As a delegate to the convention, there were a lot of resolutions brought to the floor that I was proud to support. One of those resolutions, which took a complicated path to the convention floor, is Resolution 53, DSA Supports Decriminalization of Sex Work. Because TCDSA passed its own resolution affirming solidarity with sex workers in 2017 following the passage of SESA-FOSTA, I followed the debate on Resolution 53 that developed in the months prior to convention in DSA circles, including the national Socialist Feminist Working Group.
About a week out from the convention, chapter leaders throughout DSA received a statement from AF3IRM which opposed Resolution 53. AF3IRM is an anticapitalist, decolonial feminist organization led by women of color, concentrated mostly on the West Coast. The statement’s central argument is that the sex trade amounts to corporatization of entitlement to feminized bodies, and its central demand is that while sex work should be decriminalized for workers, it shouldn’t be for buyers of sex. (This arrangement is often called the Nordic model; it’s been the law in Sweden since 1999.)
One of the statement’s demands reads, “Pimping, trafficking, brothel-keeping, and the buying of sex should remain anathematized, as these are the agencies of exploitation.” It feels hard to argue with this reasoning: we know that people buying sex or brokering the sale of sex are likely to be worse actors than sex workers themselves. We stand in solidarity with sex workers, not their bosses, and not abusive clients. But the phrasing “remain anathematized” glosses over some troubling aspects of AF3IRM’s argument: They seem to accept carceral solutions to the buying of sex, which aren’t compatible with the abolitionist framework shared by many of us in DSA and sex worker organizing. Their assertions that the sex trade is inherently exploitative don’t engage with something we hold to be true as socialists: that the nature of work as we know it is exploitative.
The organizing collective Red Canary and the NYC DSA Socialist Feminist Working Group jointly released a statement in response to AF3IRM which addresses some pieces missing from AF3IRM’s analysis, arguing that the Nordic model they advocate has unacceptable unintended consequences for sex workers. (If you only read one link in this recap, make it this one — the statement ties together the perspectives of migrant communities, sex workers, survivors of sex trafficking, and labor organizers. It’s a long read, but cogent, and very worth your time.)
Also before the convention, a quorum of delegates voted to include Resolution 53 in its consent agenda, a group of resolutions that the body found to be non-controversial enough to pass all at once, with one floor vote at the start of the convention. That floor vote passed the consent agenda, including Resolution 53. According to Robert’s Rules of Order, though, anyone who has voted in favor of a measure is allowed to bring a motion to reconsider that measure after it’s passed. A comrade from the Hawaii delegation moved to reconsider the consent agenda, striking Resolution 53 in order to amend it.
The delegate moving to reconsider read a Twitter thread from another comrade and AF3IRM member who self-identified as a former sex worker. In the thread, she formed her opposition to Resolution 53 around her marginalized identities and a traumatic history with sex work, including a racialized assault by a client that she described in detail. Her lived experience of sex work, indisputably, was awful and deserves empathy, but at least to me, that didn’t make it a viable argument against the resolution. I’m not convinced that entitlement to feminized bodies is either inherent to the sex trade or exclusive to it — not when uncompensated emotional labor and acceptance of sexual harassment and violence are demanded of women in so many other workplaces around the world.
At some point during debate, a comrade in line to speak called out: “This line is full of sex workers! Listen to them!” A few minutes later, I could see that she’d been in the line to speak in favor of the resolution and against reconsideration — but in the moment, from my seat on the floor, I couldn’t see which line she was in, and I couldn’t guess from context. From either side of the debate, these appeals to authority by way of experience and identity may sometimes be necessary, but they aren’t sufficient to decide the right way forward. It’s incumbent on any of us not directly impacted by issues like these to listen to our comrades’ accounts of their own material conditions, and they’re right to remind us that it is — but our responsibility is also to synthesize what we hear. The debate on this resolution mirrored several others we saw at the convention, and reminded me that the left isn’t immune to what often happens in liberal spaces: an argument being hung on the speaker’s identity, which doesn’t hold up when people claiming similar identities are on opposing sides of a debate. I can’t say for sure, but I would like to think that most of the delegates on the floor considered each of the arguments on its own merits. Either way, I’m happy to report that in the end, the convention upheld Resolution 53.
If you’re interested in the fight for sex workers’ rights, TCDSA’s own Sex Worker Solidarity working group would love to have you join us. We’re starting out with political education and building a partnership with SWOP Minneapolis. (Shoutout to everyone who came to our first reading group and listened to me talk through most of this piece!) You can find out more at a chapter meeting, at a SocFem branch meeting, or on the chapter Slack in the #sexworkersolidarity channel.
And another thing!
Updating this on August 19 to say: No sooner did I submit this piece than Bernie Sanders dropped a new criminal justice platform. Sex workers get a mention in the section about support for crime victims. The language about protection from sex trafficking will be familiar to anyone who followed the debate over SESTA-FOSTA, and it doesn’t quite hit the mark of including sex workers in the platform’s titular goal of “Justice and Safety for All.” During a Q&A with the Working Families Party yesterday, Bernie answered a question about his perspective on sex work since his vote in favor of SESTA-FOSTA. His answer suggests that his position hasn’t yet changed much, but his stated commitment to learn more about the issue also suggests an opening for sex workers and leftists to push him in a positive direction: to recognize sex workers as workers who, like all of us, deserve justice and safety.