Claire McCaskill loves the Women's March when it benefits her re-election campaign. But the movement's support for sex workers leaves her open to charges of hypocrisy.
You’re unlikely to find a photo online of U.S. Sen. Claire McCaskill sporting a pussy hat (oh, how we tried!), but the Missouri Democrat, who’s seeking a third term, has done her best to harness the energy of the January 21, 2017, Women’s March. She started that very day, when she leveraged her participation in the St. Louis iteration of the worldwide anti-Trump event to plead for donations and volunteers for her re-election campaign.
But the Women’s March did not go silent after January 2017. It has morphed into a bulwark of modern-day feminism, continuing as the advocacy group Women’s March, Inc. and taking controversial stands on a host of issues.
That includes the rights of sex workers, a cause for which McCaskill has shown zero sympathy.
The “Guiding Vision and Statement of Principles,” posted on the Women’s March website, is explicit: “[We] we stand in full solidarity with the sex workers’ rights movement.”
The day after the FBI shut down of the online listings giant Backpage.com and arrested seven current and former executives and operators of the site, the Women’s March Twitter account tweeted, “The shutting down of
#Backpage is an absolute crisis for sex workers who rely on the site to safely get in touch with clients,” reads the April 7 message. “Sex workers rights are women’s rights.”
. The shutting down of #Backpage is an absolute crisis for sex workers who rely on the site to safely get in touch with clients. Sex workers rights are women’s rights. Follow @SafeSpacesDC @melissagira @swopusa @KateDAdamo @supporthosechi @anaorsomething for more info. https://t.co/S3Orx3aM8Z
— Women's March (@womensmarch) April 7, 2018
The tweet links to the accounts of sex-worker advocates and organizations that seek the decriminalization or legalization of prostitution, such as the national chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) and Washington, D.C.-based Collective Action for Safe Spaces (CASS).
The Women’s March also retweeted a statement from CASS, which read, “Sex work is consensual. Sex trafficking is coerced. The crackdown on Backpage is not about ending trafficking; it’s motivated by the patriarchal notion that women should not be free to do what we want with our bodies.”
Sex work is consensual. Sex trafficking is coerced. The crackdown on Backpage is not about ending trafficking; it’s motivated by the patriarchal notion that women should not be free to do what we want with our bodies. #DecrimNow #LetUsSurvive pic.twitter.com/o1RfM7Piey
— Collective Action for Safe Spaces (@SafeSpacesDC) April 7, 2018
McCaskill’s office did not respond to Front Page Confidential‘s request for comment.
But the stance the Women’s March has taken appears to have boxed the Missouri senator into an uncomfortable corner: It exposes her indifference to the plight of sex workers, creating an issue that could be used against her both in the August Democratic primary and in November’s general election.
As the defendants in the Backpage case — including the cofounders of Front Page Confidential, veteran newspapermen Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin — gird for a court battle, some news outlets are taking note of McCaskill’s unwillingness to explain her split with the Women’s March on sex work.
“Women’s March Defense of Backpage.com Puts Claire McCaskill in Tough Spot,” blares the headline on a recent story in the conservative Washington Free Beacon.
Another right-skewing news outlet, the Washington Times, took a more adversarial stance in a piece titled, “Growing extremism of Women’s March bedevils Democratic allies on campaign trail”:
The Women’s March is rapidly becoming better known for its embrace of fringe issues and radical figures like Louis Farrkahan than its political rallies, which is creating headaches on the campaign trail for Democrats like Sen. Claire McCaskill.
After the Women’s March stunned even liberal feminists last week by rushing to the defense of Backpage.com, which has pleaded guilty in Texas to human trafficking, Ms. McCaskill found herself under fire for her enthusiastic involvement in the January 2017 march.
Missouri state Rep. Jean Evans, a Republican, tweeted that she was waiting for Ms. McCaskill “to distance herself from this pro-human trafficking organization,” while Catholic Association senior fellow Ashley McGuire called on politicians to “answer” for their support for the Women’s March.
Claire McCaskill long has been an ardent foe of Backpage.
In early 2017, as the ranking Democrat on the Senate’s Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, McCaskill coauthored “Backpage.com’s Knowing Facilitation of Online Sex Trafficking,” a 50-page report that characterized the site’s various efforts to operate within the letter of the law as proof that its owners were diabolically plotting to do precisely the opposite.
She was a vocal supporter of the anti-prostitution legislation known as the the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which President Trump signed into law on April 11. In fact, McCaskill was among the early cosponsors of the Senate version of the bill, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA).
— Claire McCaskill (@clairecmc) January 21, 2017
The Senate’s March 21 passage of FOSTA spurred a tsunami of online self-censorship.
Craigslist shut down its dating section. Reddit deleted forums that had anything to do with sex work. Microsoft updated its terms of service (TOS) to ban “offensive language” and “inappropriate content or material” — everything from nudity to graphic violence. And some websites featuring adult ads, such as Cityvibe.com and Nightshift.co, went dark altogether. FOSTA’s passage also forced women onto the street and back into the arms of pimps and traffickers, just as sex-worker advocates had predicted it would.
After the FBI seized Backpage on a 93-count indictment alleging conspiracy, money laundering, and the facilitation of prostitution, McCaskill issued a statement calling the enforcement action “great news for survivors.”
Claire’s calling DOJ’s Backpage seizure great news for victims, and proof of why her bill to stop the next Backpage is so critical: law enforcement need the tools to act quickly against these bad actors. pic.twitter.com/LT9SQwAFrP
— McCaskill Office (@McCaskillOffice) April 6, 2018
While McCaskill claimed that FOSTA is necessary in order to “stop the next Backpage,” sex-trafficking experts have been quick to note that in all likelihood, the “next Backpage” will have its servers overseas, where U.S. authorities have no sway, and where they will not benefit from the cooperation Backpage regularly supplied in the form of prompt responses to subpoenas and court testimony on behalf of prosecutors.
As McCaskill prepares for the Democratic primary and looks ahead to a November face-off in what appears to be shaping up as a tight race against her likely Republican challenger, Missouri Attorney General Josh Hawley, the incumbent senator is certain to face more questions about her continued silence on the matter.
And they won’t all come from McCaskill’s right. Feminists who support the Women’s March are bound to note how McCaskill exploited the event for her own ends, even as she continued to dismiss the difficulties faced by women who engage in survival sex.
Kate D’Adamo, an activist for sex workers rights and a consultant for the progressive collective Reframe Health and Justice is one of those whom the Women’s March mentioned in its tweet condemning the Backpage bust . D’Adamo told Front Page Confidential that advocating for the rights of all women must extend to defending the ones who are sex workers.
“They recognize you can’t say you’re for ending violence against women and not care about sex workers,” D’Adamo said of the Women’s March organizers. “You can’t say that you care about economic justice toward women and advocate for the arrest and marginalization of folks that are surviving trading sex.”
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