Democrats like presidential candidate Kamala Harris are starting to talk openly about legalizing sex work, and while that might sound like a progressive stance, a closer look at Harris’ statements raise serious doubts. Let’s see….
New York Democrats and #DecrimNY
Last week, at least six New York state Democrats publicly announced their support for a bill that would de-criminalize sex work. While the bill hasn’t been introduced yet, it signals a major shift in how politicians discuss the issue.
At a press conference yesterday, State Senator Julia Salazar said, “When we criminalize people for the work that they do, it is not empowering and it doesn’t solve problems. It doesn’t solve some of the challenges that sex workers face and that others who have been involved in the trade of sex have also faced…. We need to work toward full decriminalization.”
Salazar also noted that New York’s anti-prostitution policing mostly harms women, trans people, people of color and undocumented immigrants, some of society’s most marginalized groups that are already subject to police harassment, abuse and arrest.
Criminalization of consensual sex work forces sex workers to keep their work underground and not seek help when harmed.
Salon.com states that Salazar was “the first-ever politician to include the decriminalization of sex work in her campaign platform and then win election to major office.” Salazar was elected in the 2018 midterms.
Salazar’s efforts are being supported by DecrimNY, a coalition of 20+ groups including the Gay Men’s Health Crisis, Gays and Lesbians Living in a Transgender Society (G.L.I.T.S), the New York Transgender Advocacy Group, the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and other LGBTQ groups.
Kamala Harris and “the Nordic Model”
Concurrently, Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris recently said in an interview with The Root (above) that she is open to discussing decriminalizing sex work.
The Root reports:
Harris says she is open to seeing sex work decriminalized. For those who have criticized her support of SESTA (The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017) and FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017), her willingness to explore decriminalization may be welcome news—or not.
Harris said, “I took office in 2004 [as District Attorney], and I was advocating that we have to stop arresting these prostitutes and instead go after the Johns and the pimps because we were criminalizing the women, but not the men who were associating with it and making money off of it and profiting off of it.”
She said she is open to decriminalizing sex work but said that the issue is made more complex because of human trafficking. Her work help shut down Backpage, a website where escorts could advertise their services. She alleges the site was used to exploit children.
“When you’re talking about consenting adults, I think that yes: We should really consider that we can’t criminalize consensual behavior as long as no one is being harmed. But at the point that anyone is being harmed or exploited, then I think we have to understand that’s a different matter.”
Some critics have said that despite her promotion of sex work legalization, Harris is basically advocating for something known as The Nordic Model, a legal approach that “makes it clear that buying people for sex is wrong and it has sanctions that discourage people from doing it.”
This isn’t the de-criminalizing sex work. In fact, by criminalizing the customer rather the provider, it’s basically punishes the same crime. It’s unclear if she’d continue to advocate for The Nordic Model or actual full legalization.
How sex work impacts the safety of marginalized LGBTQ people
Kamala’s support of the Nordic Model is especially troubling considering her instrumental support in helping pass FOSTA and SESTA, bipartisan bills against sex trafficking passed last year which hold online companies liable for any user-posted content that could possibly be seen as facilitating sex work. The bill largely conflates consensual sex work and sex slave trafficking as the same thing, but they’re not.
As a result of SESTA and FOSTA, online forums where sex workers gave each other safety and professional advice have been shut down, moving sex work underground and further endangering sex workers.
LGBTQ people, especially homeless queer youth, are more likely to depend on sex work as a form of income. Sex worker sites like Backpage and Rentboy.com have all shut down in the last two years under federal prosecution. But despite the bills’ aims, a CBS San Francisco affiliate says reports of human trafficking have actually increased 170% in the last year.
Meanwhile, Las Vegas remains the only state with legalized sex workers. There they are licensed, regularly tested for sexually transmitted infections and have their wages taxed. The state provides a much better model for the regulation of sex work nationally.
Emily Iris, a supporter of decriminalized sex work, says, “The rally to decriminalize sex work intersects with the above issues in regards to ending mass incarceration, LGBTQ issues, racial equality, immigration reform, privacy and bodily autonomy.”