The Green Party’s Problem With Sex Work, and Why That Needs to Matter

Atheists and skeptics have provided some great commentary in the past couple of weeks Jill Stein’s anti-science crankery. It’s much needed: Stein has been let off the hook for far too long as someone who may, at worst, be kind of naïve, but is basically decent at heart. But her attempts to pander to anti-vaxxers using the well-worn “I’m just asking questions” dodge, in addition to a truly bizarre rant alleging that WiFi is destroying our childrens’ minds, has made a lot of people look askance at her. Even Dan Arel, who had previously supported her, finally threw up his hands in disgust.

But something has gotten lost in all the delightful fisking of Stein’s anti-science fear mongering, something which is at least as harmful, if not more: Both Stein and the Green Party have lousy positions on sex work.

I really became aware of the contrast when I wrote a tweet in response to New York Daily News writer Shaun King:

The response was that I suddenly got swarmed by Stein supporters demanding that I prove that she was anti-science. The part about sex work barely made a ripple. Sometimes silence can speak volumes about your values.

What Does the Green Party Believe About Sex Work?

The Green Party is very straightforward about their ideology regarding sex work. It’s right there in their platform:

We urge that the term “sex work” not be used in relation to prostitution. With the increasing conflation of trafficking (the violent and illegal trafficking in women and girls for forced sex) with prostitution, it is impossible to know which is which, and what violence the term “sex work” is masking. No source in existence knows which forms of prostitution comprise forced sex and which comprise free will or choice prostitution. Forced sex is rape, and it is a crime. An increasing number of experts think the percentage of choice prostitution is very small, leaving the larger number of women exposed to serious and often fatal violence. Much of what is commonly called prostitution is actually sex trafficking by definition. The Green Party calls for a safer world for women and girls.
Carol Leigh, aka Scarlot Harlot, activist who coined the term “sex work.” Daniel Ellsberg in back. (cc) Carol Leigh

I want to emphasize the first line of that passage again: “We urge that the term “sex work” not be used in relation to prostitution.The term was coined in the late 1970s by Carol Leigh, a longtime activist and sex worker herself. In other words, the Green Party is opposed to speaking about a marginalized community using the language created within the community itself and broadly embraced by its members.

That’s representative of a larger problem with the Green Party’s policy towards sex work: There’s no sign that they’ve consulted with actual sex workers about what their issues are and how they should be solved.

Brit Schulte, writing on the sex work blog Tits and Sass, gives a very thorough and exacting breakdown of why the Green Party’s platform is not only misguided, but an endorsement of violent policies against sex workers. I strongly recommend that you go to the site and read the entire piece, but I think this cuts right to the heart of the problem with the platform’s stance:

“With the increasing conflation of trafficking (the violent and illegal trafficking in women and girls for forced sex) with prostitution,” the GP platform continues, “it is impossible to know which is which, and what violence the term ‘sex work’ is masking.”
It absolutely is possible to know which is which, but that might require talking to actual sex workers, something the GP USA seems uninterested in doing. The Green Party stance on sex work demonstrates that sex workers are excluded from party policy dialogue. It also takes agency away from both consenting voluntary workers and trafficking survivors. It implies we cannot speak for ourselves, and we can. The platform ignores the damage the conflation of voluntary sex work with the term ‘human trafficking’ does to both consenting workers and trafficking survivors. Arrest, jail time, prison sentences, open records in Human Trafficking court — this is violence, and yet it’s what the GP USA calls safety.
The GP USA should know that even if the police manage to find actual victims of trafficking, rather than consenting adults engaged in sex work, in the course of their sting operations, their so-called rescue methods are carcerally violent. Trafficking survivors are thrown in cages just like voluntary workers, exacerbating their trauma, rather than being given the mental health care and exit resources they need. The purported threat of trafficking is used as a justification for the arrest and imprisonment of both trafficking survivors and consenting workers.

Why Does It Matter?

I’m not a sex worker, and I never have been, so some people might think that this is just moralistic grandstanding on my part, one more excuse to bash Stein and the Greens. But I think that this says something really fucking important about the Green Party and their values. Concern for sex worker rights is one of those things that I read as a marker of a person or organization’s character. When you’re surrounded by progressives, it’s relatively easy to stand up for a bunch of trees, or condemn racism, homophobia, or misogyny; all those things are assumed to be an inherent part of progressive agendas. No matter how much progressive groups fuck up the execution, any one of those issues is considered an essential part of left-wing identity.

Sex worker rights have made incredible advances in the last thirty years, but they still don’t have the universal acceptance among social justice activists that queer rights or feminism do. One of my biggest frustrations about left-wing thought is that you can more consistently find pro-sex work journalism in Reason than in The Nation. As much as I despise Reason‘s worship of the “free market,” they are more likely to let sex workers speak for themselves and critique the rescue industry than any major left-wing publication. On the left, sex work is considered an issue that’s up for debate — a debate that usually takes place without contributions from the people whose asses are literally on the line.

So when a group that’s supposedly committed to social justice and equality takes a stand on sex work without consulting people from that community and supports policies that are more in line with what law enforcement organizations want than what actual sex workers want, it sends up a red flag. It says a lot about how far they’re willing to go in fighting for disenfranchised people. It tells me whether they’re more interested in a good bumper sticker motto than actually fighting for justice.

If the Green Party won’t do the legwork to bring actual sex workers in to consult when constructing their policy, then why trust them to fight for any other disenfranchised group? The way that they’ve handled the sex work issue is one built on upper-class paternalism, not people who are helping get marginalized voices heard. And if they’re willing to use that approach with strippers and escorts, you can be sure that they’re willing to use it with others.

In fact, this does return back to the issue of Jill Stein’s pandering to anti-vaccine and anti-GMO causes: Both of those are largely prioritized by white, upper-class liberals. They aren’t big causes among people who are broke and powerless. For the most part, they have other things to worry about. Berkeley, where I live, is thick with educated, well-off white people and anti-GMO bumper stickers. I promise that’s not a coincidence.

My “Double Standard” On The Green Party & Jill Stein

Inevitably, someone will look at this and condemn me for my obvious hypocrisy. The Democratic Party, after all, hasn’t been good for sex workers either. Their politicians have been every bit as happy as Republicans to erase all distinction between “trafficking” and consensual sex work. They’ve supported carceral approaches to sex work that are destructive to sex workers and their communities. Most Democrats have, frankly been shit on sex work issues.

So Chris, aren’t you a hypocrite? Aren’t you holding the Green Party to a double standard?

To which I say: FUCK YES, I have a double standard for Stein and the Green Party. And I will continue to do so.

Stein and her supporters have been promising us great things. They’re not recruiting followers by telling them that the Green Party is just going to be the Democratic Party with a new paint job, a lower budget, and a shakier infrastructure. The Green Party is supposed to be revolutionary. Jill Stein is campaigning on the promise that she’s going to change everything. She is going to be the kind of President that I believed in when I was eight.

They’re promising to be better, and therefore, I expect them to be better if they want my vote, or even for me to take them seriously. As long as those words are in their platform, I’ll only be able to see them as another bunch of bullshit artists catering to the privileged.

Originally published at on August 15, 2016.