I see a lot of excitement about Elizabeth Warren and Kamala Harris running for president of the U.S. And yeah, I’ll vote for them if it’s them or a Republican, but I’m not thrilled about their policies on sex work.
I’m excited for more women candidates and politicians. I’m excited to see how Democrats respond to the terrible dehumanizing policies of Republicans. But I’m not excited when Democrats throw already-marginalized groups under the bus, and thus I am the grumpy “…but did you know about…?” commenter on pretty much every social media post I see that’s excited about Warren and/or Harris running for president.
As noted at Broadly, both Warren and Harris voted in favor of SESTA, and Warren has introduced a bill that would limit the options of sex workers who want bank accounts. I’m aware that the rhetoric in favor of SESTA (and its companion bill FOSTA, which the EFF has noted basically broke the internet) as well as Warren’s banking bill is that these laws are meant to crack down on sex trafficking. And yes, sex trafficking is bad and should be stopped.
However, the criminalization of sex work as expressed through these and other bills contributes to violence experienced by sex workers, both those trafficked and those not. The fact that trafficked minors can be criminally charged should be reason enough to do away with the criminalization of sex work (Cyntoia Brown’s well-publicized case is but one of many). Add in the horridly unethical history of The American Plan, under which women suspected of being “promiscuous” could be indefinitely detained for decades here in the U.S., and the flaws in criminalization arguments should become clear.
The sad irony is that women candidates are not necessarily uplifting all women. Katie Herzog notes, in an article appropriately titled The Women Running for President Have Made Life Harder for Women:
The consensus that SESTA and FOSTA did little good and a lot of bad is near universal among sex workers. And yet, sex-proclaimed feminists continue to push this narrative, including Senators Warren, Harris, Gillibrand, and Representative Gabbard. None immediately responded to my request for comment on SESTA and FOSTA, but perhaps if they actually talked to some sex workers, they’d get a sense of what their legislation has accomplished.
So while the increased visibility of female politicians is heartening, their policies are not. And for them to trade on some brand of feminism – unless it’s the shitty kind that is also SWERFy – is just sad (SWERF stands for sex worker exclusionary feminism, just like TERF stands for trans exclusionary feminism, and in yet another instance of terrible irony, I suspect these so-called feminists are all for helping trans women… unless those trans women also turn out to do sex work, sigh)
As my Patheos colleague Luciano Gonzalez writes: “It’s up to allies to create safe conditions for sex workers to speak wherever they can, and with that comes again this recurring theme of listening to sex workers instead of making assumptions about what they want.” I know my voice isn’t a substitute for the voices of those with sex work experience, but my hope is that the fancy letters behind my name and the platforms I have access to can help me broadcast their signal (as always, open offer to those with sex work experience: if you want to use my platform to publish a guest blog post, please feel free to get in touch).
One of the common arguments about keeping sex work illegal is that the people involved in sex work can’t possibly make their own choices. And you know what? That’s disingenuous bullshit. When SWERFs argue that it’s against women’s best interests to engage in sex work… guess what, doing things against your best interests (however the hell we define those) is not illegal. And if you’re a feminist who refuses to listen to women talk about their lived experiences, I think your feminism is bullshit.
I’m aware that Kamala Harris has called for decriminalizing sex work, but by that she means implementing the Nordic model, which is still not great for various reasons (hopefully I’ll manage to write a post about why that is soon). Read Melissa Gira Grant – a fantastic writer on sex work issues whom you should be reading anyway – for a more detailed breakdown of Harris’s stance on decriminalization.
The result of all these Democratic women throwing sex workers under the bus is disheartening. It puts sex workers and those who care about them in a cruel bind: in voting for a politician who will likely uphold most human and environmental rights better than the opposition, we’re forced to vote for a politician who will do irreparable harm to a sliver of the population (I’m aware that this already happens; for example, disability rights and trans rights are still being neglected if not actively voted against by most mainstream politicians, but it’s just such a crappy phenomenon when it’s at odds with the rhetoric that it’s worth noting).
These laws are killing people. As reported at Tits and Sass, shortly after the closure of Backpage there were reports of women missing, and two confirmed dead. I don’t care what your ideals are if they’re killing people.
So please, Democrat women, get your act together. Listen to other women (not that all sex workers are women!) and try to understand how the policies you support that may sound okay on the surface are actually quite far from okay. It can be a matter of life or death for some, and for the rest of us? Shame on us for being complicit.