The Culture Wars Continue: The Fate of Sex Workers

Photograph Source: Charlotte Cooper – CC BY 2.0

U.S. politics is played out in many ways. For example, much attention has been rightly focused on the new Texas law, SB8, that undercut the Supreme Court’s 1973 ruling, Roe v. Wade, by prohibiting a woman’s right to an abortion after six weeks.  Equally troubling, new abortion restrictions were enacted in eight additional states during the first six months of 2021– Arizona, Arkansas, Indiana, Montana, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and West Virginia.

However, far less reporting was about Gov. Greg Abbott signing of Texas’s HB 1540 on June 16th that went into effect on September 1st.   It is ostensibly an “anti-trafficking” bill, but actually makes buying sex a felony. “We know the demand is the driving force behind human trafficking,” Texas state Rep. Senfronia Thompson (D), the bill’s author, said. “If we can curb or stamp out the demand end of it [sic], then we can save the lives of numerous persons.”

According to Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, HB 1540 makes Texas the first state in the country to charge so-called “Johns” with a state felony. A second conviction under this law would enhance the charge to a third-degree felony.

Michelle Anderson is the policy associate for the Afiva Center, a Dallas-based reproductive justice organizations for Black women and girls, who used to be a sex worker. “This bill will not change the supply and demand,” she said.

As politics would have it, in March and April, the district attorneys of Manhattan and Queens, NYC, dismissed people charged with loitering for the purpose of prostitution and will no longer prosecute people on “prostitution” and “unlicensed massage” charges.  In addition, Mayor Bill de Blasio moved to decriminalize prostitution city wide.


The difference between sex work and trafficking is a long contested dividing issue of the culture wars.  Yale Law differentiates the two categories:

Sex work, broadly defined, is the exchange of sexual services for money or good, including housing, food, drugs or basic necessities. … Sex workers include people of all genders, races, and ages.

Trafficking is defined in United States federal and state law, as well as international law, and refers to the intentional movement of someone through force, fraud, or coercion into an labor sector. Thus, the crime of “trafficking” can be experienced by sex workers, but not all people in the sex trade are trafficked.

Many within the Christian right and some conservative feminists collapse the two categories.

Donald Trump’s presidency was marked by a serious conservative effort to collapse the difference between sex work and trafficking.  In 2018, Pres. Donald Trump signed the reconciled Senate’s Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the House’s Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA). His action was aimed at containing sex trafficking and furthering the religious right’s culture wars.

Under Trump administration, sex trafficking took innumerable forms.  They include: peonage (8 U.S.C. §§ 1581); enticement for slavery (§§ 1583); sale into involuntary servitude (§§ 1584); forced labor (§§ 1589); trafficking with respect to peonage, slavery, involuntary servitude, or forced labor (§§ 1590); sex trafficking of children or by force, fraud or coercion (§§ 1591); unlawful conduct with respect to documents in furtherance of trafficking (§§ 1592); and “general provisions” (§§ 1594).

In addition, the Trump administration backed the Fredrick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act (H.R. 2200) that provided $430 million to aid efforts to end sex and labor trafficking. Nearly every federal agency was actively involved in the campaign to end sex trafficking, including domestic and foreign affairs agencies as well as those involving immigrants. Among the federal departments engaging in anti-sex trafficking efforts are: the Dept. of Justice (e.g., FBI), Dept. of Homeland Security (e.g., ICE), Dept. of Labor and Dept. of State.  For example, the DoJ awarded $35 to provide housing and services to human trafficking survivors.

The Walk Free Foundation estimated that in 2019 some 20 million people globally were victims of forced labor or trafficking of which at least 400,000 were in the United States.  Some 4.8 million people are trafficked for sex. In 2019, the Dept. of Justice secured convictions against 475 traffickers with 454 involving sex trafficking and 21 relating to labor abuse, official data shows.

The high-point of the Trump administration “war” against “human trafficking” came in January 2020 when Ivanka Trump hosted a “summit” culminating “National Slavery and Human Trafficking Prevention Month.”


The Biden administration has undertaken actions to end trafficking through what the Justice Department calls Joint Task Force Alpha.  Working with the Dept. of Homeland Security, it seeks to dismantle and prosecute human trafficking and smuggling networks operating out of El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico. In addition, the Biden administration is committing $48 million over four years to further “a young women’s empowerment initiative and would invest in affordable housing, agriculture businesses and entrepreneurs in Guatemala.”

A recent effort in the House to revise Section 230 – Trump’s FOSTA-SESTA – was defeated.“There’s no politician who gains political currency for standing up for the voices of sex workers,” said Rep. Ro Khanna (D-CA), one of only 25 House members to vote against the bill.  “And they were just totally shut out,” Khanna said. “They were simply invisible.”  He added, “They’re not a voting bloc; they’re not a donor bloc; lobbyists don’t represent them on Capitol Hill.”

Nevertheless, there are small efforts underway in states across the country to end the prosecution of sex workers.

+ In California, Senate Bill 357 was introduced to no longer punish those found to have been “loitering in a public place with the intent to commit prostitution.”

+ In Oregon, a bill was introduced in the legislature to repeal criminalization of prostitution and commercial sexual solicitation for both the buyer and seller of sex.

+ In Maine, a bill was introduced to partial decriminalization penalties to sex workers but subject people who pay for sex – “Johns” — to legal repercussions.

+ In Louisiana, Rep. Mandie Landry introduced HB 67 would decriminalize prostitution.

+ And in New York, Kathy Hochul said she was open to the decriminalization of sex work.

As the ACLU reminds us:

The criminalization of sex work makes sex workers more vulnerable to violence on the job and less likely to report violence.  It prevents sex workers from accessing health care and other critical services, feeds an out of control mass incarceration system, and further marginalizes some of the society’s most vulnerable groups, such as trans women of color an immigrants.

Since time immemorial women and girls (and some boys) have sold sexual favors to survive. Under capitalism, sex became just another commodity to be sold and bought, but – given the Christian morality that binds society together – long considered a crime.  Sex workers shouldn’t have to sell their sexual labor power to survive, but they have to.  Now it’s time to end the criminalization of sex work.

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