core to her campaign. Their joint endorsement was critical to Caban’s 2019 near-victory over Democratic establishment pick Melinda Katz.
Amnesty International, which called for sex work decriminalization in 2016, defines sex work as “the exchange of sexual services (including sexual acts) between consenting adults for some form of remuneration, with the terms agreed between the seller and the buyer.” The exchange can be direct, as in prostitution, or indirect, as in stripping, pole dancing, phone sex, or adult films. Since the 1970s, sexual activity as the basis for commercial exchanges has caused nasty divisions within the women’s movement. Those who oppose decriminalization want sex work abolished and question the feminist loyalties of those who disagree; supporters of sex work oppose putting sexual activity on a pedestal that elevates it above other human needs that are also subject to commercial exchanges. Sex work supporters argue that this attitude is a relic of the Victorian Era that oppressed women in all aspects of their lives.
Ultimately, it is a matter of choice. For instance, on the issue of abortion, Social Democrats USA is a wide-tent organization that welcomes the participation of democratic socialists who believe that human life begins at conception as well as those who believe it begins at birth, but as a matter of policy, the greater good is served by supporting a woman’s right to choose. Likewise, Social Democrats USA welcomes the participation of democratic socialists who see the very notion of ‘sex work’ as degrading to women as well as of those who support sex work not only as a necessary option for some but as a way to normalize and demystify sexual activity on the spectrum of human needs. As a matter of policy, the greater good is served by both supporting the right of women (as well as men) to choose sex work and bringing not just sex workers but all aspects of sex work out of the underground and into the light of day. This can best be done through decriminalization, since all other options have failed to satisfactorily protect the human rights of sex workers.
Overt criminalization of sex work is the status quo in the United States. Many sex workers – prostitutes – are considered criminals, and therefore require sex managers – pimps – to bail them out of jail whenever they are arrested by the police. This arrangement gives pimps and police the power of life and death over prostitutes, and the stigma derived from this arrangement causes society at large to marginalize these and, by extension, all other sex workers. As a result, serial murderers of sex workers feel they are doing society a favor. Any decent person who feels invested in human rights must oppose this arrangement.
Legalization of sex work – the status quo in several Western European countries as well as a few counties in Nevada – does make sex workers somewhat safer inasmuch as individual pimps and abusive police are no longer a factor. However, legalization restricts their movement and places of living in ways that the average citizen would not tolerate if applied to them. Advocates of legalization do not consult sex workers before imposing this framework. Moreover, as Kate Zen, Executive Director of the New York State Assembly Asian Pacific-American Task Force, stated at the 2019 Left Forum, “Legalization, in the German or Dutch context, is a regulatory framework that continues to put power into the hands of capitalist industries through expensive licenses and public listings, which exclude poor workers and migrant sex workers who cannot gain a license.”
The “Nordic Model” is currently being promoted by feminists who want to abolish sex work and who are indignant that the term ‘sex work’ is even in the political lexicon. On paper, this Model decriminalizes sex workers but not anyone else who is part of sex work. Those who sell sex services don’t get arrested, the theory goes, but those who buy such services are. However, in those countries where this Model is prevalent, customers won’t report any crimes they witness for fear of being arrested simply for being customers. Sex workers are still arrested, but on charges of ‘loitering’. Social service providers in these countries oppose condom distribution on the grounds that this promotes prostitution. This is a dysfunctional Model that lends itself to more abuse against sex workers and greater risk to public health.
This leaves decriminalization of sex work – the removal of all mention of adult sex work from the criminal code and the establishment of industry-specific regulations in consultation with sex worker representatives. This already happened in New Zealand in 2003 with the passage of the Prostitution Reform Act. According to the New Zealand government, there has been not one incident of sex trafficking since then. Sex workers there report their greatest job satisfaction ever. In the United States, the decriminalization movement is led by advocates of sex worker unionization, collectivization and other aspects of democratic socialism.
We resolve that Social Democrats USA will assist in whatever way it can to promote the decriminalization of sex work in a principled manner.