Federal laws also cover “interstate commerce” or things crossing state lines – including internet regulations – which made the passage of FOSTA/SESTA, a bill which expanded criminal and civil liability for websites which hosted information related to the sex trade and led to dozens of websites preemptively closing, possible. Federal projects have international reach as well, such as the trainings the US gives to foreign law enforcement agencies on how to engage in trafficking work. These often replicate and encourage the same law enforcement tactics and racist narratives and imagery that American sex workers are all-too familiar with.
Decriminalization is only a clear ask for state policymakers. Asking federal policymakers to say ‘decriminalization’ can have a strong impact on the conversation, but focusing solely on that without tangible asks lets them off the hook. There are ways short of decriminalization that they can enact change.
No issue exists within a silo. Even for those who are open to the conversation on sex work, the issue is probably new. Coalitional partners have been key to moving policymakers because they are able to put the issue of sex work into more familiar contexts. For someone with a long record of supporting LGBTQ communities, sitting down with a national LGBTQ organization who can explain that, for many queer and trans individuals who have been pushed out of formal education and employment, the sex trade can mean survival puts the issue within the context of LGBTQ rights and liberation. An HIV organization can describe how the impact of law enforcement confiscating condoms and using them as evidence of prostitution impedes their work and puts their clients’ health at risk. This is simply another way of making the need for decriminalization a tangible step towards a shared commitment to health. Coalitional partners help show that the issue of sex worker rights is a core piece of the change we all believe in. Their mere existence, furthermore, demonstrates that there is broader support for decriminalization than many people realize.
Sex workers are anti-trafficking experts
One area which is uncontestably within the scope of federal policy is anti-trafficking legislation. The flagship law within this area, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, is quite broad in the sorts of violations it covers. Enforcement, however, has for the most part been limited to the sex industry. This is to the detriment of both people in transactional sex and survivors of trafficking in other fields. But unlike in other conversations on labor exploitation, workers in the sex industry are neither seen as experts on the nuances of their work nor as the people best positioned to identify solutions. They are treated as ignorant of the conversation, at best, and as a driver of trafficking at worst.
Within the United States, this is slowly beginning to change. The passage of FOSTA/SESTA changed the conversation for many people who were just starting to think about how federal legislation can directly impact the sex trade. While anti-trafficking organizations were pushing the dire need for this legislation and arguing that it would do no outright damage, sex workers were explaining that this would cause websites to close, displacing people into precarity and vulnerability. In the year and a half since its passage, the law has not been used for any new civil litigation, yet websites have indeed closed and sex workers have indeed been displaced and faced precarity and vulnerability. Sex workers were clearly the experts who should have been heard before its passage.Print