POLITICS

Rep. Ayanna Pressley Calls To Decriminalize Sex Work In Criminal Justice Resolution

The Democratic congresswoman from Massachusetts proposed legislation to decriminalize the sex trade as part of her "People’s Justice Guarantee" package.

Rep. Ayanna Pressley (D-Mass.) proposed legislation to decriminalize sex work as part of a sweeping resolution she introduced Thursday morning aimed at revolutionizing the criminal justice system.  

The People’s Justice Guarantee includes proposals to combat mass incarceration by expanding access to restorative justice, ending the cash-bail system, implementing minimum sentences, terminating solitary confinement and ending the death penalty. The U.S. “has a moral obligation to meet its foundational promise of guaranteed justice for all,” the bill reads. 

Notably, the resolution also includes a clause calling to decriminalize sex work, which is often a byproduct of discrimination, poverty and/or addiction.

The resolution aims to decriminalize sex work by “removing criminal and civil penalties related to consensual sex work and addressing structural inequities that impede the safety, dignity, and wellbeing of all individuals.” Specifically, the resolution seeks to protect minority communities who are often pushed into sex work as a form of survival, including Black, Latinx and transgender communities. 

“Two principles of the People’s Justice Guarantee are safety and dignity ― both of which are compromised for consensual sex workers,” Pressley told HuffPost. “Sex work is work. In fact, sex work is often the only form of work for certain marginalized communities who are most vulnerable to housing and employment discrimination.”

The congresswoman reiterated the importance of not conflating sex work with human trafficking, adding that she will continue to fight for justice for survivors of trafficking and assault. 

“Black and brown women, especially Black and brown trans women, have been historically and unjustly over-policed and over-criminalized, including within the sex work industry,” she continued. “We need to ensure their safety to the fullest extent possible and that means limiting their interactions with police by fully decriminalizing sex work and alleviating the structural inequities that lead to it.”

Saye Joseph, a member of Decrim NY, an organization working to decriminalize sex work in New York, explained how decriminalizing sex work will protect the most marginalized communities.

“Decriminalizing sex work recognizes the ways in which people are being pushed to the margins, the ways in which people are being criminalized for surviving,” Joseph told HuffPost on Thursday. “We live in an anti-Black capitalistic world that denies Black people, Latinx people, undocumented people, migrants access to traditional economic spaces.”

By decriminalizing the sex trade, the U.S. government would be acknowledging consensual sex work as survival, Joseph said. Additionally, decriminalizing sex work would combat mass incarceration and discrimination. 

“Decriminalization is part of decarceration,” she said. “This is all connected. When we talk about mass incarceration, we need to be intersectional about it.” 

Decriminalizing prostitution became a topic of mainstream discussion most recently after President Donald Trump signed the controversial SESTA/FOSTA bill into law last year. 

The Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, also known as FOSTA or SESTA in the Senate (Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act), targets websites like Craigslist and the personal classifieds online platform Backpage.com, which the government seized and shut down prior to Trump signing the bill. Websites like these are rife with advertisements for sex work, including both voluntary sex workers and victims, often underage, who are forced into sex work. 

The law has been criticized by many sex workers and advocates because it conflates voluntary sex work with victims trafficked into the industry. Critics also argue that it will push sex trafficking and voluntary sex work further underground, which puts both groups in even more danger.  

Earlier this year, New York lawmakers introduced the first statewide bill to decriminalize sex work. The Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act is a legislative package that “decriminalizes and decarcerates” the sex trade in New York.

“Sex work is work and should not be criminalized by the state,” state Sen. Julia Salazar (D), a co-sponsor of the bill, said in June.  

“Our current policies only empower traffickers and others who benefit from keeping sex work in the shadows,” Salazar added. “New York state needs to listen to sex workers and make these common-sense reforms to keep sex workers safe and empower sex workers in their workplaces.”

This article has been updated to include Rep. Pressley’s comments.