Sex work is often ignored by mainstream politicians unless they're demonizing it. Still, it's continuing to gain momentum as a national issue in the 2020 election. Two Democratic presidential candidates, Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, announced that they would consider decriminalizing sex work soon after endorsing Tiffany Cabán, a Queens District Attorney candidate and progressive Democrat whose platform includes not prosecuting sex workers.
On June 19, Warren told the press she would be "open" to the idea, and less than 24 hours later, Sanders said it's a policy that "should be considered." "Sex workers, like all workers, deserve autonomy but they are particularly vulnerable to physical and financial abuse and hardship," Warren said in a statement released to the press.
Sanders' deputy communications director, Sarah Ford, told Vice: "Bernie believes that decriminalization is certainly something that should be considered. Other countries have done this and it has shown to make the lives of sex workers safer."
The candidates' non-committal statements don't immediately seem like a big deal — they are, after all, not outright support of decriminalization. But considering how long sex work has been left out of mainstream political discussions in the United States, it is progress.
This is not the first time Sanders and Warren have mentioned sex work, but it's the first time that they've discussed it in the context of decriminalization, according to Vice. In March, Sanders was asked about whether sex work should be decriminalized, and at the time, his official position was: "That’s a good question and I don’t have an answer for that." So, Sanders went from not having an answer to believing that the proposal should be considered. At this rate, he might be actually begin to consider the policy by spring 2020.
Warren's recent statements on sex work mark a substantial shift from previous legislation she's supported regarding the subject. According to The Hill, Warren has previously voted to ban websites that sex workers use, and proposed bipartisan legislation that intended to close bank accounts used by human traffickers, but would likely impact sex workers as well. At the time, sex workers strongly objected to both efforts, as Huff Post reported. Sex workers have been vocal about the dangers of driving their business offline, and of including consensual sex work between adults as part of human trafficking legislation.
Sanders and Warren aren't the first presidential candidates to speak about the decriminalization of sex work in this election. According to Buzzfeed News, who polled all of the candidates about their position, four candidates have declared their support for this measure. Senator Kamala Harris, Representative Tulsi Gabbard, Senator Cory Booker, and former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel have all stated that they support decriminalizing sex work.
On a state level, advocacy around sex work has successfully been gaining traction in New York. On June 10, New York legislators introduced several bills that would decriminalize sex work. Advocates for the legislation comes from sex workers who say that the constant threat of punishment from law enforcement only makes their profession more dangerous, and won't stop the existence of sex work.
Now, with two more Democratic presidential candidates edging toward the proposal, the topic will likely gain prominence as the 2020 election progresses. The next step is to just wait and see if any of the candidates have plans to take decriminalization from an idea to legislation.