[This open letter originally appeared on canyounot.me and is shared with permission]

This is a thank you for your candidness, your brashness, your boldness, and your honesty. This is a thank you for your unapologetic willingness to speak about your past as a survivor of domestic abuse, your history as a sex worker, and your pride in who your experiences have helped you become. This is a thank you for being an unforgettable, immutable reminder that an activist, a politically inclined person, a community organizer, and a mother doesn’t have to be demure or self-effacing. For all of these things, thank you. But this is also a request. This is a request that you make use of your social capital and platform to advocate on behalf of those that are constantly spoken over and silenced in conversations concerning their own wellbeing.

On 13 August 2019, you released an Instagram TV video of yourself sitting with Senator Bernie Sanders, a two-time presidential candidate with broad appeal across demographic lines. In this video, you and Senator Sanders discussed stagnating wages, pay disparity, healthcare struggles, and labour unions. All of these topics resonate with voters regardless of race, gender, socioeconomic class, and sexuality and are proving to be key issues for the upcoming 2020 election.

But one topic in particular was missing -- the full decriminalization (decrim) of sex work and continued disenfranchisement of sex workers. On 11 April 2018, both the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives voted to approve the package legislation known as SESTA/FOSTA, with President Donald Trump signing the dual bill into law that same day. Every current Democratic presidential candidate serving in either the Senate or the House signed this legislation in the affirmative — including Senator Sanders — despite numerous pleas from the U.S. Department of Justice, U.S. Senator Ron Wyden, Senator Rand Paul, the Center for Democracy and Technology, the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the American Civil Liberties Union, Engine Advocacy, the Sex Workers’ Outreach Project, and the Wikimedia Foundation.

Since the passage of SESTA/FOSTA:

  • Craigslist has removed its Personals section for fear of legal reprisals;
  • Kink-friendly and alternative dating communities have lost valuable forums for discussion and meeting;
  • San Francisco police reported that instances of trafficking shot up by 170% in 2018, following the passage of SESTA/FOSTA;
  • St. James Infirmary estimated that the presence of street-based sex work (markedly more dangerous than indoor sex work) has tripled;
  • Police departments reported increased difficulty in targeting and arresting traffickers without sites like Backpage and skip the games;
  • Sex workers across the country have posted screenshots of messages from pimps and traffickers approaching them without fear of consequence thanks to increased criminalisation;
  • and, Social media sites like Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook have begun targeting the accounts of women, trans, and non-binary people for deletion, shadowbanning, and suspension for posting anything reportable as nudity or references to sex/sex work.

More recently, it was announced that the federal seizure and closure of the website Backpage.com was predicated on grossly exaggerated evidence gathered in part by the prosecutorial and investigative efforts of U.S. Senator Kamala Harris. Backpage served as an invaluable resource for escorts unable to pay hosting fees for their own websites or membership fees for escort ad services like Eros. The ability to work online offers sex workers the option to vet and screen clients before ever meeting, greatly reducing the chances of harm from clients. The same harm that is routinely ignored and exploited by law enforcement.

Despite all of these undeniably negative consequences, not one presidential candidate has come forth to acknowledge the unequivocal policy failure that is SESTA/FOSTA, nor have they apologised for the irreparable harm visited on the communities of sex workers across the country -- even across the world as sex workers in countries where it is legalized have expressed increased difficulty with traveling to and from the United States. Not one candidate has included full decriminalization or harm reduction for sex workers in their platform. Not Senator Elizabeth Warren, who advocated for the financial disenfranchisement of sex workers and not Senator Kamala Harris who argued that decrim is an open door for pimps.

Knowing all of this, there were ripples of disappointment among the same communities when your video was published. Having seen and heard your vocal expressions of support for sex workers, we were surprised when you did not take this opportunity to advocate or seek answers for a community that you have always expressed admiration and respect for — a community that you were once a part of.

So, this is less of an open letter and more of a plea -- with your film Hustlers being released on 13 September 2019, a film that features many sex workers from across the country, we’re asking you to use your platform and increased visibility to advocate for us as you continue to capitalize on us. Use your newfound political capital to seek answers and respect for us.




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