Like most of the other major Democratic presidential candidates, Sen. Elizabeth Warren has been wary of taking a firm stance on sex work. On Thursday, however, Warren unveiled a comprehensive plan to protect LGBTQ+ rights. Under a section called “empowering LGBTQ+ workers,” Warren wrote, “I am also open to decriminalizing sex work. Sex workers, like all workers, deserve autonomy and are particularly vulnerable to physical and financial abuse and hardship,” reiterating that sentiment in a tweet thread unveiling her plan:
I’ll also push for landmark new anti-discrimination legislation to protect workers from harassment. And I am open to decriminalizing sex work. Sex workers, like all workers, deserve autonomy and are particularly vulnerable to physical and financial abuse.
— Elizabeth Warren (@ewarren) October 10, 2019
Many LGBTQ and sex workers’ rights activists were thrilled, hailing the statement as a reflection of Warren’s truly progressive bona fides. Many were also struck by the fact that Warren included her statement on sex workers’ rights in the context of LGBTQ workers’ rights, as LGBTQ people have historically been disproportionately represented in the sex work community due in part to housing and employment discrimination. Mostly, the acknowledgment that sex work is a form of labor just like any other was striking and fairly unprecedented in the larger historical context, says Jill McCracken, PhD, the cofounder and co-director of sex workers’ rights group SWOP Tampa Bay. “I’ve never heard a candidate reference sex workers as workers within the context of labor rights. That’s pretty progressive, pretty shocking, but ultimately I welcome it,” she tells Rolling Stone.
The statement was not, however, unprecedented in the context of the Warren campaign. In fact, she said almost the same thing verbatim to Washington Post reporter Dave Weigel back in June, albeit with an additional sentence nodding to protecting the rights of victims of human trafficking (for what it’s worth, many sex workers’ rights activists argue that consensual sex work and sex trafficking are often conflated by both anti-trafficking activists and law enforcement officials).
Full statement… pic.twitter.com/HbfivoNH7A
— Dave Weigel (@daveweigel) June 19, 2019
Of course, a candidate on the campaign trail certainly can’t be faulted for recycling some of their material. Nonetheless, the vagueness of Warren’s statement on sex work decriminalization, particularly in the context of a fairly detailed proposal on LGBTQ rights, left some sex workers’ rights activists “skeptical” of the candidate’s intent, says McCracken. (The Warren campaign did not respond to a list of specific questions Rolling Stone sent about Warren’s prospective decriminalization plan.)
That’s especially true in light of Warren’s record on issues that affect sex workers. In 2017, Warren introduced with Sen. Marco Rubio the End Banking for Human Traffickers Act, which sex workers’ rights activists argued would give banks substantial leeway to discriminate against them. The bill, which was not voted on but was reintroduced earlier this year, would have led to sex workers being “totally disenfranchised by the financial system,” Nina Luo, a member of the steering committee for Decrim NY, previously told Rolling Stone.
Warren (along with all of the other major presidential candidates in the race) also voted in support of SESTA/FOSTA, a controversial 2018 piece of legislation that sex workers say was intended to curb online sex trafficking, but ultimately prevented them from advertising and vetting clients, thus driving them onto the streets and making them more vulnerable to violence. Failing to reference repealing SESTA/FOSTA while feinting support in favor of decriminalization is an empty gesture, McCracken says. “She certainly didn’t listen to the people who were most affected by SESTA/FOSTA and she certainly didn’t understand the impact it would have,” says McCracken. “So is she actually listening to sex workers now?”
That’s not to say, however, that Warren’s statement is totally meaningless, or that the fact that a major presidential candidate is openly speaking in favor of sex work decriminalization isn’t significant. Considering the issue has not factored into previous election cycles at all, the fact that it is considered a serious enough issue to warrant a mention in Warren’s proposal is significant in itself, and proves how much progress the movement has made in the past few years. “Ten years ago, people didn’t think it was important to talk about transgender rights because it was such a small population. A similar thing is happening with the sex work conversation,” Luo told Rolling Stone.
But the fact that the candidate who notoriously has a plan for everything doesn’t have a plan for sex work has proven frustrating to sex workers’ rights advocates. Saying she’s open to decriminalization, without detailing what that would look like under a Warren administration or speaking in favor of repealing policies that have proven harmful to marginalized communities, “allows her to garner support without having to say she truly understands what it means, and what a plan would look like to make it happen,” says McCracken.