July 5, 2019
How Decriminalizing Sex Work Became a 2020 Campaign Issue
Behind the grassroots movement that is turning decriminalization into a mainstream fight for the left.
When Julia Salazar, the 28-year-old Democratic Socialist state senator for New York’s 18th district, was campaigning last year, one of her most reliable set of volunteers was a group that has been largely cast out of mainstream political coalitions. Hundreds of sex workers and sex work advocates signed up to canvass for Salazar in the lead-up to the primary election, in which she unseated incumbent state Sen. Martin Malave Dilan.
Salazar made the rights, health, and safety of sex workers a priority for her campaign. “Sex workers are workers, and they deserve to be treated with dignity, including protections and decent working conditions, rather than the abuse and criminalization that they currently face,” she told the Intercept last August. “I’m dedicated to defending workers’ rights, reforming our criminal justice system and ending exploitation, and we know that criminalization puts everyone in sex work at risk rather than protecting them.”
So when New York City’s sex worker activist community started to canvass for Salazar, they reached out to Jessica Raven for advice. Raven—a longtime sex worker rights advocate who was based in Washington, DC, as the executive director of Collective Action for Safe Spaces, a grassroots organization that works to eliminate gender-based harassment—had a lot of experience canvassing for sex workers’ rights. “They modeled it largely off of the canvassing scripts I had written,” Raven says. “So, some strategies that we were using they were able to use that to canvass for Salazar.”
The fight for sex workers’ rights is having a big moment right now, with bills to decriminalize sex work in DC and in New York—the latter, introduced by Salazar, if passed, would make New York the first state to fully decriminalize sex work. (In Nevada, prostitution is legal in only a handful of counties.) A handful of 2020 Democratic presidential nominees have come out in support of it, including Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris. Tiffany Cabán, the 31-year-old progressive public defender who won the Democratic primary for district attorney in Queens last month, pledged not to prosecute sex workers. “We want to support people in sex work who want to engage in sex work because certainly our economy doesn’t work for everybody,” Cabán told BuzzFeed. “Or, if it’s survival work, provide other means where their survival is no longer contingent on sex work.”