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A new law introduced in New York state would decriminalize all sex work, but it faces pushback from the NY National Organization of Women and others groups. The law follows in the wake of last year’s FOSTA SESTA, which has negatively impacted sex workers and online free speech advocates

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TAYA GRAHAM We all know men like to pay for sex. Even billionaires like Patriot owner Robert Kraft, who was caught on camera getting extra services during a massage, would argue that exchanging money for pleasure is not a crime. It’s a debate that has raged for years. Some sex worker advocates say decriminalization will protect sex workers and make selling it safer, but others argue decriminalization only opens the door for more human trafficking and exploitation. Making the issue more complicated is the law FOSTA-SESTA that essentially bars sex workers from posting ads on the internet. It’s one of the reasons some say the legalization of sex work and how to deal with the abuses it engenders, should be a front and center issue in the Democratic 2020 primary.

To discuss the controversial law FOSTA-SESTA is Kate D’Adamo, an organizer from SWOP, the Sex Workers Outreach Project, here to discuss what the impact has been in the sex worker community and beyond. For the purposes of our conversation, I may be using the terms “woman” and “sex worker” interchangeably. I’m doing this to facilitate the discussion because the majority of those involved in sex work are women and girls. It is not to erase the experience of men, boys, trans folks, and non-binary people who also participate in sex work. So, Kate, thank you so much for joining me.

KATE D’ADAMO Thank you. Thank you for talking about this.

TAYA GRAHAM Now, trafficking refers to forced sex work. Can you tell me what the difference is between sex trafficking and sex work so people understand?

KATE D’ADAMO Sure. So people who trade sex, it’s a very broad industry and within that, there are experiences of violence and of exploitation similar to every other industry. And so on an extreme level, exploitation through force, fraud, or coercion by another person reaches the level of trafficking in the sex trade as opposed to, you know, looking at the full spectrum of people who are trading sex. Very similar, you know, if we look at domestic workers, if we look at farm labor. It is a broad industry which involves a lot of different experiences. Some of those experiences are exploitative and some reach a level of trafficking.

TAYA GRAHAM Now billionaire Kraft is not going to actually have a criminal penalty against him in Florida. He’s not going to go to jail or receive any fines, which shows once again that money can buy you this privilege, but it seems like Republicans and Democrats both purchase sexual services. Do you think that our country is ready to decriminalize?

KATE D’ADAMO I think when you’re talking about the health and the safety of people who are trading sex, the question is not, is the country ready to accept this? The question is, what is going to be best to make sure that we see the lowest levels of violence, the lowest levels of HIV and STI transmission? And the answer is, decriminalization and part of that is going to be destigmatization work. Part of that is going to be looking at the sex trade as an industry. And honestly, the country can catch up.

TAYA GRAHAM Well, it’s interesting you said the country can catch up because there was a poll done that shows that the majority of Democrats actually support the decriminalization of sex work. So do you think this is something that progressive candidates should be pushing for during the presidential 2020 debate?

KATE D’ADAMO I do. I think it’s really important that presidential candidates are talking about this as an issue. I want it to go farther than decriminalization. You know, we’re talking about state laws and we’re talking about local jurisdictions, but there are things that a president can do and that the administration can do on the federal level, and I think it’s important not just to say we’re going to push for decriminalization. I want candidates to talk about what they’re going to do to protect the lives of people who trade sex.

TAYA GRAHAM Now, I’ve spoken with different people and done some research, and it seems like the numbers surrounding sex trafficking and human trafficking have been pretty unreliable. Is there a way to help sex workers as well as help human trafficking victims? Is there a way to do this without incarcerating and criminalizing sex workers?

KATE D’ADAMO Oh, absolutely. Our best mechanisms to go after trafficking are all rooted in rights. They’re rooted in community. They’re rooted in non-punitive outreach. The idea that we have to arrest someone who’s being victimized to get them out of a situation of victimization is not something that we would apply to any other area of trafficking, and it flies in the face of how we would approach any kind of victimization. Arrest is violence. Incarceration is violence. People shouldn’t experience more violence. We do have best practices in the field of trafficking and it’s all about outreach. It’s about know your rights training. It’s about empowering people to understand what exploitation in that industry looks like and we’re applying it in other areas of the field. So when you’re looking at what the best practices are in addressing trafficking in farm labor, it’s about doing outreach to farm labor. And there are, like the Sex Workers Outreach Project, there are sex worker-led organizations across the country who because of criminalization have to operate more under the radar. Organizing under third-party laws is technically illegal. And so—

TAYA GRAHAM I didn’t realize that.

KATE D’ADAMO Yeah. So if you are—There’s a very broad definition of things like “facilitation of prostitution.” That means anything from sharing information to sharing resources. And so, when the basic blocks of rights in a community are criminalized as they are in sex work, you know, that’s the kind of thing that fosters, not addresses, exploitation and trafficking.

TAYA GRAHAM Now, last year in July, President Trump signed FOSTA-SESTA into law and it really has been controversial. There are people who have said that it has squashed legitimate free speech, that it has harmed sex workers. And then, there are other people who say that it’s actually been helpful to them in dealing with, for example, revenge porn or having illegitimate photos posted online. Can you tell me what you have seen FOSTA-SESTA’s impact to be on sex workers that you have spoken with?

KATE D’ADAMO Sure. First, I want to address the idea that it’s been helpful. There was a lot of self-censorship that happened afterwards. What it did was expand civil liability for Internet platforms that hosted information related to the sex trade and it was really specific to trafficking in the sex trade, which means that things like revenge porn don’t necessarily, might not fall into it. But also, there’s only one place where the law has even been utilized, so the idea that this law has been helpful in any way is counter to anything you look at because it hasn’t actually been used. What it did do, alongside the removal of Backpage, which happened prior to SESTA and FOSTA’s passage. So it was related conceptually, but not by law. All of that really destabilized the lives of people who trade sex. First and foremost, I believe someone said, it’s like waking up one day and realizing that the factory is closed, so a lot of people lost the way that they were meeting clients to access resources.

So, first and foremost, you have a lot of people that woke up and lost their job and still had to pay their bills because this always happens right at the end of the month. And so, a lot of people were really forced into very dire circumstances very, very quickly. A lot of people lost housing because they couldn’t pay their rent and a lot of people still haven’t recovered the income that they used to make when they had access to platforms because when you are looking for your clients, you’re just putting up information, kind of, wherever you can and hoping to connect to the same people, but that’s not necessarily true. You don’t know where your clients are anymore. And so, the first thing that it did was send everyone into a real economic hardship. And then, there’s all of the things that happened outside of that. So when you lose that kind of stability, everyone knows it. And so, there is a lot of people, people I spoke to whose clients that they had negative encounters with, had violent encounters with, were reaching out knowing that people were desperate. Other people were contacted by old managers, by old partners who had been violent or exploitative to them who said, you know, the game has changed, and you need me now. And unfortunately, for some people, that was true.

TAYA GRAHAM Oh. That’s terrible.

KATE D’ADAMO And so, there’s a lot that happens around destabilization. Some people moved into different areas of the industry. And so, I talked to someone who’s in a city with a lot of strip clubs where all of a sudden, all the strip clubs were flooded. And so, people were making less money. Dancers who had been a little more aggressive about rights and about organizing, started to get fired. People were also—When you don’t know an area of the industry, sometimes you don’t know what is a standard practice, and a lot of those standard practices change when it’s flooded with people who don’t necessarily know that information. And so, there’s a lot of different areas where there was, kind of, a standard, and that standard declined. The other thing was, when people are desperate to make ends meet, they’ll see clients and they’ll generally ask for less money, and they’ll generally have a lot more leeway in what their boundaries are. And so, there are a lot of people who stop screening. There are a lot of people who are making less and seeing more clients. Therefore, a lot of people ended up in situations and circumstances that wouldn’t have been true if Backpage hadn’t disappeared and if every other website hadn’t started to shut down.

TAYA GRAHAM So it really does sound like this has harmed sex workers. And what’s interesting is that the DOJ actually sent a letter to the Judiciary Committee and the House of Representatives saying that there was going to be broad, collateral consequences if FOSTA-SESTA in its form was allowed to pass, but the overwhelming majority of politicians voted for it. Why did they do this, even against the advice of the DOJ?

KATE D’ADAMO I think a lot of people who meant well were hearing a lot of information from people who weren’t clear about their intentions. There is a lot of people pushing this that really do believe that the sex industry is harmful, and that sex work is inherently violent. And when you go in saying, this is a law that will fight trafficking instead of this is a law that’s going to harm sex workers, a lot of people with good intentions sign on. I don’t blame politicians who weren’t hearing all of the messaging. You know, the other part of it is sex worker organizing is a very, very grassroots movement and very often, you know, when I was an organizer in New York and now here, we focused on local issues. We focused on state laws. That’s where a lot of the laws in criminalization stems from. And so, at the time, you were talking about a lot of people on one side of a debate and almost no one from sex worker rights on the Hill talking about the impact. And so, there was a—It was a very one-sided conversation.

TAYA GRAHAM I’m really glad you mentioned New York because New York City has just put out a bill to be passed to decriminalize all sex work in New York. And I’m going to read you a response from Ms. Leidholdt of the Sanctuary for Families Legal Center who said that decriminalization would be a public policy disaster for New York that would increase the size of this predatory industry and that prostitution is always predatory. So the people from the New York chapter of the National Organization of Women, and from the center who are really pushing back against this, how do you respond to women like that who think they’re protecting sex workers?

KATE D’ADAMO I think any time people who are not the impacted population try to protect and try to speak for and try to speak on behalf of an impacted population, you’re not going to get the best answer.


KATE D’ADAMO I think that this conversation, especially in New York, the coalition that brought this forward is led by organizations serving people in the sex trade. It is led by sex workers and these are people saying, I know exactly what’s harming me. I can identify the harm in my life, and it is these laws. It is this set of laws on the books and I want to change that for my own benefit and for my health and for my safety and for my rights and my dignity. And so, I think those are two opinions of people whose lives are not going to change the day that this bill passes.

TAYA GRAHAM Now, there are some people that would argue that sex work maybe should be legalized completely, like it is in Nevada. What do you think of the idea of complete legalization? Do you see any negatives there?

KATE D’ADAMO So I will say Nevada has a form of legalization, but it is not decriminalized. Actually, Nevada has, I believe, seven or nine counties where there is a brothel, but outside of that per capita, it’s actually the highest arrest state in the entire country.

TAYA GRAHAM That’s amazing.

KATE D’ADAMO Yeah. There’s a lot of money and a lot of energy that’s funneled into policing. So it is actually not a model that anyone is advocating for.

TAYA GRAHAM Interesting.

KATE D’ADAMO So what New York is trying to do is decriminalize. So literally, just pull the laws off the books around buying, selling, loitering, and then third-party laws. You know, what that would do—If we look at all of the countries in the world, the one that’s closest to full decriminalization for citizens is New Zealand. There is also a province similar. Australia has a similar setup as far as federalism and there is one province in Australia, New South Wales, that has fully decriminalized. And so, what you are looking at in those two places are what public health experts call the “healthiest sex industry in the entire world.” When you’re talking about New Zealand, you’re talking about a place where people can organize, where people can collectively bargain for their rights, where people feel comfortable going to law enforcement and reporting victimization. You don’t have that under criminalization, and you don’t even have that under most legalization structures. And so, when we’re talking about decriminalization, we’re talking about the lowest rates of HIV and STI transmission. We’re talking about lower rates of violence and we’re talking about lower rates of exploitation.

TAYA GRAHAM Well, let me ask you one last question and this might be the most important one. What can your average voter, your average citizen, do to be an ally to sex workers and to support them?

KATE D’ADAMO I think in a state where this is a live conversation, and there are different legislative and advocacy battles across the country, decriminalization is moving forward in New York. It’s moving forward in DC. There’s a bill right now that would offer immunity to sex workers who are reporting violence and victimization and it would ban the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution in California right now. There’s also places where people are pushing back. In Florida, they just passed a bill that actually creates a public registry for everyone who’s arrested under their prostitution law. And so, advocates there have been fighting this bill and trying to really push back on it because of the harm it’ll cause. So if this is a live conversation in your community and in your state, absolutely speak up and say this is an important fight and I support the health and the rights of people who trade sex. And then, just in day-to-day conversation, there’s so many places where stigmatization of the sex industry pops up. I mean, how many jokes are there, how many—

TAYA GRAHAM Terrible jokes.

KATE D’ADAMO Horrible terms that gets passed around. Yes, this is a legislative battle, and yes this is an advocacy battle, but this is also about dignity. This is also about the way that we talk about an incredibly resilient and an incredibly brave community and population that is basically just saying, please stop harming me.

TAYA GRAHAM Fair enough and well-said. Thank you. I want to thank my guest, Kate D’Adamo for joining me on The Real News. I’m your host Taya Graham and I want to thank you for joining me on The Real News Network.

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Kate D'Adamo is a policy advocate and organizer working for the health, rights, and safety of people who trade sex, their families, and their communities.