Traipsing around Iowa in winter is no fun. Trust me. It can get really cold here, and it’s fickle. Single digits one week, then 40 degrees the next. Oh, wait. It’s like that just about everywhere since we fucked up the ozone layer. I’m in Iowa though because this is where the 2020 primary elections begin for the next U.S. president and vice president.
I’m here with Bella Robinson, the first VP candidate in U.S. history to run a primary campaign. VPs have to this point been selected by their parties – Democrat, Republican, Other. Mrs. Robinson and her running mate, Petunia, a blue skunk, for president, are independents. No corporate money and no party money. Not that there’s much difference, but that’s a subject for later. Right now, we want to know who is this VP candidate?
Mrs. Robinson got her start in politics as an organizer. Hey, why not? It worked for Barack Obama. Her candidacy and subsequent tenure as vice president will be different than Mr. Obama’s administration, she tells me, because she does not plan to throw her humble background out the window like he did when he got to the White House.
A sex worker by trade, Mrs. Robinson organized sex workers in Rhode Island by reactivating in 2010 the state chapter of Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, or COYETE for short. If you want to know more about sex work as a job – it’s a complex subject – and more about Mrs. Robinson’s work as executive director, see the COYOTE-RI website. She has worked tirelessly among the community of sex workers. “We are non-judgmental. If someone wants out of the lifestyle, we will help them do that. We try to help drug users get into treatment. We report sex trafficking if we think it’s happening.”
As I learned talking to Mrs. Robinson, first and foremost, sex workers are not victims of human trafficking. Human trafficking under the law involves people either under 18 or who are being forced in some way. “Sex workers are adults making our own decisions,” Mrs. Robinson said. “We are making a living.”
Democratic Party candidates who have declared their intention to run in this presidential election are confused about that. Senators Kamala Harris (D-CA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) are among 70 senators (27 Dems and 43 Republicans) who co-sponsored legislation to Fight Online Sex Trafficking and Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking, or FOSTA-SESTA, which President Donald Trump signed into law last April.
Surely fighting to end sex trafficking will win the ladies some votes, as the nonprofit group Demand Abolition of sex workers, with help from the media, has convinced them. And it was a bipartisan victory at that! The Democrats can heal a nation divided by the ne’er-do-well President Trump.
Not to be outdone, Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) introduced the End Banking for Human Traffickers Act, which would force banks to monitor accounts for activity that could be related to sex trafficking. Warren’s bill is languishing in committee though. Hmmm. Maybe the bank lobbyists suggested putting the bill on hold to see if FOSTA-SESTA is declared unconstitutional.
Last summer, the Woodhull Freedom Foundation, an organization dedicated to promoting sexual freedom through lobbying and education, challenged FOSTA-SESTA in federal court on basis of the 1st and 5th Amendments – free speech and self-incrimination. The problem with FOSTA-SESTA is the law makes no distinction between sex work and sex trafficking. It amends the Mann Act of 1910 to include those who promote or facilitate prostitution, and it amends the Communications Decency Act of 1996 to make websites and internet forums liable for posts of their users that promote and facilitate prostitution.
Woodhull is joined in the court action with Human Rights Watch, Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) USA, the Internet Archive, and an individual who is a licensed massage therapist. The massage therapist joined the suit because since FOSTA passed his service ads on the Internet have been repeatedly removed. The Internet is jittery about what might and might not be construed as “promoting prostitution.” Woodhull’s case is pending and will be taken up again possibly next month.
It’s hard to tell if lawmakers were just plain incompetent or pushing an ideological agenda and trying to make political points. With FOSTA-SESTA, they cut off web sites that law enforcement used to disrupt sex trafficking networks and identify victims. At the same time, they endangered the lives and livelihoods of countless sex workers.
One of the web sites shut down was Backpage, a popular classified ads website with an adult services section. Backpage had been under investigation for a couple of years for sex trafficking. In one high profile case in which a teenager was killed, the girl’s family sued Backpage for wrongful death but the case was dismissed because the website was protected by the Communications Decency Act of 1996. About a month after Congress passed FOSTA-SESTA, the FBI closed Backpage.com. Craigslist subsequently voluntarily took down its personals ad section fearing retribution.
Rentboy online escort service for young gay men operated for two decades until the Department of Homeland Security closed it in August 2015. For gay and transgender youths, sex work can mean the difference between sleeping on a bed and sleeping on the street. For others, it is a way to afford a college degree.
Websites provide affordable venues for sex workers to advertise, screen clients and exchange information about bad clients. In order to make a living, sex workers may need to return to the streets and work through pimps.
The Petunia/Bella administration will ask voters to imagine what it would be like to live in a world where sex is out and proud. A place where sex work is decriminalized and workers can report violence and threat of violence to police or at an emergency room without fear of arrest or assault. In 2015, Amnesty International issued a policy recommending the decriminalization of prostitution, claiming such action would drastically improve the lives of sex workers through destigmatization.
The media play an important role in polite society, Mrs. Robinson said. She hopes to get all the players on her side: demolish the stigma and the stereotype of sex workers. The Petunia/Bella campaign certainly does not plan on calling reporters “presstitutes,” as supporters of Donald Trump did in 2016, and there will be no drum beat of “fake news” accusations from the Petunia/Bella team no matter how media workers try to drag their campaign down.
So, media workers, let’s all tell the truth now. No hiding. Sex workers trade sex to achieve the American Dream. They work for a living wage, to pay the mortgage, to put a kid through college, to not live in poverty. Rise up by your bra straps America!