Bernie Sanders says he's open to decriminalizing sex work
Democratic presidential candidate and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren told The Washington Post on Wednesday that she would be "open" to decriminalizing sex work.
"I'm open to decriminalization," Warren said. "Sex workers, like all workers, deserve autonomy but they are particularly vulnerable to physical and financial abuse and hardship. 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."
Less than a day later, fellow 2020 hopeful and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders said that he would consider decriminalizing sex work as well.
"Bernie believes that decriminalization is certainly something that should be considered," Deputy Communications Director Sarah Ford said in a statement to Vice News on Thursday. "Other countries have done this and it has shown to make the lives of sex workers safer."
Sanders told NPR in May that he would consider "legalizing prostitution," but this is the first time he has expressed support for decriminalization.
Opponents of criminalizing sex work share the same goal, but there is a distinct difference between legalization and decriminalization. Legalization involves government regulations that dictate when, where and how sex work can be performed, such as zoning requirements, work permits and mandatory tests for sexually transmitted diseases. In the Netherlands, Germany and most of Nevada in the US, sex work is legalized.
Decriminalization involves no government regulations, which means prostitution is treated like any other occupation. New Zealand has decriminalized sex work, while Sweden has partially decriminalized prostitution, making the sale of sex legal but the purchase of sex illegal. Sex worker advocacy groups favor decriminalization over legalization, arguing that the burdensome regulations are harmful.
"Widely presented as a more tolerant and pragmatic approach, the legalized model still criminalizes those sex workers who cannot or will not fulfill various bureaucratic responsibilities, and therefore retains some of the worst harms of criminalization," a sex worker wrote in The New Republic in 2015, under the pseudonym Molly Smith.
"It disproportionately excludes sex workers who are already marginalized, like people who use drugs or who are undocumented," Smith added. "This makes their situation more precarious, and so reinforces the power of unscrupulous managers.... We need the New Zealand model, because we need safety now—and we need real alternatives to sex work."
Queens district attorney candidate Tiffany Cabán, whom both Warren and Sanders endorsed, has campaigned on decriminalizing sex work. She said that if elected, she would not prosecute sex workers or their clients, which would make prostitution permissible in a major part of New York City. "This is literally how they put food on their tables," Cabán argued during a debate last week.
Decrim NY, a coalition to decriminalize, decarcerate, and destigmatize the sex trade in New York City, told Vice News "they feel their cause is buoyed" by Warren and Sanders' new statements. However "they're still looking for specifics from candidates, especially considering that some...voted for FOSTA/SESTA, federal anti-trafficking legislation that sex workers said made it more dangerous to do their jobs."