Progressive policies proposed by 2020 candidates must include sex workers

Presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren speaking at a forum in Iowa in March. Photo via Flickr.

Views expressed in opinion columns are the author’s own.

The two most progressive candidates in the 2020 Democratic primaries thus far, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, have made remarkable efforts to support workers and labor unions. The renewed focus on labor is a welcome change to mainstream political focal points and one that is important for empowering working-class people. Sex workers, however, have not received the benefit of this attention shift.

In April 2018, President Trump signed a legislative package including the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act bill from the House and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act bill from the Senate into law. The acts’ aims were noble, but sex workers continuously criticized the legislation as an endangerment of their lives and livelihoods.

FOSTA/SESTA created complications in enforcing part of the 1996 Communications Decency Act, which exempted internet platforms from responsibility for repercussions of user-generated content. The legislation makes internet platforms responsible for user-generated ads regarding prostitution and consensual sex work.

Besides their roles with legal authorities for sting operations to uncover sex trafficking rings and find missing persons, platforms like Backpage.com’s adult ads section and the Craigslist personals section have long served as avenues for sex workers to find business more safely than on the street, where they have no way of screening potential clients. Now that they have been shut down as casualties of FOSTA/SESTA, sex workers are largely left without an online marketplace and potentially forced back onto the streets to find work. 

Throughout the drafting and consideration of FOSTA/SESTA, sex workers and advocates were vocal in their concerns about the legislation’s potential impact on their ability to safely earn an income. The legislators didn’t listen, and the bipartisan bill was easily passed and signed into law. Those legislators, especially the ones now running for president, should be held accountable for their decision’s impact.

Currently, every Democratic presidential candidate who served in the 115th Congress voted for FOSTA/SESTA. Some of these votes are not surprising. Kamala Harris, for example, was a notoriously aggressive criminal prosecutor before she ran for the Senate, and she frequently supported “hostile initiatives” that harmed sex workers. But for progressive candidates who are concerned about labor, such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, it’s harder to reconcile.

Sex work is work, and sex workers share many of the concerns of other types of workers. All workers deserve the right to a safe working environment and a living wage. If candidates like Sanders and Warren are truly dedicated to uplifting and protecting the American worker, their progressive vision must include sex workers.

Emily Maurer is a junior environmental science and policy major. She can be reached at emrosma@gmail.com.

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