The Green Party Is Failing Sex Workers

This article is a collaboration between Dr. Helen Shepard, a doctor of human sexuality, sexological bodyworker, pleasure activist and political organizer from Eugene, Oregon, and Kit O’Connell, a gonzo journalist and activist from Austin, Texas who’s closely followed the Green Party during this election cycle. They reached out to both key Green Party members, and actual sex workers in the hopes of better understanding this issue, and encouraging the party to improve its platform.

At a time when our country’s two major political parties are increasingly alienating, many politically engaged voters are turning in exasperated hope to third party candidates, like the Green Party’s Jill Stein.

It’s no wonder the party attracts the attention of progressives, independents, seasoned voters, and newly mobilized Bernie Sanders supporters alike: the Green Party bases its platform on 10 key values, ranging from social justice and equal opportunity to nonviolence and ecological wisdom. Stein has called for a 50% cut to military spending, proposes a “Green New Deal” that would invest in renewable energy infrastructure, has called for an immediate forgiveness to all student loans, and has been a very vocal critic of the corruption in the DNC.

While Stein’s positions are often controversial, the desire for an alternative to the Democrats and Republicans isn’t hard to understand in this election cycle. Especially for left-wing voters looking for a candidate who will stand up for the rights of workers and our society’s most marginalized, the Green Party is, at least ideologically, an ideal choice.

But the party has a major, hypocritical flaw.

When it comes to the rights of sex workers, Greens seem to abandon their core values entirely — instead taking a decidedly mainstream, ineffectual, and harmful stance.

Not only does the Green Party platform explicitly discourage even the use of the term “sex worker,” but it strips sex workers of their agency by painting all or most of them as trafficking victims to be rescued, rather than workers in need of empowerment.

A growing number of organized sex workers and human rights experts support decriminalization of all forms of sex work as a way to protect these workers from the very serious concerns of prosecution, trafficking, and violence. This puts the Green Party’s platform to the right of not only Amnesty International, but even Libertarian presidential candidate Gary Johnson, who otherwise makes a terrible choice for the progressive-minded feminist voter.

With its emphasis on workers rights and LGBTQIA+ liberation, how can the Green Party maintain a policy on sex work that is not just sex-negative, but regressive, dangerous, and in direct opposition to its stated ideals?

Why The Green Party Is Wrong About Sex Work

The 2016 Green Party platform states in its section on “Civil Rights and Equal Rights”:

“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 . . . 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.”

Not only is this unnecessarily gender specific (It’s 2016 — get with the gender neutral language already, Green Party!), it disregards the voices of actual sex workers. It is especially problematic for a party that positions itself explicitly as a socialist party representing the voices of LGBTQIA+ people to erase the voices of some of the most vulnerable workers under capitalism.

A 2012 report by the International Labour Organization estimates that only one quarter of the 21 million forced laborers around the world are “victims of forced sexual exploitation.” The party’s focus on sex trafficking seems to leave these other, much more common forms of trafficking largely unaddressed.

And there are no corresponding calls to criminalize consensual agriculture exchanges or domestic labor.

Though obviously sexual violence is inexcusable, the Green Party seems to ignore the fact that the problem here is just that — violence, not sex work. Sex work itself is a victimless “crime.” And its legal standing in the United States is decidedly strange, constituting a crime unless it’s videotaped — in which case it is considered pornography production and is no longer prosecutable.

It’s important to note that sex work is not an inherently negative experience. In fact, a 2008 review of sex work in New Zealand since its legalization in 2003 showed that only 5.9% of the sex workers interviewed reported there were no benefits to sex work, while 73.4% of interviewees reported a better overall lifestyle as a result of their sex work.

The negative consequences of sex work — such as health risks to the workers and their johns, abuse of sex workers by a pimp, violence perpetrated by customers, human trafficking, etc. — predominantly arise as a consequence of prostitution laws pushing sex workers underground. Not only do sex workers face legal threats if they attempt to report incidents of violence, but many face physical and sexual violence at the hands of police officers themselves.

As one example of many, an August 2016 Department of Justice report on Baltimore policing revealed that not only did the Baltimore Police Department “fail to meaningfully investigate reports of sexual assault, particularly for assaults involving women with additional vulnerabilities, such as those who are involved in the sex trade,” BPD officers were also shown to abuse sex workers physically, sexually, and through threats of arrest. Sex workers of color were particularly targeted.

As a result of sex work being criminalized, sex workers have little access to protections under the law and assaults against them more often than not go unreported.

Make no mistake: Legalizing sex work is very much a class issue. There have been great advances in the field of human sexuality, including healing professions like sexual surrogacy and sexological bodywork — therapeutic modalities that offer hands-on, somatic sex education and facilitate physical, emotional, and spiritual healing, with professional associations, official trainings, and schools. These pioneers are being recognized and commended (including in an award-winning film in 2012) and are forging the way for a new conceptualization of sex work. Although they deal with sexuality in a hands-on way, for the most part, they are above the reproach of prostitution laws.

Why should some professionals be legally protected for working in an office, when workers on the streets are still at risk? Ask any sex worker and they will tell you, a big part of their job is a lot like therapy. Sex work provides people with an opportunity to be seen and accepted without judgment.

But the Green Party shouldn’t just be bothered that its platform is classist. Another factor the party seemingly ignores is the way sex crime laws disproportionately target queer people. Many queer individuals turn to sex work because of housing insecurity and job discrimination. Furthermore, trans women are frequently charged by police with a crime that’s come to be known as “walking while trans,” even when the individual in question is not engaged in sex work.

As Molly Crabapple reported for Vice in 2013:

“In a study conducted by Make the Road, 59% of their trans respondents had been stopped by the police. Cristina, a trans woman out clubbing with her boyfriend, was accused of prostitution when cops found condoms in her bra. Let’s just pause for a moment to imagine the groping that led to this discovery.”

Not only are people like Cristina targeted for carrying condoms, but these kinds of arrests also discourage actual sex workers from protecting their sexual health.

Rather than directly address the needs of these workers, the Green Party instead embraces a faulty model adopted by Sweden in 1999, often called the “Nordic model” on prostitution, under which police target sex workers’ clients but legalize prostitution itself.

This is problematic for two main reasons. First and foremost, the Nordic model ignores the fact that consensual exchange of sex for money is not the problem, violence is. Secondly, going after johns drives the nonviolent clients away while doing little to dissuade people who are looking to commit acts of violence.

Rather than eliminating demand or even reducing the number of sex workers, these laws ultimately leave sex workers open to abuse while continuing to strip them of their autonomy.

‘They All Suck’

For this piece, Helen reached out to a pair of consensual sex workers, whom we’ll call Ken and Samantha, who are friends from the Bay Area of California.

“When I heard about Jill Stein I was excited to think there might be a candidate I actually agree with,” Samantha recalled. “But then I heard about [her support of the Nordic model] and I was like, ‘goddammit, fuck this shit.’”

Ken elaborated:

“I think if you’re going to support people doing sex work that you can’t really separate the people that are providing services from the people that are seeking services out. I don’t think it’s fair. It’s criminalizing one side of the coin and supporting the other side of the coin; it just doesn’t make any sense.”

He added:

“I’m fully supportive of sex work becoming legalized. I think it being illegal . . . pushes people into an underground existence in some regards, where maybe they’re taking unnecessary risks or don’t have the support networks or systems in place to operate in a safer manner.”

Samantha summed up her frustration with the electoral field: “I was a fool to believe I could ever vote for somebody for president I actually believe in. They all suck!”

Indeed, as Anna Saini, a sex worker on the board of the Best Practices Policy Project, told Salon in February:

“The fact is that no presidential candidate is standing up for the rights of sex workers or speaking on our issues. Presidential politics is not where we will find our liberation.”

Talking To The Green Party About Sex Work

Frustratingly, when questioned about whether she would legalize sex work in a September appearance on Fox Business, Stein shirked the question, saying there was current debate within the Green Party and that we should “stay tuned.”

This reads as a rather impotent, “my people haven’t told me what to believe yet.” We wanted some answers about why an otherwise liberal, socialist party would have such a weak stance on the human and workers rights surrounding the decriminalization of sex work. We found that the issue had been raised with the party on more than one occasion, apparently without concrete results.

Unfortunately, we made multiple attempts to reach Green Party presidential candidate Dr. Jill Stein without receiving a comment.

Meleiza Figueroa, Stein’s publicity manager, confirmed that the issue of sex work was being debated internally within the party, but told us “all they can say on the record is that discussions are continuing.” Figueroa noted the Party would next have the opportunity to revise its platform in 2018.

Ajamu Baraka, the Greens’ vice presidential candidate, did provide us with a brief statement through his advisor, Bob Burtman, but was reticent to take a definitive position on sex work. Burtman told us:

“As a long-time human rights activist who has worked in an executive capacity with Amnesty and other human-rights organizations both internationally and domestically, Ajamu understands that this issue has yielded varying and evolving approaches to protect the health and well-being of sex workers as well as prevent the exploitation of labor and human trafficking, both of which are unacceptable violations of international human rights agreements regardless of the industry. It has been awhile since he has looked at which approaches are more or less successful and to what degree, and unfortunately he does not have the time to research the issue in order to provide you with a response that is both informed and considered, but if the evidence clearly shows that one approach better achieves the dual objectives noted above than other options, he’d certainly favor it.”

Expertly avoided, Mr. Baraka. But by deflecting in a way that paints himself as caring only about human rights, he dismisses the rights of the sex workers themselves. He nods to our complaint that other industries are fully legalized, but it isn’t enough to make him consider sex workers as more than just trafficking victims.

Until we can get over the debate about how decriminalizing sex work will affect theoretical future human trafficking, we cannot focus on the workers whose rights are being violated now, and the victims who are controlled by their captors because they know they cannot get access to legal protection or even medical treatment without being arrested or potentially deported. These issues are all made clear in the Global Network of Sex Work Projects’ paper, “Sex Work Is Not Trafficking.”

We had better luck when reaching out to Arn Menconi, a Green Party candidate for senate from Colorado, who told Kit that he hadn’t previously given enough thought to this “sensitive, complex and personal” issue. After he reviewed the situation more and talked it over with us, he said, “I think you’ve influenced me a lot over a short period of time.”

He continued:

“In my opinion, the Green Party’s platform on sex workers needs to be revised and updated with the information and the stance that Amnesty International is taking,” including decriminalization of sex work. “It’s clear that the trans community is being discriminated against by these laws and it’s happening disproportionately.”

And Gini Lester, co-chair of the Lavender Greens, the Party’s LGBTQIA+ caucus, told Kit there was a lot of debate within the caucus over the issue. “We haven’t put it on the party agenda yet because it’s polarizing.”

Speaking personally, she told us she thought sex work was a bodily autonomy issue, comparing it to abortion. When Kit read her the current platform, she responded, “that’s pretty weird,” and said she’d work to encourage the party to reconsider its views.

Lester also said that the Greens need to rewrite the entire platform to use more gender-neutral and inclusive language.

Overall, we were frustrated by the Green Party’s inability to take a definitive stance in favor of the decriminalization of sex work and the empowerment and inclusion of sex workers. As two progressive, intersectional feminist-minded political activists, we care about seeing the Green Party and other small, progressive political parties succeed in changing political discourse in the United States. But if the Green Party truly wants to build a movement for all workers, they risk being labeled hypocritical and regressive if they wait until 2018, or beyond, to bring sex workers to the table.

In order for the Green Party to become a truly progressive, worker-centered party, its members must advocate for our country’s most vulnerable workers. This requires working with and listening to the stated needs and desires of all sex workers and calling for the decriminalization of sex work. Legalization — with its connotation of forced health check-ups, registration with the state, and potentially other unnecessary regulations on their work — is not the way forward.

What’s required instead is for sex work — the consensual exchange of sexual acts for money — to be fully decriminalized, and for sex workers to be protected from violence and enslavement, given better access to health care, and freedom to determine the best and safest practices in their lives.

Without this, the Green Party’s stated ideals will remain incomplete.


Lead image: flickr/Gage Skidmore

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