[Decriminalizing Sex Work]
Chinyere Ezie, Staff Attorney, Center for Constitutional Rights: “Laws criminalizing sex work criminalize poverty and thrust LGBTQIA people of color who face rampant employment discrimination into prisons and jails. This report begins a discussion about criminal justice reform that’s long overdue and charts a path forward for a more just future.”
Today, 28 organizations working on a range of human rights and public health issues are releasing a report advocating for the decriminalization of sex work in the United States.
The 27-page report defines the issue, describes policing and criminalization patterns, and proposes a united policy platform for decriminalization. The report also contains two new national polls by Data for Progress/YouGov, one on the decriminalization of sex work and the other on ending vice policing. The report is authored by Data for Progress Fellow and Decrim NY organizer Nina Luo.
A full copy of the report can be found at www.bit.ly/decrimreport. Detailed polling results, including cross-tabulations, can be found at www.bit.ly/decrimpoll.
“It’s very simple, decriminalizing sex work is the future. One, real wages haven’t risen, 13 percent of Americans know someone who has died because they couldn’t afford healthcare, and we have a $1.5 trillion student debt crisis. The economy is leaving people behind, so if you’re not doing sex work, you know someone who is. It’s harder to call for the criminalization of something that more and more people in your community are relying on for survival. Two, not only do young people see that, we understand that police and criminalization are not effective strategies for dealing with issues. In fact, they make things worse. Of voters age 18-29, only 9 percent strongly oppose decriminalizing sex work. That’s credit to movements against police violence like Black Lives Matter and the general decrease in interest in authoritarian structures like the church and the police for political direction. 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.” – Nina Luo, Data for Progress Fellow, Decrim NY organizer and report author.
The report’s policy platform calls on:
- Legislative bodies to repeal statutes and create expungement systems.
- Prosecutors to issue decline-to-prosecute policies and to return civil asset forfeiture taken because of prostitution-related charges.
- Cities and counties to defund vice policing units and conduct investigations into law enforcement misconduct, especially sexual misconduct, against people in the sex trades.
- Local, state, and federal governments to fund LGBTQIA+ youth affirming shelters, invest in affordable housing for all, and fund services for people in the sex trades that are non-stigmatizing and not tied to arrest or police.
From November 27 through November 29 of 2019, YouGov Blue, on behalf of Data for Progress, polled 1,029 voters from across the country with two questions:
(1) Would you [support or oppose] decriminalizing sex work as New Zealand did in 2003? This would remove criminal penalties for adults to sell and pay for consensual sex while also maintaining laws that criminalize violence. (2) Vice policing units often enforce laws against consensual sex work. One strategy they use is undercover stings and raids, in which plainclothes officers pose as potential customers, solicit sex workers and then arrest them.Do you [support or oppose] defunding vice policing dedicated to criminalizing sex work?
For each question, voters chose from five options: strongly support, somewhat support, somewhat oppose, strongly oppose, and not sure. The poll result is representative of the US voting population by age, race/ethnicity, sex, education, U.S. Census region, and 2016 Presidential vote choice. The survey margin of error was +/-3.8 percent.
For the first time in history, polling finds an outright majority of voters (52 percent) in the nation support decriminalizing sex work, with net support at +16. This represents a +7 percentage change from Data for Progress’s last poll in May 2019, when 45 percent of voters polled supported decriminalization. Three groups of people overwhelmingly support decriminalization: two-thirds of young people (voters age 18-44), two-thirds of Democratic voters across all ages (with net support +36), and 70 percent of Latinx voters (with net support +42) want to decriminalize sex work. Union membership also predicts support for decriminalization: 61 percent of voters who are current union members are supportive, with net support at +24.
Overall, support for ending vice policing was similar to support for decriminalization. About 49 percent of voters support ending vice policing of sex work, compared to 35 percent who oppose it. This +14 net support for ending vice policing is statistically indistinguishable from the net +16 percent who support decriminalizing sex work. Two groups of people overwhelmingly support ending vice policing: nearly 60 percent of young people (voters age 18-44) and 59 percent of Democratic voters across all ages (with net support +33) want to decriminalize sex work. Interestingly, ending vice policing seems to be a slightly less politically polarizing issue than decriminalization. Whereas for decriminalization, Republican net support is -24, Republicans are split with a narrow lean against defunding vice policing, with net support at -6.
“The criminalization of sex work hurts our communities and advances the epidemic of violence targeting Black trans women. These policies feed police profiling of trans women of color and make it harder for those LGBTQ people who rely on sex work for income to stay safe. While legislative reforms move forward with growing public support, we call on district attorneys who want to lower their local jail populations and decrease racial disparities to stop enforcement of these discriminatory laws. Doing so will also reduce violence and save lives,” said LaLa Zannell, Trans Justice Campaign Manager, American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).
“I’ve done sex work for more than 35 years. I started when I was 15 because I had a child and I needed to pay for all kinds of expenses to take care of my child—diapers, clothes, transportation, toys, doctors’ appointments. There were times I tried to stop doing sex work and tried to just work a straight job, but bills would start piling up again. I remember how good unionized protected jobs and wages were once. Those just don’t exist anymore. This is only the second time in my life where I’ve been paid enough at a job where I don’t need to also do sex work to survive. From 1988 to now, that’s more than 30 years apart between times when I’ve had a living wage job in my life,” said Tamika Spellman, Advocacy Director, HIPS.
“As Latinx people for justice and self-determination for all people, Mijente calls for the decriminalization of sex work in solidarity with all workers. Criminalization is a constant threat to the lives and precarious safety of our most vulnerable people, including immigrants and trans folks. It’s no coincidence that the communities who most need protection are disproportionately laboring in unprotected industries such as sex work, domestic work, and agricultural work. It is way past time to end the abuse and stigma—decriminalize sex work now,” said Sofia Campos, Director of First Impressions, Mijente.
“I’ve been arrested three times for sex work, twice in New York and once in Massachusetts. On the stroll in New York, firemen would come and hose all of us down in the freezing cold. In Connecticut, police would come and try to coerce sexual favors out of us, ‘blow us or we’re going to lock you up.’ I had kids, and I had to make it back to them. If I got sent to jail, who would take care of my kids? So we had no choice but to do what they said,” commented community member Victoria Walker.
“Decriminalizing sex work is a feminist priority. The criminalization of sex work is rooted in misogyny. Criminalization targets and polices women’s, especially trans women’s, bodies. Police often use the threat of arrest to coerce sexual favors out of people trading sex, and decriminalizing sex work is a critical step toward ending gender-based violence. The stigma against sex work promotes a culture of violence and dehumanization of people in the sex trades. Women’s March is committed to fighting for decriminalization and for fair, equitable, and safe working conditions for all, including sex workers,” said Rachel Carmona, COO, Women’s March.
“I was born in Haiti. When I was 17, my family found out that I was sexually active and that I was bisexual, so they exiled me to the USA. When I arrived, I only had a visitor visa, not a work visa, so I couldn’t work a straight job. For a couple years I struggled with homelessness, moving around from city to city and doing sex work to support myself. I would sleep at bus stops. I would sell videos and make them in shelter bathrooms. Because even if I could sleep in a shelter, I still had to make money to eat. Sex work is one of the only things you can do when you have a major economic insecurity in your life like homelessness,” community member Mystique Fatale.
“Laws criminalizing sex work criminalize poverty and thrust LGBTQIA people of color who face rampant employment discrimination into prisons and jails. This report begins a discussion about criminal justice reform that’s long overdue and charts a path forward for a more just future,” said Chinyere Ezie, Staff Attorney, Center for Constitutional Rights.
“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. Securing freedom from this kind of criminalization is at the heart of our work as lawyers for reproductive justice. We know that the law can be and is used as a weapon of oppression, especially against Black and Indigenous communities and queer and trans communities. 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. And when we center those communities, we are closer to realizing a world where all of us have the ability to create, sustain, and define our families if, when, and how we choose—free from fear of policing and prosecution, with the resources and support we need, on our own terms,” said Sara L. Ainsworth, J.D., Legal & Policy Director, If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice.
“The conversation on sex workers’ health and lives has reached new heights in the last few years. 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,” said Kate D’Adamo, Reframe Health and Justice.
“It’s time that we end the criminalization of sex work. As more Americans learn about the issue, the impact of ‘vice raids’ and the targeting of sex workers by police, the more they move to support decriminalization. Decriminalizing sex work is critically important to transgender people – and particularly transgender people of color – who are often profiled as sex workers and arrested for merely going about their daily lives. Our US Trans Survey shows that transgender people report high rates of police harassment, abuse, or mistreatment at the hands of police, both when they have been mistakenly profiled as sex workers and when they have actually engaged in sex work. Bringing sex work out of the shadows can help to reduce those risks,” said Mara Keisling, Executive Director, The National Center for Transgender Equality.
“I’ve been arrested four times for prostitution. Only once was I actually doing sex work, the other three arrests were just profiling because I’m a trans woman. It’s ridiculous that people have to carry their marriage certificate with them to prove that the person walking next to them is not a client. It’s ridiculous that trans women can’t occupy public space without getting arrested and sent to jail,” said Bianey Garcia, TGNCIQ Justice Organizer, Make the Road NY
List of organizations releasing the report (alphabetized):
American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU); Association of Legal Aid Attorneys, LGBTQ Caucus; Black Alliance for Just Immigration; Black and Pink; Black Youth Project 100; Center for Constitutional Rights; Center for HIV Law and Policy; Collective Action for Safe Spaces; Data for Progress; DECRIMNOW DC; Decrim NY; Harm Reduction Coalition; HIPS; Human Rights Campaign; If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice; Immigrant Defense Project; Mijente; National Black Justice Coalition; National Center for Lesbian; Rights National Center for Transgender Equality; National Lawyers Guild; National LGBTQ Task Force; Reframe Health and Justice; TRANScending Barriers; Transgender Law Center; URGE: Unite for Reproductive & Gender Equity; Witness to Mass Incarceration; Women’s March