In many ways, Sen. Joe Biden’s selection of Kamala Harris as his vice president is historic: She is the first woman of color on a major party ticket, as well as the first female vice-presidential Democratic pick in more than three decades. Yet many on the left were not overly pleased with the pick, pointing to Harris’s somewhat regressive record when she was district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California. Among these critics were sex workers’ rights advocates, who have been vocal about Harris’s historically aggressive approach to policing the community and her perceived flip-flops on decriminalization.
From her days as district attorney, Harris has had a reputation as an antagonist of sex workers. In 2008, she was a vocal opponent of Prop K, a ballot measure intended to decriminalize prostitution in San Francisco. She referred to Prop K as “completely ridiculous,” arguing that it rolled out “a welcome mat out for pimps and prostitutes to come on into San Francisco.”
As attorney general, Harris was also active in leading the charge against Backpage.com, a website that hosted classifieds ads and was used by many escorts — and, according to sex workers, a platform that was used as a resource for vetting clients and keeping themselves safe. In 2016, she filed numerous charges against the owners of the site, including money laundering, pimping, and conspiracy to commit pimping. Her argument was that it was a hub for sex trafficking, with some of the victims being children, even though the site was far more often used by escorts doing consensual sex work.
“Predominantly women, black women, [were] on that platform trying to make money to support themselves,” says MF Akynos, founder and executive director of the Black Sex Worker Collective. Dr. Jill McCracken, co-director of SWOP Behind Bars, a sex worker advocacy group, acknowledges there was some exploitation on Backpage, but the majority of those selling sex on the platform were adults doing so consensually. “When you shut down a space where people can communicate, you shut down all kinds of things,” she says.
Indeed, the eventual closure of Backpage.com did little to curb online sex trafficking and arguably led to the endangerment of sex workers, who no longer were able to use it as a financial resource or as a resource to vet clients. Sex workers say they attempted to reach Harris during her campaign against Backpage.com to make clear just how harmful the attacks were, to no avail. “We called her office and spoke to aides. We wrote letters. Never once did I get a call back or anything. One time I even got hung up on,” Kristen DiAngelo, the executive director of SWOP-Sacramento, told HuffPost last year.
Harris also was one of the cosponsors of SESTA/FOSTA, the controversial anti-sex trafficking legislation. SESTA/FOSTA was intended to curb online sex trafficking by holding website publishers responsible for third-party ads promoting trafficking on their platform. But sex workers have long argued that SESTA/FOSTA has had the opposite effect, doing nothing to curb nonconsensual sex trafficking while simultaneously forcing those who do consensual sex work onto the streets and putting their welfare at risk. While there is little hard data, some surveys have shown that violence against sex workers has risen as a result of SESTA/FOSTA, and Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Penn.) last year called for a bill looking into the ramifications of the legislation.
SESTA/FOSTA “has made everyone much less safe,” says McCracken. “It’s really impacted people. We’re in this state with COVID where so many people are not able to make ends meet — it’s very hard to communicate online, communicate resources — and I can’t help but think that’s a direct impact of SESTA/FOSTA.”
In 2019, Harris told the Root she had relaxed her position on sex work. “I think so,” she said when asked if she supported decriminalization. But with this statement came what some sex workers viewed as a pretty major caveat: Referring to her time as San Francisco DA, in reference to her stance on sex work, Harris said, “I was advocating then that we have to stop arresting these prostitutes, and instead go after the johns and the pimps… we were criminalizing the women, but not the men who associated with it, who were making money off of it or profiting off of it.”
Some sex workers who heard these comments viewed them as support not for full decriminalization, but for partial decriminalization. Also known as the Nordic model — so called because it has been adopted in many Nordic countries — this approach criminalizes the buyers of sex while not prosecuting those who sell sex. This is not the same thing as full sex work decriminalization, says Knox. “Decrim[inalization] does things like legitimize sex work as a profession, which opens the doors to things like healthcare, legal rights, etc.,” she says. “The Nordic model has this implication that sex work is not a choice, that the workers are coerced or forced into the career, creating more stigmas [and] less rights.” There is also some research to suggest that partial decriminalization does not make sex workers safer. “We know the end-demand model, partial decrim, whatever you want to call, is not the solution,” says McCracken. “It’s not gonna make things safer or better for people.”
During the Democratic primary, sex work decriminalization became something of a flash point, with candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren coming forward to assert their support for some form of decriminalization. For this reason, some sex workers do not believe that Harris’s reversal is legitimate. “What’s gonna be required in order for there to be full support on decrim is first, these politicians need to accept and really be responsible for changing the views on sex work. They have to stop conflating sex work with human trafficking,” says Akynos. “And they are not willing to do that.”
To be fair, Harris has demonstrated her willingness to evolve on various other issues. Though she has been taken to task for her record on drug reform, last year she cosponsored the MORE Act, a piece of legislation calling for nationwide legalization and the allocation of federal funds to cannabis entrepreneurs of color. Additionally, all of the sex workers Rolling Stone spoke with said they still plan to vote for Biden come November, regardless of Harris’s views. But Knox can’t help but view her more recent comments on sex work as “pandering” to sex workers’ rights advocates, without actually listening to the needs of community members. “She can’t use us as a selling point if she isn’t going to stand behind us, listen to us, and make things safer for the people that are begging for her help,” says Knox.