In the run-up to the presidential election, leading sex worker rights advocates are trying to anticipate the impact of either candidate’s win—and it’s the possibility of a Biden presidency that elicits both deep concern and cautious optimism. While most of the advocates I spoke with strongly favored Biden over Trump as a candidate, none considered his theoretical presidency to be a default win for sex worker rights. Penelope Saunders, executive director of Best Practices Policy Project, a group dedicated to supporting sex work advocacy, observes that many of the politicians running against Trumpism are aiming for the restoration of the Obama-era. “The hope is that politics will return to normal—and ‘normal’ for sex workers’ rights is not good,” said Saunders. “We have to hold in our minds that [a Biden victory] is not a victory for sex workers.”
It’s only by comparison to President Donald Trump that Biden can be considered “good” on sex worker rights. As Kate D’Adamo, a partner at the social justice collective Reframe Health and Justice, puts it, “Under Biden, it is gonna be tough. Under Trump, it’s going to be a lot harder for a lot of people.”
If a potential Biden administration might be seen as a reprieve, it’s because of the damage done under Trump’s first four years in office. We’ve seen the 2018 passage of SESTA/FOSTA, a bill with bipartisan support that held websites criminally responsible for facilitating sex trafficking, and which shuttered a host of platforms used by sex workers to safely screen clients. Since then, the law has had a devastating impact on sex workers’s “financial stability, safety, access to community, and health outcomes,” according to a recent study (which is just what sex workers, at the time, warned would happen). The Trump administration has also thrown money at controversial anti-trafficking organizations, including a Nevada shelter for survivors run by Hookers for Jesus, which has required guests to attend religious services and described homosexuality as a sin in its staff training manual. Additionally, Trump’s approach on countless issues intersecting with sex work—including immigration, LGBTQ rights, policing, and racism—is appallingly destructive.
Still, the concerns around Biden’s stance on sex work are many. For one, he hasn’t made his own position clear, despite a number of presidential candidates addressing the issue during their campaigns. It’s no surprise to Saunders, who sees it as tactical. “Sex work is seen as an issue that could bring a candidate down,” she said. “It’s not a risk that he would be prepared to take.” On the other hand, D’Adamo argues that Biden’s silence might be a good thing, potentially signaling that there would be room for advocates to exert influence with his administration. However, Phoenix Calida, the communications director at SWOP-USA, a national sex worker rights network, says of a Biden win, “I see things getting worse for sex workers, actually.”
Calida’s assessment is due in part to Biden’s sponsorship of the 1994 crime bill, which is criticized for its role in the crisis of mass incarceration in the U.S. “Even though it wasn’t sex worker specific, it really speaks to the sort of mindset where you think that longer prison sentences are going to be a deterrent to crimes,” she said. “‘Tough on crime,’ which Biden has really promoted his entire career, is really not helpful at all to sex workers. It starts people on “a never-ending cycle of arrests and jail fees.” Calida is also concerned by Biden’s approach to policing, especially amid historic Black Lives Matter protests. “Biden is like, ‘Let’s not defund the police, let’s give them more money!’”
Advocates’ concerns around Biden’s running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, are both more numerous and concrete. “You couldn’t get a candidate with a worse record on sex work,” says Saunders of Harris. In 2008, Harris called San Francisco’s Proposition K—an attempt at halting the enforcement of laws against prostitution—“completely ridiculous.” Harris also infamously pursued the shutdown of Backpage and the prosecution of the site’s owners despite warnings that shuttering the site would put sex workers in greater danger and make it harder to investigate sex trafficking cases. (It did.) She also helped develop the devastating SESTA/FOSTA, specifically as a means of targeting Backpage.
During a conversation with The Root in 2019, Harris was asked whether she was for the decriminalization of sex work and she said, “I think so. I do.” It seemed to some that her stance had dramatically shifted. To Calida, it sounded like Harris was voicing support for the Nordic model, which decriminalizes sex workers while criminalizing their customers, and which she calls, “a disaster in its own way.” Indeed, the Nordic model has led to a number of unintended negative consequences, including increased policing and decreased sex worker safety.
All that said, it’s unclear how, or whether, Harris’ perspective will influence Biden’s presidential approach. Generally, D’Adamo is feeling optimistic about the potential for progress under a theoretical Biden administration. That is in part because the obvious damage done by SESTA/FOSTA created an unusual opportunity for reflection with politicians, as well as NGOs. “It forced a lot of conversations,” she said. “It became really clear, the devastation was really wide, and it was entirely predicted by sex workers.” Since then, she’s observed a new level of awareness around the potential perils of anti-trafficking legislation, as well as “what it means to serve marginalized communities,” she says.
Similarly, Kristen DiAngelo, executive director of SWOP Sacramento, notes that on the federal level sex work is often wrongly conflated with sex trafficking. “It’s all mushed together,” as she put it. With a new administration, DiAngelo sees the opportunity to “decouple” the two “in policies and laws and procedures.” That decoupling requires better information on anti-trafficking efforts: D’Adamo says one of the chief asks for a new administration will be around the collection of data on such efforts. “We want to know about how effective you think these stings are, what are you looking at as metrics of success,” she explained. “Bad anti-trafficking work is served by no one paying attention.”
Of course, there are also much less promising signs on the political landscape when it comes to sex trafficking. Calida says the rise of the far-right QAnon conspiracy theory, which falsely claims that Trump is being targeted by Democrats who run a global child sex-trafficking ring, could facilitate political maneuvers that harm sex workers, she says. “It is really helping drive rumors around child sex trafficking,” said Calida. “Ultimately, that leads to bipartisan policy and there’s never been a time when bipartisan policy that’s framed as ‘save the child sex slaves’ doesn’t do well.”
That is the same emotionally persuasive frame that aided SESTA/FOSTA’s destructive success, as well as the current progress of the EARN IT Act, a bill ostensibly intended to protect against child sexual exploitation, but which threatens sex workers’ ability to use encrypted messaging services to share community resources, as well as free speech online. Some opponents of the bill, which Harris supports, are calling it “SESTA/FOSTA 2.0.”
Broadly, Saunders sees opportunity for more effective advocacy with a functional and less chaotic administration. She also notes the many challenges facing the understaffed and underfunded organizations advocating for the marginalized and stigmatized sex work community. “There are real barriers that we need to speak up about. We can’t just wave a magic wand,” she said. “Whorephobia is real. Transphobia is real. Racism is real. Xenophobia is real.”
The scope of necessary change is also vast. “We want to end the criminalization of sex workers’ lives, and we see that as broader than a call for decriminalization,” said Saunders. That means addressing the “many ways in which people who are targeted as sex workers” are discriminated against in everything from immigration to opening up a bank account to fighting a child custody case. A key focus is policing, including the crisis of anti-black racism and profiling of transgender women.
Whichever way the election turns, sex worker rights advocates face a significant challenge, but D’Adamo is confident that sex workers will meet it. “There is a core of resistance and resilience,” she said. “This is a community of survivorship. Sex workers were built for weathering any storm.”