“Sex work is work and should not be criminalized by the state,” said New York state senator Julia Salazar at a June press conference introducing a package of legislation decriminalizing sex work, the first bill of its kind to be proposed in New York. We couldn’t have said it better. But one year ago, no one would have expected to hear these words or see such legislation coming out of Albany.
Sex workers have been fighting to decriminalize their work for decades, but over the past year, partly by working with the organized socialist left, they’ve made the issue much more visible. A number of sex workers belong to Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and worked on Salazar’s 2018 campaign, and many are working closely with her as part of Decrim NY, a coalition of sex workers and allies.
Sex workers also campaigned to elect Tiffany Cabán as Queens district attorney. Cabán, like Salazar, was endorsed and robustly supported by DSA. A vocal supporter of sex work decriminalization, Cabán has come so close to winning her primary that the campaign has been mired in a complex and contentious recount and legal contest since late June. (Full disclosure: I volunteered for both Cabán’s and Salazar’s campaigns.)
Sex workers and socialists have already had a dramatic impact on the political conversation, moving decriminalization from the fringes to the mainstream of policy discussion. Though Salazar’s bill hasn’t passed yet, its introduction is a huge step forward and provides a sound basis for future organizing.
Even Bernie Sanders may soon be speaking out on the issue. Fellow socialists have rightly criticized Sanders for voting for SESTA/FOSTA, federal anti-trafficking legislation that potentially penalizes online platforms for advertising any sex work and that has been vigorously opposed by sex workers. Sex workers have long criticized the senator for inattentiveness to their issues, and for this vote.
But the Cabán campaign, and the sex workers who worked to amplify the candidate’s position on decriminalization, may be shifting the context. After endorsing Cabán’s bid for Queens district attorney, Sanders was asked about the issue and said he was open to decriminalization. Elizabeth Warren, who also endorsed Cabán, responded the same way. (Kamala Harris and Tulsi Gabbard already supported decriminalization in some form, though sex workers are rightly skeptical of Harris’s stance, since it’s not reflected in her record as a prosecutor.) These are a few of many signs of how far the issue has come in a short time, thanks to organizing.
At its convention in Atlanta last week, DSA, in an overwhelming vote, adopted a resolution to support the decriminalization of sex work, to oppose SESTA/FOSTA, and to call upon Sanders to reverse his SESTA/FOSTA position and support decriminalization. But why is decriminalization of sex work so critical for socialists?
It’s probably not obvious. Many of the most prevalent left arguments, though entirely correct, could just as easily be made by libertarians. In fact, until recently, we read far more about sex workers’ rights in Reason magazine than in any left publication. Libertarian arguments include the idea that sex between consenting adults is not the business of the state. As well, women, whose sexuality has long been especially policed, deserve bodily and sexual autonomy. Workers and entrepreneurs should have the freedom to make money in ways that don’t harm anyone else. Policy shouldn’t be based on moralism, disgust, prejudice, or paternalistic notions that women need protection and can’t make decisions for themselves.
These are all good reasons to support the decriminalization of sex work, and it’s good that so many people who aren’t socialists subscribe to them. Socialists add to these two additional reasons that are equally compelling and, notably, are also compelling to many outside our movement. First, decriminalization will improve the working conditions of working-class people, including some of the most marginalized sectors of the working class. While decriminalization allows sex workers to seek the best and safest working conditions, by allowing them to advertise online and screen clients properly, and to report violence to the police, criminalization allows violence against sex workers to flourish. At present, laws against prostitution expose sex workers to violence from the state (police harassment and brutality, jail), and also to rape and robbery, which sex workers suffer often and are far less likely to report when they know they face criminal penalties for their work. Decriminalization turns violence against sex workers, now a common workplace hazard, into a crime that can be reported and addressed.
Decriminalization also keeps the criminal justice system out of sex workers’ lives, making it easier for them to get housing, education, employment outside of the sex trade if they prefer, health care, drug treatment, and other life basics, as Decrim NY points out. All this gives sex workers far more freedom to participate fully in their communities. Socialists should support just about any policy that reduces the criminalization of working-class people and gives them access to a better quality of life.
As well, having potential income outside the formal wage-labor system can help all workers. Moral and “public health” arguments obscure this, sometimes on purpose. The capitalist class has found so many creative reasons to object to informal labor: whether you’re selling blow jobs or spliffs, or raising pigs for food on your nineteenth-century Manhattan block, bourgeois moralists and health-concern trolls have always waxed censorious. That’s because when workers depend a little less on selling their labor to capitalists, all workers potentially have more control over their lives, more power to refuse unacceptable working conditions within the wage labor system. When you can’t engage in informal work, you’re forced to devote more of your labor to enriching capitalists. Pundits like New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof always celebrate when women leave the sex trade to work in sweatshops; for obvious reasons, this move doesn’t necessarily improve women’s lives, but it’s great for Nike. Socialists should be attentive to the ways that policing informal work deprives workers of escape routes from the formal labor market — and shores up the power of capital.
One socialist feminist argument against decriminalization has been that since socialists want to see a world in which fewer areas of life are commodified, why should we agree to legalize the commodification of sex, which so many people find distasteful? This line of thinking misspecifies the socialist objection to commodification. It’s not a matter of taste, though sometimes the Left does frame a critique of commodification as a complaint about vulgarity (as in music purists being mad when a Stereolab song is in a car commercial).
But socialists oppose commodification of human needs not because it offends our sensibilities, or because we morally object to anyone getting paid, but because human needs, by definition, must be met, and their commodification makes survival a cruel contest. Our ability to access cancer treatment, safe housing, or a decent education shouldn’t depend on our ability to pay. This reasoning doesn’t apply to sex at all, as agreeable as it can be. Since sex has to be consensual, it is only viewed as a literal human right by a few extremist incel weirdos (including some mass shooters). From a socialist point of view, it’s far more ethical to charge money for sex than for food.
Some leftists are also influenced by feminist arguments against decriminalization, which tend to focus on trafficking and the exploitation of children, both of which are easily sensationalized issues. Those are crimes already, and they won’t increase with decriminalization. In fact, scholars like Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco view decriminalization as an evidence-based way to combat such horrors; at present, criminalization often results in trafficking victims being arrested themselves, and decriminalization would make it much easier to support people who come forward to report abuses.
Finally, socialists should continue to support sex workers’ rights — and, therefore, decriminalization — because sex workers are our comrades and are vital to our organizations. There are already many sex workers in the socialist movement. Supporting their struggle is a matter of solidarity as well as justice, and it will continue to help our movement grow.