Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders join Democrats open to decriminalizing 'sex work'

A sex trafficking victim waits for customers.
A sex trafficking victim waits for customers. | (PHOTO: REUTERS/CLARO CORTES)

Presidential candidates Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders are throwing their support behind efforts to decriminalize prostitution.

"I’m open to decriminalization. Sex workers, like all workers, deserve autonomy but they are particularly vulnerable to physical and financial abuse and hardship,” Sen. Warren, D-Mass., said in a Wednesday statement shared with Washington Post journalist Dave Weigel.

"We need to make sure that we don’t undermine legal protections for the most vulnerable, including the millions of individuals who are victims of human trafficking each year."

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Likewise, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., told Vice News through a spokesperson on Thursday that "decriminalization is certainly something that should be considered."

"Other countries have done this and it has shown to make the lives of sex workers safer," Sanders' spokesperson asserted.

The terms "sex work" and "sex worker" are relatively recent euphemisms, catch-all terms that includes prostitution, escort agency operators, exotic dancing, and porn actors, among other things. 

Proponents for decriminalizing prostitution, which includes both persons on the left and libertarian right, assert that trafficking is distinct from "consensual" or "voluntary" sex work.

However, prostitution abolitionists, which often means radical feminists and social conservatives, say trafficking cannot be separated from prostitution, that it is merely a process in an inherently exploitative industry.

Those who hold this view often advocate for what is called the Nordic or abolitionist model, which decriminalizes the sale of sex while banning its purchase in order to target the sex trade at its source: the johns and pimps. The phrase sex work, abolitionists note, obfuscates the many harms in what should never be sanctioned as a legitimate form of employment.

"HOW can @SenSanders and @SenWarren support decriminalizing pimps and sex buyers when we KNOW for a fact it increases sex trafficking & exploitation in prostitution! Wake up!" Laila Mickelwait, director of abolition for the advocacy group Exodus Cry, tweeted on Thursday.

Earlier this year, Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., said in an interview with The Root that she supported decriminalizing sex work, with some caveats.

"There's an ecosystem around that, that involves crimes that harm people. And for those issues, I do not believe that anybody who hurts another human being or profits off of their exploitation should be ... free of criminal prosecution," Harris told the outlet.

"But when you're talking about consenting adults? Yes, we should really consider that we can't criminalize consensual behavior as long as no one is being harmed," she said.

Natasha Chart, board chair of Women's Liberation Front, a radical feminist organization, said in a Thursday interview with The Christian Post that her group appreciated that several 2020 candidates are interested in making laws that ease the burdens on those who are trafficked in the sex industry.

"But we would also hope that they won’t be swayed by sex industry propaganda to ease the legal burdens of the clients who create the demand, or to go lightly on traffickers, whom the industry also sometimes describes as ‘sex workers,’ to confuse the issue," she emphasized.

"We hope that they’ll consider the Nordic Model of sex buyer laws, pioneered in Sweden, and based on extensive interviews with trafficked women."

Thus far, other Democrats vying for the White House who have voiced at least some support for decriminalizing sex work are former Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, (Hawaii), Sen. Cory Booker, (N.J.), Rep. Seth Moulton, (Mass.), and former Alaska Senator Mike Gravel, according to Buzzfeed News.

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