Sen. Kamala Harris — who recently announced her campaign for the 2020 Democratic nomination — was interviewed by The Root this week about her “support” for the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and its companion bill, the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA), both which passed last year. These laws have caused enormous harm to consensual sex workers and damaged free speech on the internet.
“Do you think sex work ought to be decriminalized?” journalist Terrell Starr asks at the 16:23 mark in the interview published Tuesday.
“I think so, I do,” Harris says. “I think that we have to understand, though, that it is not as simple as that. ... There's an ecosystem around that, that involves crimes that harm people. And for those issues, I do not believe that anybody who hurts another human being or profits off of their exploitation should be ... free of criminal prosecution.”
That “I do” has blown up across media. “Kamala Harris supports decriminalizing sex work,” The Hill reported. “Kamala Harris Supports Decriminalizing Sex Work & Advocates Have Strong Feelings,” ran Bustle’s headline. “Kamala Harris Declares Her Support for Decriminalizing Sex Work” read Rolling Stone.
These headlines are irresponsible and false.
While any candidate is capable of changing their views, Harris has a career-long history of anti-sex worker efforts. In 2008, Harris advocated against a ballot initiative that would decriminalize sex work in San Francisco, saying, “I think it’s completely ridiculous, just in case there’s any ambiguity about my position. It would put a welcome mat out for pimps and prostitutes to come on into San Francisco.” Harris did more than “support” FOSTA/SESTA — she was integral to their passage.
These bills claimed to aid sex trafficking victims by holding websites criminally liable for content uploaded by their users. Long before these laws were passed, sex workers and advocates spoke out against them, arguing that their terms were vague and overreaching and would potentially decimate the digital platforms that have specifically provided a space for workers to meet, vet clients, and engage in consensual business in an online environment far safer than working on the street.
The sex workers’ fears did materialize. Craigslist immediately deleted its Personals section, a valuable resource for countless sex workers, and Backpage.com, a sex market website, was seized by the FBI. Multiple sex work forums disappeared immediately following FOSTA/SESTA’s passage, harming and isolating queer people who depend on them for advice, safety, and community. On top of that, these laws actually worsened conditions for victims of sex trafficking by eliminating safer venues for finding work and pushing trafficking victims further underground where they are more at the mercy of pimps.
FOSTA and SESTA were introduced by Republicans Ann Wagner and Rob Portman. Harris co-sponsored them along with 27 Republican and Democrat senators and released a statement of victory when they passed.
But what if Harris has truly changed her tune? Thankfully, Harris clarifies her stance on prostitution in The Root’s video: "I was advocating [15 years ago] that we have to stop arresting these prostitutes and start going after the johns and the pimps, because we were criminalizing the women.”
This approach is called the Nordic model and is widely touted by SWERFs (sex worker exclusionary radical feminists) as a more progressive way to attack sex work, one that supposedly amends the longstanding history of police abuse of sex workers without obstructing their war on sex work itself. The goal is the same — Harris' method simply cracks down on buyers, not suppliers.
Many exclusionary feminists consider all sex work to be violence against women (despite the many feminist women sex workers in the world). With the language Harris presents in the video, it’s clear that she sees the act of buying sex as the true crime, not the selling of it. How is that better? Not all sex sale is trafficking, and the conflation of the two appears to be nothing less than an intentional effort to mislead the public.
The sweeping wave of censorship FOSTA/SESTA may be credited with, including Tumblr’s adult content ban, which has done much to destroy queer visibility on the internet, shows widespread obfuscation of consensual sex work with human trafficking. There are many who believe a sex worker cannot consent to sex for money, but in today’s landscape, this belief is harder to argue, particularly when so many public, happy sex workers are easily found by simply logging onto Twitter, so the argument has shifted to one queer people should be all too familiar with: “Think of the children.”
In The Root's interview, when Harris explains why she shut down Backpage.com — a personals website which was used by many consensual sex workers to safely conduct business — she dramatically repeats the phrase, “They were selling children.” By focusing on youth and minors, Harris has created a legal pathway to criminalizing prostitution. FOSTA/SESTA has the potential to extend to pornography bans and crackdowns on all adult businesses on the internet.
Gay men, in particular, should bristle at the decades-old “for children” argument, which has been used by politicians for decades to strip us of employment and attack our rights. For Harris, “selling children” is a scare tactic, a buzzword for people who don’t understand much about sex trafficking or consensual sex work.
If Harris does understand how these things work, she also knows that FOSTA/SESTA puts actual victims of sex trafficking in greater harm. She either does not understand this data or she ignores it, and she does so at the expense of countless at-risk people who depend on sex work to survive. Worse, she does this as a political stunt, as part of an anti-sex worker agenda, or both.
“The Nordic Model — which targets, arrests, and incarcerates clients of sex workers, as well as drivers, landlords, family members, partners, who provide services and care to sex workers, and sex workers collaborating to keep each other safe — is not decriminalization,” Nina Luo, a member of Decrim NY’s steering committee, writes. “It is criminalization, and it puts people who trade sex at increased risk of violence, economic instability, and labor exploitation.”
“The Nordic Model diverts resources from people who trade sex to policing, raids, immigration detention, and evictions,” said Jessica Raven, executive director at The Audre Lorde Project, in Decrim NY’s statement.
Connor Habib, a queer sex activist, called the headlines at The Hill and The Root “irresponsible.”
“It’s always outside agencies and institutions and people in power and people with guns saying ‘sex work is never consensual’ and ‘sex work is not a victimless crime’” Habib tweeted. “All [Harris is] doing is using the language oppressors have used for decades.”
ALEXANDER CHEVES is a New York-based writer and a sex columnist for The Advocate. Follow him on Twitter @BadAlexCheves.