Moderated by Becca Motola-Barnes, the Sex-Positive Dems’ very own former VP of Internal Communications and now current President, the panel took place over Zoom on March 18, 2021. Panelists discussed decriminalizing sex work, including what decriminalization even means, why most sex workers prefer decrim to legalization, and how San Francisco is handling sex work policy. Panelists included:
- Chesa Boudin - San Francisco’s District Attorney, refuses to prosecute adult consensual sex workers (https://www.sfdistrictattorney.org/about-us/)
- Celestina Pearl - Outreach Director, St. James Infirmary (https://www.stjamesinfirmary.org/)
- Maggie McNeill - Full-service sex worker, published author, blogger, and expert on sex work policy (https://maggiemcneill.wordpress.com/)
- Cathy Reisenwitz - Writer, activist, and sex worker focused on destigmatizing and decriminalizing all things sex (http://cathyreisenwitz.substack.com/)
Chesa Boudin started off the panel by sharing that he supports the decriminalization of sex work and that his office refuses to prosecute adults who consensually buy or sell sexual services. "It is not a priority for my office to prosecute," Boudin said. "It's not something I would ever prosecute, except under the most extraordinary circumstances, if it is consensual between adults."
After Boudin left, the other panelists broke down some of the terms and continued the discussion. Cathy Reisenwitz defined sex work for viewers. “Sex work is an umbrella term that covers all forms of what we call erotic labor,” she said. “This is everything from selling erotic feet pictures on the Internet, to Only Fans, to escorting to outdoor/street sex work, phone sex operators, erotica writers, strippers.”
Celestina Pearl attributed the term to Carol Leigh. She said that the term contextualizes “sex work within the movement for worker’s rights and to acknowledge that sex work is work and that workers deserve rights, protections, safety, the ability to organize amongst themselves.”
The panelists shared that there are different models of dealing with sex work. One of those models is legalization, where sex work is legalized and regulated. While this may sound appealing on the surface, sex workers do not advocate for legalization. As Pearl explained, legalization is simply taking power from empowered, wealthy cis-white men and handing it to other wealthy cis white men. “Whether it’s legalized or criminalized, sex workers are not able to make their own terms,” she said.
Another model is partial decriminalization, such as in the case of the Nordic model. In this model sex workers are not criminalized, but buyers and pimps are. The goal of this model is to end the demand for sex work. However, this model, as panelists discussed, retains the problems of criminalization. It just puts those problems onto clients and everyone who helps sex workers – or is accused of helping sex workers. Under this model, panelists explained, boyfriends, family members, landlords, and even Uber drivers can be arrested for “pimping.”
The third model – and the one that sex workers prefer – is decriminalization. As Maggie McNeill explained, “Decriminalization is, simply put, the treating of sex work as work.”
Further clarifying, she added, “The example I like to use is to imagine a restaurant. Certainly there are things like health codes and such, but when the health inspector comes to the restaurant and finds a health code violation, what does he do? He writes a little report and gives it to the restaurant owner and says, ‘Hey, you got to clear these out, I’ll be back in a week, or else you’ll be fined.’ What he does not do, is come in by surprise, trick the restaurant owner, bring a whole team of cops, and beat up the owner, the diners, the cook. the waitstaff, arrest them all, and take them to jail. That’s not what happens. So, under decriminalization imagine something like a restaurant, where there will be rules and laws, but they’ll be covered by civil code not criminal code.”
As was evident in the panel discussion, sex workers prefer decriminalizing all forms of sex work and regulating it under civil code because it has many positive benefits that the other models do not.
Several of the panelists discussed a study of what happened in Rhode Island when indoor sex work was inadvertently decriminalized from 2003-2009. The study found that during this time, forcible rape offenses, as did rates of gonorrhea in women.
Pearl said that decriminalization gives the power back to the workers and allows them to control their lives and work.
Decriminalizing reduces violence against sex workers that is committed by clients – and police. As Reisenwitz explained, “…decrim enables a situation where sex workers can report their violent crimes against them without fearing arrest, where police aren’t legally allowed to rape sex workers, where these raids don’t happen, where sex workers can report potential trafficking to police and police can be helpful in those situations.”
At various points throughout the panel, the panelists reiterated that consensual sex work is different than human trafficking – and that decriminalization actually helps identify human trafficking situations. As Pearl stated, “When we take away the whole issue of putting all this energy towards criminalizing people who are in consensual situations, essentially victimless crimes, then we will have more energy to focus on supporting those that are in problematic situations.”
The panelists talked extensively about the connection between racism, xenophobia, and the criminalization of sex work. McNeill linked anti-sex work laws to xenophobia – especially against Chinese people. "The first federal anti-prostitution law, the Page Act [of 1875], was also the first federal migration law, and it was specifically intended to keep Chinese people out. Anti-migrant, anti-prostitution and anti-Asian, all in one law,” she said.
Reisenwitz brought up what Boudin had said earlier about his research in South Africa – that criminalization of sex work is a tool of white supremacy. She talked about an investigation of the NYPD done by ProPublica which found that cops were far more likely to go to poorer, majority-minority neighborhoods than to rich, majority white neighborhoods to conduct prostitution stings – and that they were far more likely to harass and arrest people of color.
Pearl talked about how a similar process is happening in the Mission District in San Francisco. With the passage of SESTA/FOSTA, street-based sex work has increased. Neighbors and homeowners in the Mission went to police, and the Prostitution Abatement Task Force was created, which increased police presence in the area. This has created a repeated cycle – the police drive sex workers away and then neighbors stop complaining, but when sex workers come back, police presence increases.
Pearl made it clear that the “Fight for decrim should be in solidarity with the fight to abolish prison industrial complex and for people to figure out humane community-based alternatives to policing. We can’t rely on systems that are oppressing us to empower us.”
Reisenwitz acknowledged that declining to prosecute is a good step forward, but it’s important to remove the laws themselves. By removing the laws, the policy will be able to withstand changes in government and the DA office.
While no laws have been passed decriminalizing sex work in California, there are some strides being made. Panelists discussed SB 233, which ends “the practice of using ‘condoms as evidence’ of prostitution” and gives “people the power to report a crime that they’ve experienced or witnessed without being arrested or prosecuted for related sex work or misdemeanor drug offenses.”
Pearl shared that Senator Scott Weiner is working with the Decrim Sex Work CA Coalition, a group of six organizations that includes St. James Infirmary, to pass SB 357 which would repeal the loitering with intent to commit prostitution law. This law would not decriminalize sex work –– it simply eliminates the anti-loitering offense that results in violence towards sex workers and the disproportionate criminalization of trans, Black and Brown people.
A viewer asked a question in the chat about what path towards decriminalization the speakers thought was more likely. This path, as became clear through the discussion, was not clear cut.
McNeill said that she thought it would eventually be accomplished by judicial means, and that the process would likely look like Roe v. Wade, with repeated battles to overturn it.
Reisenwitz said that laws criminalizing the buying and selling of sex “come from a place of creating these universal moralizing stipulations around sex that are not defensible from any empirical perspective.” She stressed that in order for decriminalization to occur, an ideological and cultural shift needs to happen.
The panelists stressed the need for clients to speak up. Reisenwitz acknowledged the difficulty in this, saying, “We have a culture where men are more embarrassed about paying for sex than having sex women who are too drunk to consent. That’s fucked.”
McNeill agreed and said that tools like social media and events such as the “Dear Sex Workers, We Love You” online series from St. James Infirmary are effective ways to humanize sex workers. As McNeill noted, these types of events and the humanization that accompanies them are important – because people don’t want to hurt others that they see as human.
The fight to decriminalize all forms of sex work continues. To stay up to date on what is going on, you can visit our panelists’ websites and subscribe to their newsletters and social media platforms.
- Chesa Boudin - https://www.sfdistrictattorney.org/about-us/
- Celestina Pearl - https://www.stjamesinfirmary.org/
- Maggie McNeill - https://maggiemcneill.wordpress.com/
- Cathy Reisenwitz - http://cathyreisenwitz.substack.com/
If you want to support St. James Infirmary and the work they’re doing, visit their website, where you can make a donation and subscribe to their newsletter.