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Grassroots organizing is giving the movement to decriminalize sex work unexpected traction this election cycle. Focus on specific policies instead of data helped show the real level of support for what’s been called a nationally divisive issue.

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This is a rush transcript and may contain errors. It will be updated.

Kim Brown: Welcome to The Real News. I’m Kim Brown. The so-called illegal vices of the 20th century have been falling by the wayside over the last 10 years or so. Half of America and all of Canada can legally purchase marijuana. Casinos and gambling are being welcomed by a notable number of state governments. But what about sex for money, also known as prostitution, but better referred to as sex work?
According to a recent poll conducted by the think tank Data for Progress, it found that 51% of all voters support decriminalizing sex work altogether, which marks a definite shift in attitudes on this issue. And today we’re joined by Melissa Gira Grant. She’s a journalist who wrote a piece titled The New Majority Behind Sex Work Decriminalization, which appears in The New Republic. It definitely represents a shifting of attitudes on this issue.

Melissa, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Melissa Grant: Hi, thanks so much.

Kim Brown: So your article outlines the many complexities about this issue, from local law enforcement to federal policies in which some 2020 presidential candidates are involved, to the immense grassroots organizing supporting sex workers. But let’s start with the basics. How is sex work currently criminalized and what does Decrim look like?

Melissa Grant: Well, as you noted at the top, sex work is mostly regarded under the law as a kind of vice, a kind of illicit activity, and where people want to move things to is treating sex work under the law as employment, as work. So right now selling sex, buying sex, running a business where sex is sold and having third parties involved in that, which sometimes are called pimps, but other times are people who might be answering the phone for you or providing security for you. There’s a range of relationships that people have to help them do sex work. No one is really on their own 100%, nor should they be. So when that is illegal, it makes sex work much more dangerous for people. And the change that people want to see is the ability for sex workers to work safely.

Kim Brown: So sex work has long been legal in the Netherlands and has been decriminalized recently in New Zealand. So how has that been working out?

Melissa Grant: Well, New Zealand decriminalized sex work in 2005, and I think one of the most interesting things about the way that they did it is that sex workers were involved in the process of crafting the new laws and policies that would follow. And they were also part of the evaluation, the how did it go apart. And some of the highlights reported by sex workers themselves are that they feel more able to reject customers, they feel more able to resist abusive management practices. They’re more able to report acts of violence against them. And the one thing about New Zealand, it’s important to note, is their system of decriminalization didn’t extend to migrants. So if you are an immigrant worker in New Zealand, you are still criminalized. That is not the system people want to see in the United States. They want to see everyone able to legally do sex work who is of age and of consent.

Kim Brown: Right. And the local efforts advocating for sex workers rights has been an outgrowth of activist work around a number of other movements, including Black Lives Matter, Immigrants’ Rights, and supporting the New Deal. So how do all of these issues intersect?

Melissa Grant: I think there’s just a groundswell of progressive energy in the country right now, whether that’s the Green New Deal or Medicare for All. I think the biggest impact on sex workers rights was around today 2014 with the rise of the movement for black lives and just a shift in the way that mainstream media covered violence by police. It’s a huge problem that sex workers face as well. And to have those connections out there for people to make, the idea that police could be a source of violence or harm, that enabled sex workers to enter into that conversation. And there are also sex workers of color who have been organizing for years around these issues. Some of the most visible and famous members of the LGBTQ movement, Sylvia Rivera, Marsha P. Johnson, were both women of color, trans women and had also sold sex for money to survive.

So this is nothing new, but it is bringing all of these pieces together for the first time in a way that I think the public is connecting the dots and can see that if we are in favor of progressive healthcare, if we are in favor of holding police accountable, that sex worker decriminalization is part of that.

Kim Brown: So who opposes sex work being decriminalized? Who wants to keep sex workers and the work that they do illegal?

Melissa Grant: The police. If sex work is a crime then that gives the police power and control over the lives of sex workers and anti-prostitution laws are used in many cities, including here in New York as sort of a form of stop-and-frisk, mostly focusing on trans women of color and cis women of color. So police would like to keep that tool in their toolbox so that they can further police communities of color and poor communities in the ways that we know they have for decades. And that doesn’t keep us any safer, but it gives the police more to do.

There’s also been a longstanding debate in some liberal circles, particularly among liberal feminists, that if sex work were legal, that it would somehow condone or endorse the practice of sex work. And those voices are still present and I would say until recently those voices also had a little more influence over public policy, but we see that changing.

Kim Brown: So let’s discuss that, actually, the actions at the federal level around this. I was someone who was not super familiar with the legislation around sex work, but I did see a lot of conversation on social media around the new law that was passed in April 2018 with the acronyms SESTA and FOSTA. And some of the comments that I read, they feared that if passed or when these bills were put into law that they would do more harm than good for sex workers. So can you describe what the SESTA and FOSTA laws are or they are the same law? Explain that to me if you could.

Melissa Grant: Sure. So SESTA is the Senate version, FOSTA’s the House version. Both acronyms refer to going after online providers, websites, social media platforms, et cetera, who they believe Harbor or enable trafficking. The actual impact of the law, which you were seeing on social media, is that it doesn’t differentiate between people who are engaged in sex work consensually and people who are trafficked and are in situations of violence and abuse. So what this means is as soon as this law passed, in fact, as soon as it passed the Senate, before Trump even signed it into law, websites that sex workers had used to place advertisements or to have community conversations about how to stay safe at work, including keeping lists of dangerous clients. Those websites started to vanish from the internet complete.

We’re also seeing a lot more policing on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram. Labeling content that sex workers create that has nothing to do with actually doing sex work, but that is seen as potentially in violation of this law. The individuals posting the content wouldn’t be responsible, but the platforms where it is hosted would be, and so what Congress did is essentially give Facebook and Twitter license to kick sex workers off their platforms and or face legal consequences.

Kim Brown: So talk to us. I want you to elaborate about that some because it seems, or at least what I’m able to glean, is that there was a vacuum that was created when pages or sites like Backpage went away off the internet. How has that impacted, I guess the safety and the ability for sex workers to ply their trade in the most safe way possible?

Melissa Grant: For sex workers to work without websites means losing control over their work. So now you have to go work for a particular boss or in a particular venue to bring you customers, or you have to go out onto the street or in public to find customers. It’s a different ballgame in the sex industry, and it has been this way for the past 20 years or so. To have control over how you advertise, to have control over which customers you see, to get a chance to vet them over email or phone, to share that information with other sex workers to see if they’ve been flagged as dangerous. That became so much harder, if not impossible. And particularly for sex workers who were already in economic distress, who already were marginally housed, just losing one day’s worth of work could be enough to render you homeless. And I spoke to sex workers who were in that situation when Backpage went down.

The thing to note about Backpage is that this entire law was sold to the public on the premise that it was needed to take Backpage down when in fact Backpage went down before the law was signed. And the law was not used against Backpage, which I think just leads to the perception that what this law was actually about was getting sex workers off the internet by creating this sort of environment where websites were going to proactively police them. The law still hasn’t been used. There are no prosecutions under the law. Really what it was meant to do, I think, was to scare these websites and to create this perception that sex trafficking was rife on the internet and so it was okay to take away people’s free speech access in order to attack it.

Kim Brown: What this kind of sounds like to me, Melissa, is that sex work is not able to be corporatized in the same way that legal marijuana and legalized gambling has been. Is that why it’s a mess in terms of the laws surrounding so-called protections around these workers?

Melissa Grant: This has been true in the United States for 100 years. Particularly if you look at the history in the years right after emancipation when you have more black women trying to find their own way to survive and work that they can do in the face and discrimination and sex work is there for you. Sex work is something that actually gives people more power and control and economic choice in their life. So yes, that is something that you can imagine why governments would want to restrict that or make that harder for people or take it away entirely.

But I would say if you want to think about it like a corporatized model of sex work, look at strip clubs. Something that happened also over the last few decades is that we have more and more corporate consolidation of strip clubs. There are fewer and fewer companies that own more and more clubs. In some cities the same owner might actually own five or six clubs, but they’re all branded differently. So that’s really harmed dancer’s ability to have control over their work where now they’re subject to these very top down corporate policies. They lose control of work as well. That is something that like legal marijuana, I think people would not like to see a model of that roll out across the sex industry because we know that it takes power away from workers.

Kim Brown: So Melissa, is this a presidential election issue? And if it isn’t, why should it be?

Melissa Grant: I don’t know how it became a presidential election issue. It certainly never had been in any other presidential election that I’ve lived through. But I think because of this larger swing to the left, because sex workers have become more visible after SESTA/FOSTA and all the protests against that, it created a space where for the first time sex workers could make demands of candidates to actually step up and support them.

Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, who like almost everyone in the Senate voted for SESTA/FOSTA, have since endorsed a bill to study these harmful effects. That might be a sign that they are moving in another direction, and both of their campaigns have said they are open or interested in exploring the possibility of decriminalization. They have not come out and said they support decriminalization fully. Kamala Harris likewise has made comments that were about sex work decriminalization, but also still kind of vague. But it’s very clear that even at this level of policy there’s a lot of education to do on just basic terminology with what do we mean by decriminalization? What do we mean by legalization? Who actually benefits?

Kim Brown: I suggest if you haven’t already checked out the piece you need to do so. It’s very comprehensive and well sourced. The piece is titled The New Majority Behind Sex Work Decriminalization. It’s in The New Republic and it’s written by journalist, Melissa Gira Grant. She’s been joining us today from New York City. Melissa, thank you so much for speaking with us.

Melissa Grant: Thanks again.

Kim Brown: And thank you for watching The Real News Network.

Studio: Dwayne Gladden, Adam Coley
Production: Genevieve Montinar

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Kim Brown has been covering national and international politics for over 10 years and has been a sought-after voice on issues on race and culture.