On Monday morning, Senator Kamala Harris announced that she’s running for president. This was no surprise—Harris’s run has been rumored for months.
As the daughter of immigrants, with a record of upholding rights for marginalized communities on several occasions, Harris should be an ideal progressive candidate. Many sex workers and sex worker rights advocates, however, vehemently disagree.
Last year, Harris, the former Attorney General of California, helped champion the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), a piece of legislation sex workers and advocacy groups warned would have a disastrous impact on sex workers’ lives—and they were right. FOSTA passed in April 2018 with Harris’s support, and she released a statement touting how proud she was to have helped move this bill through Congress, saying she has “witnessed firsthand the difficulty of charging sex trafficking sites—even for crimes as egregious as pimping minors.”
Harris and other FOSTA supporters claimed its passage would allow authorities to shut down websites like Backpage.com—an escort advertising site that was an alleged hotbed for trafficking activity. It was also a primary source of income for many independent sex workers. Backpage and other advertising sites allowed sex workers to be financially independent and find and screen work for themselves, off the streets and away from actual traffickers or abusive “managers” and pimps.
But five days before President Trump even signed FOSTA into law, the FBI seized Backpage, proving that law enforcement never needed the bill to shut it down in the first place. But FOSTA became law anyway, and has hurt sex workers. Sex workers remember Harris’s support of FOSTA, and her prosecutorial past as Attorney General of California.
“I’m not a fan”
“If she is the person that’s up against the bastard that we have now, I would choose her,” Akynos, the founder and executive director of the Black Sex Worker Collective, told Motherboard. A large part of the BSWC’s mission, she said, is to shift the narrative about who sex workers are, and what work, especially sex work, actually is. Harris, in her view, fundamentally misunderstands these things.
“I’m not a fan. That whole political ploy to get rid of Backpage was really detrimental to a lot of our lives, and a lot of working people are suffering now because of it,” Akynos said.
Kate D’Adamo, an activist for sex workers’ rights at Reframe Health and Justice, said Harris’s record on criminal justice reform is simply bad.
Because they’ve done good work on women’s issues in the past, they’re trusted by the mainstream public to know what they’re talking about. When it comes to sex work, this just isn’t the case.
“Regardless of the rest of the stuff she talks about, it is really bad,” she said. “In terms of sex work, in terms of Backpage, I see it as using this issue and the collateral damage it’s caused to score points. I think it was a very calculated decision, and I think it was a very political decision that did not weigh the cost it would have to communities.”
Harris’s background as a progressive figure while simultaneously taking a “tough on crime” stance as a prosecutor has been a common thread throughout her career, way before Backpage and FOSTA. Her record on LGBT+ rights, especially, is noteworthy: As a Senator, she was a co-sponsor of the Census Equality Act in July 2018, and officiated California’s first same-sex marriage in 2013. She has opposed transphobic bathroom bills, and co-sponsored a bill in the Senate that would ban using “gay panic” and “trans panic” as a defense in cases of murder or violent crime (she supported a similar measure in California as attorney general, which was signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown.)
But as California’s Attorney General, Harris also tried to block two incarcerated trans women from receiving vital reassignment treatments as prescribed by their doctors. When it comes to the realities of living as a trans person, she’s missed the mark in ways that endangered these women’s lives. It’s difficult to rectify this with the rest of her record.
A New York Times op-ed published last week outlines several instances when, as California’s top prosecutor, she fought to keep people in jail: She did this in cases involving George Gage, serving a 70-year sentence despite evidence for wrongful conviction; Daniel Larsen, whose trial lawyer was incompetent and Harris argued a technicality to try to keep him imprisoned; Johnny Baca, whose murder conviction she defended despite his prosecutor presenting false testimony; Kevin Cooper, whose trial was rife with racism—she fought against his appeal that asked the state to use more advanced DNA testing.
In her running announcement, Harris said, "I think it is a false choice to suggest that communities do not want law enforcement. Most communities do. They don't want excessive force. They don't want racial profiling, but then nobody should."
But the people Motherboard spoke with in the past week about Harris would disagree with wanting more law enforcement presence in their communities, especially when it comes to sex work.
“She is absolutely a prosecutor, absolutely a carceral feminist,” D’Adamo said. “I think people are going to make decision on Kamala Harris based on a lot of different things, and take her as a complex composite person—who unfortunately for a lot of the communities who are most impacted by these policies, she does not reflect progressive views for.”
Police brutality and harassment of sex workers is a well-documented problem. A 2003 research study by the Urban Justice Center found that 80 percent of street-based sex workers they interviewed “had experienced or been threatened with violence while working,” and when those workers were asked about reporting violence to the police, they responded that the police “did not take their complaints seriously and often told them that they should expect violence.” Any sex worker or advocate could tell you that this hasn’t changed, even in the 16 years since that report.
“If we're looking for someone who comes from Congress who is good on sex worker issues, good luck, there is no one"
Studies have shown that increased presence of police in an area often equates a greater risk of abuse at the hands of police, especially for sex workers. For some marginalized groups of sex workers, police are their primary abusers.
“My community has been directly affected by Harris’s legislative victories,” Bay Area sex worker and advocate Maxine Holloway told Motherboard in an email. Before the passage of FOSTA, Holloway said she wrote to Harris’s office expressing her concerns and asking Harris to work with the stakeholders who’d be impacted by this bill—sex workers. She said Harris replied with a “cut and paste” letter defending the bill.
If it comes down to Harris against Trump in 2020, some sex workers say the choice is difficult. “I can’t tell people how to vote, but I think there are definitely sex workers who would just sit out the election if the choices were Kamala and Trump,” sex worker and activist Phoenix Calida told me in a call. “Neither of them are going to demilitarize police, neither of them are going to cut back on arrests, neither of them are going to stop locking up sex workers.”
“Either way, it’s really, really bad, and I don’t think people realize how bad it is for sex workers because I don't think people realize how many adjacent communities that sex workers are in,” Calida told me. “I can understand why some people would pick Kamala over Trump and I understand some people are just gonna sit that shit out if that's the choice.”
Cora Colt, co-founder of community-run sex worker mutual care collective Lysistrata, said Harris is “aggressively campaigning against the rights of myself and my community,” but added that “in the absence of a candidate who actually has a pro-sex worker policy it unfortunately seems like the better option is to vote for whoever is going to be behind raises in minimum wage and the expansion of programs that can at least benefit those who are survival-based workers.”
After FOSTA passed, Holloway and fellow sex worker advocates formed Bay Area Workers Support (BAWS) to help the community with emergency financial support, and work to lobby and educate local policymakers. “Here in the Oakland, Kamala’s home town, we are working to fix that damage left by her warpath to the oval,” Holloway said.
“I still have to be black and be in my neighborhood”
Harris's mother is Indian and her father is Jamaican. She was California’s first black senator and the state’s first black female attorney general.
“My feelings about Kamala Harris are complicated,” Juniper Fitzgerald, a former sex worker, writer for Tits and Sass, and author of How Mamas Love Their Babies and Waves: A Queer Auto-Theory, told me in an email. “On the one hand, I truly believe there is a special place in hell reserved for prosecutors. On the other, I think it's disingenuous and low key racist for white people to scream ‘But she's a cop!’ while gleefully casting votes for Hillary Clinton.”
“It's not just a single issue of sex workers, it's everything else that sex workers are as people"
Following the 2016 election, when the poll results came in and revealed that black women voted for Clinton while 53 percent of white women voted for Trump, “black women will save us” was a common refrain heard on social media. “It makes me really uncomfortable the way we expect black women to do the political labor of saving the country,” said D’Adamo.
“I still have to be black and be in my neighborhood, police are still a problem,” Calida, a sex worker, told Motherboard. “I do wish people were more cognizant of how it's not a single issue. Kamala supporting the prison complex, the whole prison fucking system—that’s incentive to keep police armed, to maintain police brutality, to be doing crackdowns.”
Because sex work often encompasses so many different marginalized identities—many sex workers are immigrants, disabled, trans, queer—politicians’ harmful policies hurt people of those identities as well.
“It's not just a single issue of sex workers, it's everything else that sex workers are as people,” Calida said. “Which is fuckin' messy and complicated and multi-faceted, as it tends to go.”
“There is no one”
Harris isn’t alone in her refusal to see the harm anti-sex work policies and stigma bring to communities. Few politicians have gone to bat for sex workers, and many public figures have harmed sex workers while ostensibly fighting things like “human trafficking.”
There are plenty of examples of public figures held up as paragons of liberal feminism while holding deeply whorephobic views. Gloria Steinem called sex work “commercialized rape” in 2014 and refuses to even accept the phrase “sex work,” opting to use “prostitution” instead. In 2016, when Amnesty International released an expansive report on the safety of sex workers around the world, and called for the decriminalization of the profession and increased protections for the rights for sex workers, a group of actresses including Meryl Streep, Anne Hathaway, and Lena Dunham signed a Change.org petition challenging the human rights organization’s stance. Late last year, Ashley Judd, who has been outspoken about the #MeToo movement, called sex work “paid rape” and tweeted that “buying sexual access commodifies … girls and women’s orifices.”
The common thread linking these “feminist icons,” celebrities, and politicians like Harris is in their fundamental misunderstanding—and refusal to try to understand—the actual realities of sex workers’ lives. And because they’ve done good work on women’s issues in the past, they’re trusted by the mainstream public to know what they’re talking about. When it comes to sex work, this just isn’t the case.
Harris may have “witnessed firsthand” what she sees as the repercussions of sex trafficking run amok on the internet, but her refusal to hear the firsthand, lived experiences of actual sex workers doesn’t instill faith in her ability to represent all the marginalized communities they represent.
We’re yet to see how the other Democratic candidates stand on sex work, but it would be optimistic to believe that any of them will vocally support sex workers’ rights, or even decriminalization of sex work. Progress is being made—the openly supportive campaigns of candidates like Suraj Patel in New York last year suggest that at least some politicians are considering how policy impacts sex workers—but the political climate for sex worker rights in the US remains hostile. “If we're looking for someone who comes from Congress who is good on sex worker issues, good luck, there is no one,” D’Adamo said.
“I feel very confident about my ability to listen and to work on behalf of the American public,” Harris said in her announcement Monday. But if she’s hoping to earn the votes of marginalized communities like those sex workers represent, she’ll have to start listening to them.