The State of Sex Work Policy
Updated: Apr 25, 2022
Kate D’Adamo Does The Whorizon Interview
Blog Post Written By: MelRose Michaels
Kate D’Adamo has spent years front lines of the fight for sex worker rights, including as a community organizer with SWOP New York City and later as National Policy Advocate at the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center. Today, she does advocacy and public policy on the federal level as part of the Reframe Health and Justice collective.
On the Whorizon spoke with Kate to talk about the current state of sex work policy on the state and federal level, and to better understand the systems that we’re fighting. The conversation was both illuminating and enraging.
Below is a lightly edited version of our interview with Kate. You can (and should) listen to the full interview on the Decrim episode of the On The Whorizon podcast, where in Jessie and MelRose also speak with sex work advocate Emily Warfield of New York’s Bluestockings Cooperative, and First Amendment attorney Larry Walters, who’s currently leading the federal suit against FOSTA-SESTA.
Whorizons: The anti-trafficking movement is picking up so much steam. What has that looked like for you analyzing all of that stuff right now?
It's a lot of triage. The main trafficking legislation that governs the federal side anti-trafficking efforts in the United States is called the Trafficking Victims Protection Act [TVPA]. And it was passed in 2000 [and] every couple of years it has to be reauthorized. And that's how they do government funding … “We're gonna authorize X amount of money for 2000 to 2002.” And in 2002, they say, “All right, cross out 2002 and put in 2005.” So the most recent reauthorization was actually introduced on September 3rd.
They pack everything like in the kitchen sink into this one bill. There's a lot of different provisions in a bill like that. One of the tricky parts about working on the Hill, not just for advocates, but even for staffers and for allies, is that a lot of times a bill will come down and unless you really know what to look for, you don't realize that it's gonna have a disproportionate impact on folks that trade sex.
What are the things that we should be looking for?
Right now, in terms of the federal landscape, there's a few places where it becomes more impactful … Everyone is right now talking about what oversight of the internet looks like. Um, and so a lot of those bills are pretty tricky, because it's not just the US government and institutions saying, “All right, this is illegal.” It's saying, “Hey, we're gonna give some broad recommendations and you, Private Company — who's more concerned about your bottom line than your branding than anything else — you interpret this and you figure out what it means.
And so that can be really tricky. And so looking at a lot of the digital oversight bills, some of the financial pieces, we know how outsized the impact [is] of MasterCard and Visa saying, “Well, we're not gonna work with this website.” We know the impact of that. We know how you lose access to sites and resources.
And then of course, anti-trafficking bills and anti-policing bills. And with trafficking, if it just says ‘sex trafficking,’ that means a couple things. Because right now, under the crime of ‘trafficking’, it's actually split into two — and this was really purposeful when they defined it. Trafficking is “exploitation through force, fraud or coercion“… And on one side is exploitation in the sex industry. The other is exploitation in literally every other commercial transaction, in every other form of employment.
And so a lot of times, one of the things that pops up really clearly is: “Is this a change in legislation that only impacts the sex industry? Or is it something that they believe in enough to apply it to every single industry out there?”
The other thing to look for is [funding]. Is this money going to labor investigators? Is it going to people looking at workplace discrimination? Or is it going to frontline cops and vice squads? …That's one of the big red flags. Do they believe enough in this inter intervention to apply it to every single trafficking victim? Or do they believe in it enough to only try to screw over the sex trade?
That's all so interesting. We also wanted to talk to you a little bit today about decriminalization. Could like give a brief overview on decrim and why sex workers in particular are interested in decrim?
You know, the push for decriminalization has exploded in the last couple years. It's been absolutely staggering and so exciting. This session alone, we added so many states to the places that have had a full decriminalization bill. And COVID made that really difficult [but] in the last couple years, we have seen some incredible things.
We saw DC, which is its own district, introduced a decriminalization bill. Not only a decriminalization bill for the district, but a hearing in front of the committee that was actually gonna vote on it — which is the first time that's happened. In Louisiana, we saw a hearing for a decriminalization bill. Louisiana was the first in the true South to introduce a full decriminalization bill. But we've also seen bills in New York State — which would be massive. New York has a lot of arrests — a decriminalization bill in Vermont and in Oregon. So that's just a few states, and that's full decriminalization.
We've also seen attempts to repeal loitering bills in California, which is working its way through as we speak.* New York repealed its loitering statute, and a number of places have been discussing that as well… Even prosecutors [are] saying, “We're not gonna prosecute this anymore. People exchanging sex for money is not gonna waste my office's time anymore.” And so we've seen progressive prosecutors across the country talk about that.
I think it's important for a lot of sex workers to know that when DAs say that they're no longer going to prosecute trading sex, that that doesn't mean that arrests necessarily stop.
Every aspect of sex worker is criminalized. We're actually the most criminalized country in the global North, as far as what actual actions are criminalized. So under most prostitution laws, prostitution is the, the actual exchange of sex for resources. Outside of that, solicitation is criminalized in most states — and that's just the conversation. So if prostitution is the actual exchange, solicitation is either asking [or] having an agreement that you're gonna trade sex for money .. Then even beyond that is ‘loitering for the purposes of prostitution.’ And this is really important, because it is a profiling-based crime.
And so when I was an organizer in New York, and also when I worked with legal services in New York, what was happening was — loitering is just kind of being in an area — is that an arresting officer will say based on your behavior and based on my assumptions about you. “I'm gonna assume that you are here for the purpose of trying to trade sex,” and you don't actually even have to have the [solitication’ conversation. And what was considered evidence in a lot of the cases that were coming in were things like how you were dressed. It was that you were in an area “known” for prostitution. … It was alsovery anti-LGBTQ, specifically against trans women. Because they would say things like “You are not wearing gender-conforming clothing.” They would cite things like, “Well, you present as a woman, but you have an Adam’s apple.” One of the other things that came up a lot was you have condoms on you. And so that was being considered evidence — and it wasn't that they even had a conversation. It wasn't that anything happened. It was, “I saw you, and you ticked a few boxes, and I'm going to arrest you…
The reason why [removal of loitering laws] is so important to pull off is because, especially in specific urban areas, it might be the highest charge that people are receiving. It really disproportionately impacts femmes of color and especially trans femmes of color, and especially low-income femmes. And because the bar is so low to an arrest, it has not only been a really important piece to pull off, but it's been something that has gotten a lot of attention, and a lot of allies to really understand the impact and the weight of policing and criminalization on sex or people profiled as sex workers…. A lot of folks who were coming through to talk about their charges were like, “Look, I would tell you if I was trading sex that night and I was not. I was going to the grocery store in my own neighborhood” — and they were getting arrested. …The bar is so offensively low for just destroying someone's life.
You're guilty without any proof, without any physical evidence. Or all circumstantial, or “My opinion of you …” or “My assumption of you…” How are you guilty until proven innocent in this line of work versus everything else that the country stands for or the legislation stands for? It's insane.
Let's say you had the time and the money and the resources to take off from work to actually go through the trial … That's not everyone, and that's actually not a lot of people. And so what often happens is “We're gonna bring you in, and we're gonna trump up charges. We're gonna say, ‘What, if you're found guilty of this? You have to spend 90 days in jail. Good luck having a job. What's gonna happen to your kids? What's gonna happen to your housing? Or you could plea down and plea out and we'll get you out tonight and we'll give you time served because you spent the weekend in jail.
It is a very, very broken system. And I think that that is, you know, one of the things that we can talk about all of the different areas of, of policy and legislation, that impact folks that trade sex, which is a huge umbrella. It is a lot of different experiences that don't look similar. And when we look at things like loitering, and we look at prostitution, and when we look at who's getting picked up, especially on lower level charges, it is such an indicator of how broken our system is. And how much just core foundational work needs to be done.
*SB357, the bill that would repeal loitering laws in California, has passed both the House and Senate and is awaiting the Governor’s signature (or veto).
You can follow Kate D’Adamo on Twitter at @katedadamo or find out more about her work at Reframe Health and Justice
Hear more at the On The Whorizon podcast, hosted by Jessie Sage and MelRose Michaels.
Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the blog post above are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SexWorkCEO or MelRose Michaels. Any content provided by our bloggers or authors are of their opinion and are not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual or anyone or anything.