Decriminalizing prostitution — an idea gaining momentum among some Democrats, including at least one 2020 presidential contender — may one day be traced back to the hookers plying their trade under the elevated train along New York City’s Roosevelt Avenue.
That open-air market of prostitutes and johns in Queens, undeterred by the constant threat of arrest and incarceration, has been cited by New York state lawmakers mulling whether it’s time to wave the white flag in the war on the world’s oldest profession.
The decriminalization debate among Democrats spilled into the 2020 presidential race last month when Sen. Kamala D. Harris of California said she was supportive of the idea — although the legalization crowd complained that she was still too timid.
It was less than a decade ago that the Democratic Party embraced same-sex marriage and just three years ago that it formally adopted a platform plank to legalize marijuana. Rep. Raul M. Grijalva of Arizona, chairman emeritus of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said decriminalizing sex work is on “that same trajectory.”
“At some point, it will be looked at in a different light,” Mr. Grijalva said.
For now, Ms. Harris appears to be leading the 2020 pack.
She told The Root last week that she would back decriminalization as long as safeguards remain in place to protect sex workers against exploitation by human traffickers and pimps.
“But when you are talking about consenting adults, I think that you know, yes, we should really consider that we can’t criminalize consensual behavior as long as no one is being harmed,” she said.
It’s a major shift from 2008 when, as San Francisco district attorney, she called the idea ridiculous.
Legalization activists say the 2020 hopeful’s new stance appears to embrace the Nordic model adopted in parts of Europe, which discourages prostitution but targets those buying sex rather than those selling it. The activists asked for a meeting with Ms. Harris to urge her to go further.
“It is not possible to police clients without policing people who trade sex,” said Cecilia Gentili, a transgender advocate. “The Nordic model constantly polices, surveils and harasses people who trade sex for information about our clients.”
They also asked all 2020 presidential candidates to “advocate for the full decriminalization of sex trades.” Several 2020 contenders ignored requests for comment from The Washington Times, and other candidates have not rushed to follow Ms. Harris’ lead.
Yet state officials in New York are ready to force the issue. Lawmakers there announced last week that they are working on decriminalization legislation.
“The answer has always been just throw more police at them,” said New York state Sen. Jessica Ramos, who noted the activity under the train platform in Queens. “It hasn’t worked, and we have to start thinking outside the box and being bold enough to demand change.”
Public opinion surveys on the subject have been sparse, though a Marist Poll from 2016 found that 49 percent of respondents agreed that prostitution between consenting adults should be legal while 44 percent said it should be illegal.
Ms. Ramos said a debate over this “national crisis” is long overdue.
She challenged those who see criminalization as protecting sex workers and said the underground market is even more dangerous.
“There are young women who have been abducted across the country for the purpose of sex work, and there are people across the country whose only recourse in order to provide for themselves is sex work, and we can’t keep sweeping it under the rug, and we have to understand the bigger picture in this industry and inch closer to ending the blackest market,” she said.
Congress, though, is going the other way.
After a lengthy Senate investigation into Backpage.com, once the country’s largest sex marketplace, found that the site didn’t do enough to prevent trafficking, lawmakers rushed to pass a bill dubbed FOSTA, short for the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act.
The law allows a 10-year sentence for anyone caught prostituting another person online, including the online companies themselves. The law also allows victims to sue the facilitators.
All of the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls backed the law, as did President Trump, who signed it despite pleas from activists who warned that it forced sex workers onto the streets and made it harder to screen clients.
Rep. Ro Khanna of California, first vice chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, said he got “beat up a little bit” for opposing the bill, which he worried “put some of the most vulnerable people in a tougher position.”
Going forward, Mr. Khanna said, he hopes the issue gets more attention.
“I think it is a broader question of gender equity, and as we become more aware of women’s rights and some of the abuse of women in more vulnerable positions and how the criminalization of that has hurt women more than helped that there may be a change of perspective,” Mr. Khanna said.
• Seth McLaughlin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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