Melissa Gira Grant is a senior reporter covering criminal justice, gender and sexuality at the Appeal.
On Tuesday, Kamala Harris became the first mainstream U.S. presidential candidate to publicly state she supports the decriminalization of sex work. In an interview with the Root, the career prosecutor and junior senator from California was asked, “Do you think that sex work ought to be decriminalized?” She answered, “I think so. I do.” She later added:
Harris’s newfound — if less-than-full-throated — support for decriminalizing sex work, like her stance on marijuana, may be an attempt to re-position her past work as San Francisco district attorney and California attorney general for prospective primary voters. Even if that is so, then this is the first time in U.S. history that any candidate for this office has tried to pander to the public by supporting the rights of sex workers. And while tentative, Harris’s words could propel an overdue national conversation about sex work into the presidential campaign spotlight.
However striking those words from Harris might be to a general audience, advocates for sex workers’ rights are especially suspicious about Harris’s remarks. As with her recent mischaracterization of a policy she backed of reporting undocumented minors charged with crimes to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, Harris’s claim to support decriminalizing sex work is at odds with her record.
In 2008, Harris opposed Proposition K, a San Francisco ballot measure brought by sex workers to end prostitution arrests in the city. “I think it’s completely ridiculous, just in case there’s any ambiguity about my position,” she told reporters at the time, standing outside a shuttered massage business in the city’s Tenderloin neighborhood. “It would put a welcome mat out for pimps and prostitutes to come on into San Francisco.”
Harris also remained unapologetic about her efforts to shut down Backpage.com, a classifieds website with an adult services section that included listings for sex work, in her interview with the Root. She did not acknowledge the site’s importance to sex workers, emphasizing instead that she believed it had to be stopped from taking ads that may have advertised minors.
As California’s attorney general, Harris sought to prosecute Backpage’s owners, alleging that operating a website where sex workers post advertisements was tantamount to pimping. In the Senate, Harris played a role in crafting legislation to target Backpage, on the basis that the website was allegedly involved in human trafficking. In April 2018, President Trump signed that bill, known as the combined Stop Enabling Child Traffickers Act/Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (SESTA/FOSTA), into law.
Sex workers opposed the campaign to shut down Backpage — not to defend Backpage but to defend their safety. They said the website provided a platform for them to have more control over the conditions of their work. Some anti-trafficking advocates also opposed the strategy of targeting so-called online brothels pushed by Harris and others. Both groups said closing such websites might make it that much harder to help people facing danger in the sex trade. As sex workers had predicted, the law led websites to refuse sex workers’ ads and other content, including discussions of workplace safety and political organizing. Under the policies Harris supported, sex workers were made more marginalized and more vulnerable.
Sex workers’ nationwide protests against SESTA/FOSTA in June 2018 prompted a new generation of political candidates, such as New York state Sen. Julia Salazar (D) and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.), to offer support for decriminalization in their own platforms. And on Monday, a new coalition called Decrim NY announced a collaboration with Salazar, along with state Sen. Jessica Ramos (D) and other state lawmakers, to introduce legislation to fully decriminalize sex work in New York.
By the standard set by these lawmakers, Harris’s shift is — perhaps unsurprisingly, given her prosecutorial background and the still-marginal status of sex workers’ rights nationally — less definitive and quite possibly damaging for sex workers. It would be genuinely important if Harris was definitively throwing her support behind the full decriminalization of sex work. That means removing criminal penalties against people engaged in trading sex and their customers. But despite Harris’s discussion of decriminalizing the sale of sex between consenting adults in her interview with the Root, it’s not clear that she is truly committed to such a position.
That’s because Harris appears to still support criminalizing purchasing sex. In the same interview, Harris defended her position as a progressive one by saying that as San Francisco district attorney, “I was advocating then that we have to stop arresting these prostitutes, and instead go after the johns and the pimps.” Targeting customers is not a novel approach. It’s sometimes called the Nordic model or End Demand. Rights groups such as Amnesty International report it still harms sex workers. Despite supporters’ claims that such policies decriminalize sex workers, they don’t permit any legal way to engage in sex work. As such, sex workers remain penalized and surveilled by police.
By contrast, full decriminalization removes police entirely from the business of regulating sex work, returning more power and control to workers themselves. It also means that those who take advantage of sex workers’ criminalized status to prey on them — whether they are violent customers, intimate partners or law enforcement — could no longer do so with the impunity.
While Harris now says she opposed arresting sex workers as district attorney, back then she campaigned against a ballot measure to end those arrests. Harris needs to be confronted with these inconsistencies. She also needs to clearly explain what policies she does support and would act on as president.
Harris’s stance on decriminalization falls short of sex workers’ demands. It remains far less clear and committed than that of the New York legislators. But for a keen politician such as Harris to even float the idea of supporting decriminalization at all represents a major win for sex workers. Her professed support may even owe to the visibility and political power that sex workers have achieved, all in the wake of Harris’s attempts to shut down the places they used for work.