Sex work is considered the oldest profession in the world, but lots of candidates running for president in 2020 act like it’s a new issue — and they’re unprepared to talk about it.
Given recent efforts to decriminalize sex work in state legislatures and debates in Congress about the ramifications of some anti-trafficking laws on sex workers, BuzzFeed News asked all the 2020 presidential candidates, including President Donald Trump, to lay out their stance. We asked:
- Do you think sex work should be decriminalized?
- If so, what changes do you support on the federal level?
Some candidates took clear positions in support of decriminalization, like Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and Sen. Cory Booker, who told BuzzFeed News unequivocally, “Yes, sex work should be decriminalized.”
Sen. Kamala Harris supports decriminalization for sex workers, as does Rep. Seth Moulton (though he has a caveat — he wants to maintain strict penalties for people who solicit prostitution; Harris did not address solicitors). Former senator Mike Gravel, who initially said he was running not to win but rather to try to get different views onto the debate stage, also supports decriminalization.
On the other hand, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio stuck by his view that sex workers should be arrested.
Many of the candidates said nothing, despite several requests. A number of others gave vague answers, including Mayor Pete Buttigieg and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, who suggested they want to examine the issue more.
Most Democratic voters — who will decide next year’s primary — appear to be ahead of the candidates.
Decrim NY, an advocacy organization for sex workers, joined progressive think tank Data for Progress and YouGov to survey voters nationwide this month. Their poll found that among Democrats, 56% support the decriminalization of consensual sex work. Just 17% of Democrats opposed — a 3-to-1 ratio of support. Among voters across all parties, 45% support decriminalization, while 27% oppose it.
All of the candidates’ answers — and nonanswers — are below.
“They should have a position on the decriminalization of sex work,” argues Kate D’Adamo, an advocate for sex workers’ rights who regularly lobbies Congress. She told BuzzFeed News that decriminalization would protect sex workers from violence and exploitation — and candidates need to know where they stand.
All the 2020 candidates who currently serve in Congress voted for bills ostensibly about trafficking — the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) became law last year. Sex workers and advocates, including D’Adamo, fought those policies aggressively, arguing they go far beyond trafficking and actually made sex work even more dangerous by cracking down on online tools that workers used to vet clients and protect themselves and each other.
“I want candidates to have a willingness to discuss how trafficking laws exacerbate those problems because that’s something they can address at the federal level,” D’Adamo, a partner at Reframe Health and Justice Consulting, said.
The passage of FOSTA-SESTA galvanized an organizing movement and led to protests around the country.
“Sex workers are talking a lot more publicly,” said Alex Andrews, a member of the board of directors of the national chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project and former sex worker. “We’re no longer the invisible vice that you can ignore easily.”
Rep. Tulsi Gabbard
“If a consenting adult wants to engage in sex work, that is their right, and it should not be a crime,” Gabbard told BuzzFeed News in March. “All people should have autonomy over their bodies and their labor.”
A spokesperson for her presidential campaign cited that comment in an email to BuzzFeed News this month and added, “She believes it should be decriminalized, and that is the action we would take on the federal level.”
Sen. Bernie Sanders
Sanders didn’t reply to repeated questions from BuzzFeed News, but in an interview with NPR’s 1A on May 16, he said it deserves more discussion.
“I think the idea of legalizing prostitution is something that should be considered. It exists in other counties — something I want to think about a little bit more — but it is certainly something that should be considered,” Sanders said. “And I think when you talk about people getting arrested for prostitution, I think one should [take] in to consideration that the people who use prostitution, men who visit places of prostitution, or engage prostitution, they are equally guilty. But I think the issue of legalizing it is something that certainly needs to be discussed.”
Mayor Pete Buttigieg
Buttigieg did not answer questions from BuzzFeed News.
In the past, he has acknowledged sex work as an issue, but he has not outlined a position on decriminalization. In an interview with Out magazine, he said, “The reason FOSTA-SESTA moved so quickly is because [lawmakers thought] that by supporting the bill they were opposing the harms that come from sex trafficking. We now understand that this legislation harmed vulnerable people, but this needs to be part of a larger conversation about how we treat sex workers and all of the reasons why this society hesitates to embrace the idea of sex work. I don’t think all of those ideas are wrong, but we need to open up debate about these policies, which were well-intentioned but harmful in practice.”
Buttigieg’s campaign declined to offer any clarification about his stance on decriminalization.
Gov. John Hickenlooper
Hickenlooper answered a question about decriminalization from BuzzFeed News Editor-in-Chief Ben Smith at SXSW in March by saying, “Legalizing prostitution and regulating it, so there are norms and protections and we understand more clearly how people are being treated and make sure we prevent abuse, I think it should be really looked at.”
BuzzFeed News asked for clarity about his stance on decriminalization this month.
“He believes the issue should be seriously considered,” a spokesperson for Hickenlooper’s campaign said. “This means studying how it would be regulated as a legal activity. As the Governor who oversaw the legalization of marijuana in Colorado, he knows the amount of time and research that has to go into legalizing a once criminal activity.”
Sen. Kamala Harris
Harris did not reply to repeated questions from BuzzFeed News, but the Root asked the California senator in February if she supports decriminalizing sex work. “I think so, I do,” she began. “I think that we have to understand though that it is not as simple as that.”
“I think — you know — yes, we should really consider that we can’t criminalize consensual behavior as long as no one is being harmed,” Harris continued. “But at the point that anyone is being harmed, we have to understand that’s a different matter.”
She later told a town hall audience on CNN that “we should not be criminalizing women who are engaged in consensual, you know, opportunities for employment,” but did not address whether buyers should be punished.
Advocates for decriminalization have been wary of taking Harris’s position at face value because of her history with the issue as the district attorney of San Francisco, when she opposed a measure to decriminalize prostitution. “I think it’s completely ridiculous, just in case there’s any ambiguity about my position,” she told the New York Times in 2008.
Harris declined to clarify her position in response to repeated questions from BuzzFeed News.
Mayor Bill de Blasio
The New York City mayor is sticking by comments from an April press conference when he argued that concerns about sex trafficking necessitated that prostitution continue to be illegal, according to a campaign spokesperson.
“I’m not comfortable” with legalizing sex work, he said at the time. “I think we have a very troubling dynamic out there and we need to keep the legal status it has now.”
Sen. Cory Booker
“Yes, sex work should be decriminalized,” Booker told BuzzFeed News in a statement. “As a general matter, I don’t believe that we should be criminalizing activity between consenting adults, and especially when doing so causes even more harm for those involved.”
Booker emphasized that policies should focus on harm reduction, saying, “The real question here is what will make sex workers safer and reduce exploitation, and abundant evidence points to decriminalization.”
These comments mark a shift from Booker’s earlier response to the Root in April, when he declined to take a firm position, but appeared to be wary of decriminalization, saying that he had seen “horrific things” as the mayor of Newark.
Former representative John Delaney
The former US representative from Maryland would not comment on decriminalization of sex work, but told BuzzFeed News in a statement that his administration would tackle sex trafficking aggressively.
“We will not only go after the buyers who prop up the market for sex trafficking, but most importantly, the human traffickers who have ruined the lives of so many victims,” Delaney said.
The response made no mention of Delaney’s approach to sex workers.
Rep. Seth Moulton
The congressional representative for Massachusetts told BuzzFeed News, “Yes, sex work needs to be decriminalized, but [anyone] soliciting prostitution should face stiff criminal penalties.”
“By focusing on the criminalization of soliciting prostitution, we would keep the market for sex work small while helping sex workers,” said Moulton, citing precedents in Norway, Korea, and Israel, among others.
Moulton was one of the few candidates to elaborate on the measures he would take to support this position at the federal level, saying, “The federal government should provide states with the expertise and incentives necessary to focus their law enforcement resources on those who solicit prostitution and away from sex workers themselves.”
He also said the government should go after traffickers and provide resources “to help sex workers avoid exploitative and abusive conditions.”
Sen. Elizabeth Warren
Warren has become known for having a plan on seemingly every issue, but the Massachusetts senator declined to take a position in response to repeated questions from BuzzFeed News asking for clarity on her views on sex work.
“There are, in my view, two competing problems here that we’re trying to deal with. The first one is I believe humans should have autonomy over their own bodies and they get to make their own decisions,” Warren said at a town hall in Ohio.
Warren argued, though, that the focus should be on exploitation of trafficking victims. “The other half is we just have to acknowledge the reality. The world of sex trade involves a lot of trafficking of people who do not have autonomy of their bodies,” she said.
“What I hope we’re trying to look for is not the question about sex — sex is good — but the question of exploitation, and how fine the line that runs between those who have been taken advantage of, who are being trafficked, who are being abused, and those who are not,” Warren said.
Former representative Beto O’Rourke
The former Texas representative and failed Senate candidate did not respond to questions.
During a wide-ranging interview with the AP in March, he told the outlet that he “doesn’t have enough experience with the debate over decriminalizing sex work to give an intelligent answer on whether prostitution should be legalized.”
Former senator Mike Gravel
David Oks — Gravel’s 18-year-old campaign manager who is widely credited with running the whole operation — told BuzzFeed News the 89-year-old Alaskan candidate’s plank is posted right on his campaign website.
“Encourage states and municipalities to decriminalize all commercial sex work,” the plank says, adding that enforcement should “focus on illegal and coercive sex trafficking, not consenting sex work.”
Gravel’s platform calls for repealing FOSTA-SESTA, “which target sites like Backpage.com that sex workers used to screen clients and ensure safety. Encourage states and municipalities to decriminalize all commercial sex work.” He also wants to establish a national advisory board on sex workers’ rights, composed of professionals in the sex work field.
Gravel, 89, is typically not considered as a candidate in the 23-person field because of his unusual campaign and his initial position that he was not running to win. His campaign has recently said that he’s now “in it to win it.”
Did not respond
The following candidates did not respond to repeated questions from BuzzFeed News and have not outlined their stance on sex work:
President Donald Trump
Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand
Sen. Amy Klobuchar
Sen. Michael Bennet
Former vice president Joe Biden
Montana Gov. Steve Bullock
Former secretary of Housing and Urban Development Julián Castro
Washington Gov. Jay Inslee
Florida Mayor Wayne Messam
Rep. Tim Ryan
Rep. Eric Swalwell
Former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld, who is running as a Republican
Author Marianne Williamson
Entrepreneur Andrew Yang
This story was updated with additional information on Harris's position.