Poll Shows Broad Support for Sex Work Decriminalization

DecrimNY Looks Near and Far to Advance Goals
Members of DecrimNY canvass in Harlem this past October.
Twitter/ DecrimNY

A majority of American voters across party lines support comprehensively decriminalizing sex work, according to a polling data conducted by YouGov on behalf of non-profit think tank Data for Progress.

The polling data, unveiled as part of a comprehensive report contextualizing the sex trade, shows that 52 percent of registered voters in the US support removing “criminal penalties for adults to sell and pay for consensual sex while also maintaining laws that criminalize violence.” Plus, the greatest share (49 percent) of respondents support defunding vice squads, which are police units tasked with enforcing sex work-related laws that often target sex workers through undercover raids.

The report was published by organizations including the Human Rights Campaign, the ACLU, the National Center for Transgender Equality, the National LGBTQ Task Force, and the Center for HIV Law and Policy. The report shed light on the discriminatory origins of trafficking laws, ranging from Congress’ 1910 passage of the Mann Act — which largely targeted black men who dated white women — to the controversial SESTA/ FOSTA legislation of 2019 that was intended to curb sex trafficking but has been widely criticized for driving sex workers off safer online platforms and into more vulnerable environments.

The polling data was conducted entirely online in November of last year and included responses from 1,048 individuals who live in different regions of the United States. There are varying levels of support, with 26 percent saying they “strongly support” full decriminalization and another 26 percent offering a more moderate “somewhat support” position. Twelve percent somewhat oppose decriminalization and 23 percent strongly oppose it. Thirteen percent are not sure where they stand on the issue.

The data yielded particularly notable results when broken down by age and the passage of time. Individuals between the ages of 18 and 29 consistently show stronger decriminalization and defunding of vice squads, and the support has only grown stronger with the passage of time.

For example, in a separate poll in May of last year, just 45 percent of voters supported removing criminal penalties for adults who engage in the sex trade, meaning that number climbed about six percentage points in a six-month timespan. It was during that timeframe that DecrimNY — the coalition to decriminalize sex work in New York — blossomed from its inception in February and helped bring the issue into the broader public discussion. The issue also became a national talking point on the campaign trail, as advocates started pushing 2020 Democratic presidential contenders to back decriminalization.

The November poll also revealed key information about the political leanings and geographical locations of respondents. When broken down by party affiliation, 64 percent of Democrats, 55 percent of independents, and 37 percent of Republicans support decriminalization.

It should be noted that, in total, 785 respondents were white, 106 were Black, 95 were Hispanic, and 62 were listed as “other.” Seventy percent of Hispanic respondents said they support decriminalization compared to 54 percent of white respondents and 38 percent of Black respondents.

The report also elaborated on the disparate impact that the current state of the law criminalizing consensual sex work has on different demographics groups. The report stressed that decriminalization would bolster LGBTQ rights, since queer folks disproportionately trade sex for shelter; support gender equity, since women are overwhelmingly stereotyped and singled out as sex workers; advance racial justice, since communities of color are disproportionately targeted for sex work-related offenses; and increase public health, since criminalizing those engaged in the sex trade can interfere with HIV/ AIDS prevention and treatment efforts, among other factors.

The report featured testimony from sex workers who expanded on their experiences under laws such as the loitering for the purpose of prostitution law in New York State known as “walking while trans.” A growing coalition of lawmakers and advocacy groups in the state have called on legislators in Albany to repeal that law, which has been used by law enforcement to disproportionately target women — especially trans women of color — for simply walking down the street or for wearing certain styles of clothing.

While a comprehensive decriminalization bill was introduced in the New York State Legislature last year, a concerted push to repeal the “walking while trans” law in particular is expected to ramp up this legislative session and advocates appear to be confident that lawmakers will finally move to wipe it from the books before the end of the year.