'Sex Workers Deserve Protections': Congressional Candidate Joe Cohn Reaches Out to Adult Community

'Sex Workers Deserve Protections': Congressional Candidate Joe Cohn Reaches Out to Adult Community

MOUNT HOLLY, N.J. — Veteran civil rights attorney Joe Cohn, who is currently running in a New Jersey Democratic primary for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, says he is reaching out to the adult community to champion an inclusive approach to civil liberties that encompasses all sex workers and adult businesses.

FSC has scheduled a virtual discussion with Cohn, open to all industry members, for Thursday at 4 p.m. PDT.

FSC Executive Director Alison Boden met Cohn in 2022, when FSC was considering its first legal challenge to a state age verification law.

“Joe was a lawyer at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression,” Boden said. “He generously shared his First Amendment knowledge and advice. It really helped us to approach the lawsuits on the right foot. Joe’s now running for Congress because we need smart, sane people in government. He’s a true believer in fighting for our industry’s rights and he’s shown himself to be a viable candidate.

“This is the first time, that I’m aware of, that the adult entertainment and sexual wellness industries have the opportunity to have a real ally in Congress, so FSC stands behind him all the way,” Boden added.

The New Jersey 3rd district Democratic primary is currently a five-way race, with three main contenders: Cohn and two members of the state Assembly, Herb Conaway and Carol Murphy. The incumbent, U.S. Rep. Andy Kim, is not running for reelection.

XBIZ spoke exclusively with Cohn to learn more about his background, his civil libertarian philosophy and his plans to address industry concerns if elected to Congress.

XBIZ: Tell us about your background.

Joe Cohn: I’m a civil rights lawyer who has been around issues of free speech for most of my life. My stepdad, the retired veteran Nevada ACLU attorney Allen Lichtenstein, was a First Amendment lawyer who represented a nice chunk of the adult industry during my childhood, as well as all the traditional First Amendment ACLU work that didn’t have anything to do with the adult industry. Those were the issues that were often discussed at our kitchen table. I’ve been around it most of my life. I’m a second-generation First Amendment lawyer.

For the last 12 years, I’ve been doing First Amendment advocacy at the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), and I’ve been involved professionally, in fighting for free speech and broader civil liberties. I’ve been doing civil rights work for 20 years, throughout most of my career. I’m the former legal director of two ACLU affiliates, as well as the legislative and policy director at FIRE.

In the last few years, I’ve been leading campaigns against some of the bills that would unconstitutionally regulate the internet. For example, I successfully oversaw FIRE’s 2022 campaign against a Louisiana bill that would have required a firewall prohibiting university students from accessing adult websites on campus, including in their own dorms.

XBIZ: How do you see the concerns of the adult industry, particularly sex workers’ rights, intersecting with larger issues that are central to your campaign?

Cohn: My interest in these issues is because I’m passionate about workers’ rights, and also because I believe that free speech must work for everyone, or it works for no one. It really isn’t about the “sexuality” aspects of it. It’s more about the civil liberties and workers’ rights aspects of all of these issues, and how they demand and require consistency. Sex workers are part of the “everyone” that deserves protections. So these issues have been at the forefront of my mind.

XBIZ: How do you include those protections in the legislative process?

Cohn: Legislation that deals with sexual content can be carefully crafted — for example, to protect satire. That requires careful legislation, instead of the alternative, which is incredibly easy: to write a sloppy bill that doesn’t take those considerations into account. You need members of Congress with that kind of eye toward the competing interests, if we’re going to avoid years and years of litigation.

XBIZ: What are the top issues at the core of your current campaign?

Cohn: The theme of our campaign is that we need to defend democracy from the various threats posed to it — and we can’t accomplish that if we don’t cut through polarization. Because our inability to talk across differences is preventing us from solving any of the real big-picture problems that America faces.

For me, that challenge means defending voting rights access, it means defending freedom of the press, it means defending civil liberties for all. And if I’m elected to Congress, when I say “civil liberties for all,” I really mean all.

That’s why I’m reaching out to this community. Not because I’m interested in being “the adult industry’s congressman,” but because I’m interested in being “the Civil Rights congressman.” People in the adult industry deserve to enjoy the same civil rights as anyone, but currently their rights are threatened in contexts that are somewhat unique to them.

I’m reaching out to this industry because I don’t think enough people in Congress care about listening to what they have to say, care about protecting their industry from the kinds of internet regulations and age verification bills that violate their free speech rights, care about their access to banking and fair access to financial services, the denial of which jeopardizes their livelihoods on account of the banking industry’s distaste for their expression and their views on sexuality.

They also need someone who understands that we need to decriminalize sex work if we’re going to get it out of the shadows, and if we’re going to have a better chance of curbing the exploitation and violence that sometimes is committed against people performing sex work.

That’s really why I’m reaching out to those communities: because I want people to understand that when I say that I care about everyone’s civil liberties, that I mean everyone’s civil liberties.

XBIZ: The adult industry and sex work are legal industries, but when it comes time to regulate them, politicians often seem to listen exclusively to people who want to abolish them. How would your stance on regulating online content differ?

Cohn: I think with other industries we tend to see a more partisan effect, where one side is united to attack and the other side is united to defend. But the adult industry has more detractors on both sides of the aisle.

When it comes to regulating the internet, there are people on both sides of the aisle who are happy to regulate it for all sorts of reasons. It’s not always about sexuality. Sometimes it’s about bullying, or other issues. But both sides of the political spectrum have their own different reasons for being willing to engage in more censorship of social media and the internet.

For example, two of my four opponents are state legislators who are trying to move up to the federal Congress. Assemblyman Herb Conaway is the sponsor of New Jersey’s age verification bill. Assemblywoman Carol Murphy publicly agreed with me when I testified against the age verification bill last year — before I was running for office, when I was still at FIRE — that it was unconstitutional and that it could prevent LGBTQ+ youth from getting access to information online that’s essential to them. But earlier this week, in a candidate forum, she said that the real solution on social media is to regulate and get rid of the bad content online, not to keep the kids off.

XBIZ: Like state censorship?

Cohn: Yes, outright state censorship is what she was advocating for. I had to respond that it’s First Amendment 101 — the government doesn’t get to remove things based on content.

If there is regulation of the internet, it needs to use a scalpel and not an ax.

I part company with some of my fellow civil libertarians, in that I do think that we can have some safeguards to ensure that everyone has access to social media. I don’t think social media companies should be shadow-banning political candidates or not disseminating their messages to the people who signed up to receive them, for example. Because I don’t think democracy can really thrive in a situation where, behind closed doors, social media companies can decide what messages voters can hear. I’m uncomfortable with them having the power to kick candidates off. Even if the worst candidate were to say the worst things, it’s helpful for voters to see their true character. But that requires a much more careful scalpel than what we’ve seen across the country so far.

XBIZ: What do you see as the main political factors underpinning attacks on sexual expression?

Cohn: It’s very hard to disentangle attacks on sexual expression from the political forces that are pursuing that censorship. The Supreme Court has only acknowledged two types of sexual expression that don’t enjoy protection under the First Amendment, and that’s obscenity, which is very narrowly defined, and child pornography. So a vast majority of adult expression is protected, and subsequent Supreme Court cases have allowed there to be “time, place and manner” restrictions on the delivery of that expression, but not outright bans.

Sexuality is one of the topics that people feel most sensitive about, and they are particularly eager to regulate expression that makes them feel uncomfortable. So it’s particularly important for elected officials to be principled and resist those urges.

We don’t need to have a robust First Amendment to protect puppy videos, because no one’s trying to get them off the internet. We need to be protecting expression that parts of the population want to withhold from others.

And let’s face it, millions of people enjoy and consume sexual expression. By and large, aside from some contexts that are about the time, place and manner, the courts have been pretty solid about protecting access to adult materials on the internet and not allowing the “we must take it down to save the kids” rationale to be a burden on adult access.

Legal advocates like myself have to fiercely uphold that line, because that pressure isn’t going to go away.

XBIZ: What will be your approach in Congress to address the issue of banking discrimination against adult businesses and sex workers?

Cohn: That issue of financial discrimination hits everyone, from erotic dancers to the owners of businesses that sell novelty sex toys. We need to guarantee that financial institutions can’t withhold services from people, except to the extent that that’s justified by the applicants’ inability to meet impartial financial risk-based standards.

My view is that states and Congress should act to ensure that banks don’t use people’s expression, or their own prejudice against sexuality, to deny access to financial services, because we all know that businesses rely on financial services for their viability and individuals rely on them for stability and survival. If I’m elected, I’ll be tackling that issue.

XBIZ: How about the current attempts to change the definition of obscenity in order to police sexual expression?

Cohn: I just want to reiterate that the reason why I care about these issues isn’t because of the sexual aspects. Those are, of course, present. But the heart of these issues is that they have profound civil liberties implications, and profound workers’ rights implications.

My career has been dedicated to defending the civil liberties and rights of all people. And people in the adult industry are included in the “all people,” because I don’t make carve-outs that leave people behind based on whether or not I agree or disagree with them. And the law shouldn’t either. We need members of Congress who care about civil liberties across the board.

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