How Much More Time Does Bernie Sanders Need to 'Think About' Decriminalizing Sex Work?

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Bernie Sanders has spent a lot of time thinking about workers’ rights, and it shows—but so do the gaps in his thinking. In a recent interview with Teen Vogue, Sanders discusses the exploitation of gig workers, incarcerated workers, and farm workers. He talks about raising the minimum wage, the importance of unions, and the legal challenges currently facing the working class. Then labor columnist Kim Kelly asks about another group of workers: sex workers. Suddenly, Sanders’ confident proclamations get watered down, muddied. Suddenly, Sanders, a man who has already run for president once before, needs more time to think about the issues.

First, Kelly mentions SESTA/FOSTA, a bill falsely sold as a way to address sex trafficking but which has put sex workers at greater risk, shutting down critical online venues for advertising and safely vetting clients. It passed last year, and Sanders voted for it (so did every other Democratic presidential candidate who then served in Congress). “SESTA/FOSTA has caused harm to people in the sex work community, and I think there’s a need to separate sex trafficking from the profession of sex work,” says Kelly. “I’m wondering if you’ve engaged in dialogue with sex workers about this, and what you would do to address the issue.” Sanders replies:

It is a complicated issue. I think nobody wants to do anything which increases the horror of sex trafficking in this country, so it’s an issue that has to be discussed. It is a complicated issue, but my promise to you is it’s an issue that I will discuss, and we will hear from all sides and come up with the best solution that we can.

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His response manages to dodge both parts of the question. Engaging directly with the damage of SESTA/FOSTA would mean either admitting that he voted for a bill that has harmed sex workers or denying the reality of sex workers’ experiences. So, instead, he frames it as a “complicated issue” that “has to be discussed,” as though it wasn’t discussed at great length, and to great protest, ahead of the passage of the bill. As though it hasn’t been discussed at length, and to great protest, in the year-plus since it was passed.

Kelly responds to Sanders’ non-reply: “Do you support decriminalizing sex work?” Here is what Sanders has to say: “At this moment that’s one of the areas that I want to think about, and I want to hear all sides of the issue.” Previously, a representative for Sanders told Vice News that the candidate “believes that decriminalization is certainly something that should be considered.” That happened back in June, which, in the alternate universe of a political campaign, is eons ago. It was even earlier, in February of this year, that fellow presidential candidate Kamala Harris suggested that she might support the decriminalization of sex work (though what Harris described is not in fact decriminalization). Sanders has had well over seven months since then to mull. In the meantime, the drawn-out process means Sanders gets to signal progressive possibility without taking the risks of a stance.

There is no shortage of sex workers strongly making the case for decriminalization, and frequently in the language that Sanders knows best: labor rights. Sanders could, for example, read Lorelei Lee’s phenomenal N+1 essay, in which she writes that “increased criminalization has resulted in declining labor conditions for people who trade sex.” Lee continues, “Criminalization increases barriers to safety in every form—housing, health care, child care and parental rights, and familial and social support,” she writes. “When we’re assaulted, under criminalization, we have to weigh the possibility that going to the police will mean being arrested. If we go to the police, they can refuse to investigate our rapes. Often the police themselves are our rapists.”

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In New York right now, organizers with the sex worker-led coalition Decrim NY have laid out the case for decriminalization in similar terms: “I was beat up, had all of my wages and personal property stolen by this person, and was forced to do sex work without a condom,” Kate Zen, an organizer with Decrim NY told Jezebel, recounting how criminalization made her work dangerous. “Afterwards, when I reported the incident to a police officer, he told me that since I was engaging in illegal activity I may not look sympathetic as a victim.”

The stakes here are clear—so are the harms of failing to act. So, truly, what is Sanders waiting for?

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