Sex Work and the 2020 Presidential Campaign

The next Democratic presidential-candidates debate is scheduled for mid-September and it would be interesting if a network moderator asks the candidates whether they were in favor of decriminalizing consensual, adult sex work?

One can well imagine the question provoking a host of reactions ranging from cautious non-answers to strong statements of support.  Most revealing, no one would have asked the question in the 2016 election let alone over the last half-century, thus illuminating just how far Americans have come regarding the issue of consensual, adult sex work.

More than two dozen Democrats are running for the 2020 presidential nomination and their positions on decriminalizing sex work not only differ but have evolved during the campaign.  Tulsi Gabbard (R-HI) has taken one of the strongest stands for decriminalization, insisting, “If a consenting adult wants to engage in sex work, that is their right, and it should not be a crime.” She added,“All people should have autonomy over their bodies and their labor.”

Kamala Harris (S-CA) long prosecuted sex workers both as Attorney General of San Francisco and then as California’s AG. As a presidential candidate, she’s reversed herself, now insisting,“there is an ecosystem around that [sex work] that includes crimes that harm people, and for those issues, I do not believe that anybody who hurts another human being or profits off of their exploitation should be free of criminal prosecution. … But when you’re talking about consenting adults, we should consider that we can’t criminalize consensual behavior.”

The candidates fall into three broad categories concerning decriminalizing sex work – those who support it, oppose it and have no clear position.  BuzzFeed and Vice provide a sampling of the diversity of their opinions though mid-July.

 Support decriminalization – Gabbard, Harris, Warren, Booker, Sanders, Moulton and Gravel.

Oppose decriminalization – de Blasio.

No clear position — Gillibrand, Klobuchar, Biden, Buttigieg, Beta O’Rourke, Yang and Castro.

It’s still a long way before the final Democratic candidate is chosen and more than a year before the 2020 election.  But no matter which Democratic is chosen, the decriminalization of sex work would be a revealing question if posed during the presidential debates given Donald Trump’s relations with sex workers — including Stephanie Clifford (aka Stormy Daniels)Karen McDougal (the 1998 PlayboyPlaymate of the Year) and rumors of his illicit relations facilitated by Jeffrey Epstein, the convicted and sex trafficker who apparently committed suicide.


That the issue of decriminalization of sex work is an issue, however marginal, in the 2020 election is a result of a strong grassroots movement of spreading through the country led by sex workers, former sex workers, radical feminists and civil libertarians.  Groups like Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) and SWOP Behind Bars, Decriminalize Sex Work (DSW), Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational, and Research Project (ESPLERP), Decrim NY, Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP), Massachusetts Sex Worker Ally Network (MASWAN)and Coyote(Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) are championing these campaigns.

As has been endlessly repeated, prostitution is the oldest profession.  What is clear, however, is that since the nation’s founding four centuries ago, prostitution is a crime that still flourishes.  Sex work, although legal in only a handful of brothels in rural Nevada areas, it is estimated to be a $14.6 billion enterprise.  The Fondation Scelles estimated that in 2012 there were one million prostitutes operating across the country.

The following is a summary of some of the efforts to decriminalize sex work taking place across the country:

California— On July 30th, Governor Gavin Newson signed into law SB-233 that offers immunity to sex workers who report certain crimes and block their arrest for carrying condoms, alleged evidence of prostitution. “No one is safer when sex workers are afraid to report crimes and acts of violence,” Newson stated an official press release.  “This legislation will help ensure serious and violent crimes are reported to law enforcement ….

ESPLERP’s Maxine Doogan reports, “This first-of-its-kind legislation protects anyone reporting a serious crime (such as sexual assault, trafficking, robbery, domestic violence, or other violent crime) without being charged with a misdemeanor prostitution charge under California Penal Code 647.”  It also excludes possession of condoms as a probable cause for a prostitution arrest. She points out that “SB 233 is based on policy supported by the San Francisco Police Department and District Attorney.”

Rhode Island–it decriminalized the sale of sex indoors for six years (2003-2009) due to in state law; while it was a failure in many way, it saw a significant decline in rapes and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs).

The state House of Representatives is seeking to establish a commission to study the decriminalization of sex work.  “It is something that has been talked about but not really talked about. It has not been an open and frank conversation,” said Rep. Anastasia Williams (D-Providence), the lead sponsor of a proposal “to study the health and safety impact of revising commercial sexual activity laws.”

Florida— the state legislature recently passed Senate Bill 540that toughened anti-prostitution laws.  It extends the Soliciting for Prostitution Public Database to include “johns” and “pimps” as well as sex trafficking victims and sex workers.

A coalition of sex workers, attorneys, civil rights activists and their supporters held a rally prior to the bill’s passage at the Orlando (FL) City Hall calling on state legislatures to reject the bill as well as for the state to decriminalize sex work and for the genuine enforcement of sex-trafficking laws. Speakers included current and former sex workers as well as representatives from SWOP, DSW and the Greater Orlando NOW.

Kaytlin Bailey, a former sex worker and DSW’s communications director who participated in the rally, strongly opposed Florida’s legislative efforts to further criminalize sex work. She insists that “arresting sex workers isn’t a way of protecting them.”  She adds, “sex work should be decriminalized, because our government has no right to police our bodies. Arresting sex workers isn’t a way of protecting them.  It’s a way of protecting societal patriarchy.”

New York— in 2017, former state chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, headed a special commission, the Independent Commission on New York City Criminal Justice and Incarceration Reform, that advocated for reclassifying prostitution as a civil offense rather than a criminal one. “The modern thinking on this is that the defendants in prostitution cases, whether it’s around the world or around the corner, are victims,” he wrote.

In June, state senator Julia Salazar of the 18thDistrict (Brooklyn) – and a Democratic Socialist – sponsored a bill that would decriminalize sex work but would not alter current laws on sex trafficking or the exploitation of minors. “Sex workers are workers and they deserve to be treated with dignity, including protections and decent working conditions, rather than the abuse and criminalization that they currently face,” Salazar said.  She added, “I’m dedicated to defending workers’ rights, reforming our criminal justice system and ending exploitation, and we know that criminalization puts everyone in sex work at risk rather than protecting them.”

New Hampshire– in January 2018, the state legislature adopted House Bill 287 establishing a five-member committee that would look at the present state of sex work and sex trafficking in the state and explore the advantages or disadvantages of decriminalization.  It was strong opposed by Gov. Chris Sununu.

Hawaii – in January 2019, Gov. David Ig signed the nation’s first legislature making it easier for someone to remove a prostitution conviction from their record. The law dropped the requirement that a person must prove that they were a sex trafficking victim to have such a conviction erased. Now, as long as the person is not convicted of another offense within three years, it will be cleared.

According to one source, there are 1,500 to 2,000 victims of sex trafficking in Hawaii each year, and the average age of a sex trafficking victim in the state is 17 years.

Alaska – as is true in most frontier towns, sex work was first a common practice here, then it was regulated and, finally, it was outlawed.

Tara Burns, researcher and founding member of Community United for Safety and Protection (CUSP), argues, “people have used this moral panic — this idea that there is a trafficking epidemic — to create so much funding and so much policy that now they’re being pressured to show the evidence—to show the sex trafficking arrests,”

HB 112/SB 73 in the Alaska Senate and House seeks to expand sexual assault laws to explicitly prohibit law enforcement from sexual contact with trafficking or domestic violence victims—as part of its continuing campaign to protect sex workers from laws that make them “vulnerable to violence and exploitation.”

Massachusetts– in February 2019, Rep. Kay Khan (Newton) introduced two bills that seek to decriminalize the selling of sex.  The Act Relative to Sexually Exploited Individuals decriminalizes young people involved in sex work by repealing a current statute; and An Act Relative to Codifying Protections for Sexually Exploited Children attempts to decriminalize adult sex workers by striking certain language and creating a new category of sex workers that would be protected under the law.

The decriminalization of “Sexually Exploited Individual” (SEI) represents an important step toward decriminalizing sex work. But the bill still enables criminalization on some levels, creating a tier of privileged sex workers that the law favors over others. The bills were drafted with the support of SWOP-Boston and MASWAN.

Maine– the state legislature is considering a new law (LD-326), An Act To Decriminalize Engaging in Prostitution, that will allow those previously convicted of prostitution to have their record expunged. According to one report, “this is not only good for those previously convicted, but also good for the tax revenue of our state, as these people can now find employment and begin paying taxes — a win-win.?

Michigan– Rochane Barnes, who works with SWOP Michigan, warns, “in Michigan’s current law … there are no protections for sex workers due to the illegality of the work.” She notes that the state permits exotic dancing, but prostitution is illegal.  “We advocate to educate our policymakers and the public opinion on the harms committed against sex workers, and advocate for healthy and safer alternatives to lessen these [harmful] results,” she argues.

Washington, D.C.– in 2017, two D.C. Council members, David Grosso (I-At Large) and Robert C. White Jr. (D-At Large), introduced a bill, “Reducing Criminalization to Promote Public Safety and Health Amendment Act,” that would decriminalize prostitution.  “I do not think the criminalization of sex workers has worked for the District of Columbia,” Grosso stated. “Arresting our way out of the problem is not the solution. The approach should be a harm reduction and human rights approach.”

In 2019, D.C. council members White, Anita Bonds, and Brianne Nadeau introduced a follow-up bill that would decriminalize sex work in the District. The “Community and Safety Health Amendment Act of 2019” is designed to remove certain criminal penalties for engaging in sex work in order to promote public health and safety. However, despite not yet having been voted on by D.C. residents, the bill was blocked by members of Congress.


Popular culture fosters a fiction about sex work.  The 1990 comedy, Pretty Woman, directed by Garry Marshal and featuring Richard Gere and Julia Roberts, has long left a false impression as to the life of a sex worker.  Nearly three-decades later, Starz, the cable-satellite serviced, offered viewers the short-lived series, The Girlfriend Experience, that chronicled the exploits of a 21st-century sex worker, a young female attorney in training who leads a double life as a high-end escort or “girlfriend”.  Never asked, what is the real life of sex workers?

Over the last decade, nearly every state has either passed or toughened existing laws concerning what is labeled “human trafficking.” Its a category covering both labor (e.g., house cleaning, farm labor and sweatshop manufacturing) and – especially — sex work (i.e., prostitution). As sex work, trafficking often involves underage juveniles, mostly girls.  Among the venues in which sex trafficking ostensibly occurs are “gentlemen’s” orstrip clubs, brothels, streetwalkers and online advertisements.

Often forgotten is an acknowledgment that all sex work is not the same nor a form of “trafficking.” Trafficking is sexual slavery, a “non-consensual,” involuntary or coerced act. Prostitution is a “consensual” or voluntary practice involving sexual intercourse or other practices (e.g., phone sex, posing) engaged in by adult women, men and transgender persons who exchange sexual services for money or other forms of compensation.  While there has been a reported increase in independent or “freelance” sex workers, many sex workers are victims of pimps and criminal sex rings.

In a 2013 study, “Federal Prosecution of Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children Cases,” the DOJ provides further clarification on youth trafficking.  It reports that between 2004-2013 37,105 suspects were investigated for offenses involving the commercial sexual exploitation of children.  It notes the annual number of investigations nearly doubled between 2004 and 2013, from 1,405 cases to 2,776.

The federal government and many state legislative and law-enforcement actions are part of the ongoing war on sex that collapses the differences between commercial sex and sex trafficking.  This process is vividly illustrated in the adoption of FOSTA-SESTA — Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, respectively – signed into law by Pres. Trump on April 11, 2018.

FOSTA-SESTA was backed by nearly all the 20202 Democratic presidential candidates, including Senators Sanders, Warren, Harris, Booker, Gillibrand, Klobuchar and Bennet as well as Representatives Gabbard, Moulton, Eric Swalwell and former House member O’Rourke.  Only Gravel opposed it.

The future of prostitution may be sex robots.  In July 2017, the Netherland’s-based Foundation for Responsible Robotics (FRR) released a revealing study, Our Sexual Future With Robots, that explores what the authors identify as the “significant issues that we may have to deal with in the foreseeable future over the next 5 to 10 years.” Over the last few years, sex-robot bordellos have opened in Moscow and Paris, in London, Amsterdam and Dortmund, Germany.  The robots can be dressed to the customer’s request and wait in the position the customer desires.  According to one bordello’s management, the robots are “properly disinfected with special antibacterial soaps before and after use.”

The U.S. is a crazy country.  Gun ownership is a constitutional-guaranteed right; 32 states have decriminalized the medical use of marijuana and 22 states decriminalized its recreational use; the Supreme Court ruled sports gambling legal; abortion remains the law of the land; and the commercial sex industry – of sex toys, porn, “gentlemen’s clubs,” adult hook-up services, enhancement drugs and more – is a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.  Yet, commercial sex work among consenting adults remains a crime in many states.


David Rosen is the author of Sex, Sin & Subversion:  The Transformation of 1950s New York’s Forbidden into America’s New Normal (Skyhorse, 2015).  He can be reached at; check out