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New polling shows a majority of Americans support decriminalizing sex work and ending vice policing of it. (Photo: Koca Vehbi/Shutterstock via ACLU)

New Polling Shows That for the First Time Ever, a Majority of Americans Support Decriminalizing Sex Work

"Laws criminalizing sex work criminalize poverty and thrust LGBTQ people of color who face rampant employment discrimination into prisons and jails."

Jessica Corbett

For the first time ever, a majority of American voters somewhat or strongly support decriminalizing sex work, according to new polling results published Thursday as part of a broader report from 28 human rights and public health groups.

The poll from Decriminalizing Survival: Policy Platform and Polling on the Decriminalization of Sex Work (pdf) shows that 52% of voters across all age groups, locations, and political party affiliations support decriminalization. The greatest amount of support is from voters aged 18–44; the support level declines with each older group.

support for decriminalization

"It's very simple, decriminalizing sex work is the future," report author Nina Luo, a Data for Progress fellow and Decrim NY organizer, explained in a statement. "One, real wages haven't risen, 13% of Americans know someone who has died because they couldn't afford healthcare, and we have a $1.5 trillion student debt crisis. The economy is leaving people behind."

"Two, not only do young people see that, we understand that police and criminalization are not effective strategies for dealing with issues," she continued. "Three, this movement is organizing, and it's organizing fast. Electeds and candidates seeking office should get with where the public is and move decriminalization and the defunding of vice policing forward, or you'll be voted out."

The new report details reasons people engage in sex trades—also called sex work, commercial/transactional sex, and prostitution—as well as laws about it across the United States and why such work should be decriminalized. It also features a policy platform and the polling results.

The national survey that YouGov Blue conducted in November 2019 for Data for Progress found that almost a majority of Americans (49%) also support ending vice policing of sex work. Similar to the first finding about decriminalization, the highest support came from the 18–44 age groups.

"The conversation on sex workers' health and lives has reached new heights in the last few years," said Kate D'Adamo of Reframe Health and Justice. "This polling shows us something we have known all along—when you center the voices of people trading sex to speak from their experience and share the policy changes that would dramatically and drastically change their lives, decriminalization becomes an obvious choice."

Sara L. Ainsworth, legal and policy director at If/When/How: Lawyering for Reproductive Justice, reiterated that the policies supported in the polls reflect the demands of those actually involved in sex work.

"The criminalization of people's bodies, and by extension of our sexual and reproductive lives, is rooted in white supremacy, misogyny, and queer- and transphobia," she said. "Decriminalizing sex work and dismantling police units that target and often abuse sex workers, along with the other vital recommendations in this report, are priorities that come directly from communities most affected."

Decriminalizing Survival outlines some of the criminalization strategies employed by law enforcement—such as stings, raids, and busts—and notes that "in many cases, vice units and raids have been falsely branded as 'anti-trafficking' operations, when their real focus is on policing sex work in all its forms."

Diving into the country's history of outlawing sex work, the report argues that decriminalization not only is "part of an effective anti-trafficking policy" but also "reduces cycles of police violence, arrest, incarceration, and deportation and allows people to report violence and exploitation when they experience it without fear of arrest or incarceration."

The report features personal stories from sex workers and emphasizes that they "are often undocumented, women of color and/or young LGBTQ+ people who have little to no access to the justice system." It also lays out how decriminalization advances racial and LGBTQ+ justice, supports gender equity, protects immigrant and labor rights, and promotes public health.

"I've been arrested four times for prostitution. Only once was I actually doing sex work, the other three arrests were just profiling because I'm a trans woman," said Make the Road NY TGNCIQ justice organizer Bianey Garcia, whose story is in the report.

National Center for Transgender Equality executive director Mara Keisling pointed out that the U.S. Trans Survey "shows that transgender people report high rates of police harassment, abuse, or mistreatment at the hands of police, both when they have been mistakenly profiled as sex workers and when they have actually engaged in sex work. Bringing sex work out of the shadows can help to reduce those risks."

Decriminalizing Survival suggests that "sex work is an issue of controversy because it forces us to reckon with the realities of economic, racial, and gender injustice," adding that "people trade sex for many reasons, but most often to meet basic needs, and until this economy affords everyone a home, a living wage job, healthcare, and education, many people will continue to trade sex for survival."

The platform put forth includes state, county, and city-level legislative reforms; police accountability measures; prosecutor practices and policies; and housing, services and labor protections. The report urges all individuals and groups to support those policies while noting that the platform is not conclusive and further work on the issue must include close collaboration with people who trade sex.

"Laws criminalizing sex work criminalize poverty and thrust LGBTQIA people of color who face rampant employment discrimination into prisons and jails," Chinyere Ezie, staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights said Thursday. "This report begins a discussion about criminal justice reform that's long overdue and charts a path forward for a more just future."

As the report's new polling shows, Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) told The New Republic Thursday, "the national conversation on sex work is rapidly moving in favor of decriminalization, and it's long past time for Congress to catch up."

Last month, Khanna and a group of progressives introduced legislation to study how a package of laws called SESTA/FOSTA have negatively impacted sex workers. The congressman said Thursday that studying these measures is a start, "[b]ut ultimately we must move toward decriminalization."

This post has been updated to clarify some details from the polling results.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

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