Democratic senator Kamala Harris, who announced her candidacy for president yesterday, has been hailed as a “political Beyoncé.” Who can forget the GIFs of her questioning Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearings, or her epic grilling of Jeff Sessions as part of the Senate’s probe into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election?
Harris is also fluent in the language of social justice, and she’s become a central figure in the Democrats’ attempt to woo younger, hipper, and more diverse voters. But there are occasions when it’s hard to square the mythologizing of Harris with her track record as a prosecutor and attorney general.
When Harris was a D.A. in San Francisco, convictions for drug-related crimes soared 18 percent. She also pushed to make truancy a crime for which parents could be jailed, attempted to block the release of nonviolent second-strike offenders from overcrowded prisons (by arguing that prisons would lose a vital pool of cheap labor), and contested a transgender inmate’s bid for gender-confirmation surgery.
Harris was also criticized by activists for going after the platforms sex workers use to vet potential clients and keep themselves safe. She twice brought criminal charges related to human trafficking against Backpage.com, an emoji-filled website used by escorts, while sponsoring federal bills that led to the site’s seizure.
The 2016 indictment named 17 victims, both adults and children, who were allegedly trafficked on the site, and some of their stories are harrowing. One 15-year-old girl, identified as E.S., said she was forced into prostitution when she was 13. “I mean really, coming from someone my age, there was too much access, like it’s too easy for people to get on it and post an ad,” she told California Special Agent Brian Fichtner, according to his affidavit.
But while the closing of the site had a negligible impact on the pimping of children (abusers simply found other platforms, according to a 2017 New York Times story), it had a direct effect on the lives of sex workers.
West Seegmiller, a former sex worker and organizer for Sex Workers Outreach Project Los Angeles, says that Harris’s efforts to shutdown Backpage directly affected his livelihood. “It basically forced me back into much more dangerous forms of sex work, including soliciting clients on unconventional platforms, like Grindr, that aren’t intended for erotic services,” he says.
“I found myself fighting eviction, trying to scrape together enough money to eat every day. I returned to clients that I had refused because they did hard drugs,” he continues. “I was, just generally, in much more dangerous situations with people.”
According to a study published in 2016 in the Journal of Sex Research, sex workers who advertise their services online face less risk of physical violence or rape compared to those who work on the streets, though violence in both venues is still pronounced.
“Across all venues where sex is sold, including the internet, sex workers face such risks as physical violence, sexual assault, rape, robbery, kidnapping, arrest, harassment, threats of violence, and emotional abuse,” the report reads.
But, Seegmiller says, “With Backpage, you had the opportunity to connect with clientele that were already familiar with what was expected of them in that kind of transactional relationship. They were more professional and safer.”
Since the closing of Backpage and the passage of FOSTA-SESTA, a pair of anti-sex trafficking bills signed into law by Donald Trump last year, sex workers have found other ways to vet potential clients but many of these methods require industry connections or advanced internet savviness, says Seegmiller.
There’s a presumption that male sex workers face fewer dangers, but Seegmiller doesn’t believe that to be true, pointing to Ed Buck, the prominent democratic donor who has been accused by activists of preying on black sex workers. Since 2017, two men, Gemmel Moore and Timothy Dean, have been found dead of apparent overdoses inside Buck’s West Hollywood home. “The whole situation with Buck, in my own neighborhood, has forced me to confront my own assumptions that men are less vulnerable to violence and exploitation,” Seegmiller says.
He believes that politicians will continue to conflate sex work with sex trafficking because it’s politically expedient, even if the end result is that people from disadvantaged communities will be negatively impacted.
“The broader picture is that sex workers need real criminal justice reform,” he says. “That’s what Kamala Harris wants to be seen as championing, but it doesn’t seem like this narrative matches up with her own record.”
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