The media are heralding Kamala Harris this week for comments made during her interview with Terrell Jermaine Starr over at The Root, in which Harris made feeble attempts to reconcile her anti-sex worker policies regarding FOSTA/SESTA.
But not really.
When asked about her support for FOSTA, Harris pointed to her history as District Attorney (15 years ago) and states, "We have to stop arresting these prostitutes, and instead go after the johns and the pimps...I started a whole coalition that supported sexually exploited youth... because the system was arresting these young people instead of understanding that they needed to be in safe houses instead of incarcerated... In terms of Backpage, Backpage was providing advertisement for the sale of children... and so I called for them to be shut down. And I have no regrets about that."
"Now," she continued, "On the issue of providing a safe space for sex workers, I'm a huge advocate of that, I always have been." She goes on to say that she supports decriminalization, though she's aware of the "ecosystem" around that industry that harms people – people who harm people, she believes, should be prosecuted, but consenting adults should not.
Overall, the statement is weak, unsupported by political action items or attempts to reconcile her obvious disregard for the lives of consenting sex workers (example: whenever she meekly stated that she is "all for decriminalization and always has been" she's immediately, and more forcefully, followed it up with something similar to but people get hurt so yeah, we're basically going to continue prosecuting those in this field.) Harris's conversational style focuses a good deal on anecdotal evidence, bringing into focus personal experiences, stories, and parallels that serve as red herrings or other logically fallacious ways of weakly stating ideas that appear to offer an olive branch to affected communities.
Her sudden new stance is merely political posturing
While we do recognize that individuals are allowed to change and evolve over time (and should, especially in politics), we fail to see the truth in Harris's statements that she's either a) changed her politics to fit current political needs, or b) always stood with the most disenfranchised communities, but has needed to "play the bad guy" (her words) in order to get paperwork across the proper desks.
Harris has been widely criticized for her policies as Attorney General of California, with critics stating that she is not the "progressive prosecutor" she claims to be, often erring on the wrong side of history.
"Time after time, when progressives urged her to embrace criminal justice reforms as a district attorney and then the state’s attorney general, Ms. Harris opposed them or stayed silent. Most troubling, Ms. Harris fought tooth and nail to uphold wrongful convictions that had been secured through official misconduct that included evidence tampering, false testimony and the suppression of crucial information by prosecutors."
Her history tells a story of a politician overly-reliant on police and the justice system, which has a history of oppressive treatment and policies of some of the country's most vulnerable communities (native populations, people of color, and sex workers among them)--and her history is what she keeps asking us to examine.
Consider her actions around Backpage. From a 2017 article in the LA Times:
"As attorney general, Harris repeatedly sued Backpage over the adult section, saying it was used to pimp adult women and children. “The timing was not a coincidence,” Harris said. “They are in the hot seat, and they know it and I think they are finally coming to terms with the fact that they are being held accountable."... Harris last brought pimping and money laundering charges against the company in late December after a judge tossed a general initial suit she filed along with other attorneys. “It’s an ongoing effort, obviously, to hold them accountable,” Harris said. “They have been, I think, both arrogant and cowardly in the way they have conducted themselves and the way they have designed their business model, and I look forward to them shutting down completely.”
There's nothing to back up this supportive "history" at which Harris keeps pointing
Her history is the very thing that we are holding her to, and we don't have any hope that she plans to evolve and change her policies should she be elected. She simply hasn't given us a reason to believe she will.
Furthermore, her insistence on being pro-decriminalization is suspect. In her interview with Starr, Harris states that she is all about prosecuting the pimps and johns, rather than the women who are "being exploited for the profit of others." If this reasoning sounds familiar it's because it is. Hello, there, Nordic Model!
For those unfamiliar with the Nordic Model (or End Demand) Decriminalization, the basic cliff notes are that these policies would have those who purchase sexual services fined, incarcerated or penalized, rather than those who sell sexual services. In essence, the theory is: kill the demand and you kill the supply.
"From a practical standpoint, criminalizing clients is just the flip side of the same old coin. It still focuses law enforcement efforts and siphons tax dollars toward fighting the sex trade. It still means arresting, fining, and jailing people over consensual sex. If we really want to try something new—and something that has a real chance at decreasing violence against women—we should decriminalize prostitution altogether." from Punishing Prostitution is Not a Feminist Solution.
Harris is still that neighbor who routinely calls the cops on you, no matter what she says in interviews
It's worth noting that human rights groups and organizations like Amnesty International oppose the Nordic Model, which isn't even remotely like actual full decriminalization, despite the ways in which Kamala Harris conflates the two. Her response to the outcry from sex workers about her support of FOSTA/SESTA and help in the closure of Backpage is simply to offer hollow words that reiterate her position as a politician who routinely calls the cops on her neighbors.
Harris likely does support decriminalization, but it is Nordic Decriminalization, which is still hugely harmful to providers, and, again, she is suffering from the inability to speak about the sex industry with any kind of nuance. And, without the repeal of FOSTA/SESTA, her brand of decrim doesn't do anything particularly proactive about giving the community back tools for safety, nor does it lend any much-needed legitimacy to sex work as work. She, and media outlets, may believe that a statement that is less than a minute long in an interview segment does a lot to satisfy the righteous anger of sex workers, but in our opinion, Harris still has a long way to go. And as far as we're concerned, history has a high likelihood of repeating itself.