In a wide-ranging interview with The Root, Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), defended her decision to support a controversial bill that closed online marketplaces for sex, but said the services that adult sex workers once advertised on those sites should be legal. “I think so. I do,” the former prosecutor replied when asked directly if sex work should be decriminalized. Her stance represents an about-face from 2008, when the former prosecutor was critical of a ballot measure that would have decriminalized prostitution in San Francisco.
Harris’ assertion came with a caveat. “I think that we have to understand though that it is not as simple as that,” the California senator said of decriminalization. “There is an ecosystem around [sex work] that includes crimes that harm people and for those issues I do not think that anyone who hurts another human being, or profits off of their exploitation, should be free of criminal prosecution. But when you’re talking about consensual 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, we have to understand that’s a different matter.”
Sex workers and their advocates are likely to be skeptical of Harris’ position, given her history. In 2008, when Proposition K, which would have decriminalized prostitution, was put to voters in San Francisco, District Attorney Harris was unequivocally opposed to the measure. “I think it’s completely ridiculous, just in case there’s any ambiguity about my position,” Harris told the New York Times at the time. “It would put a welcome mat out for pimps and prostitutes to come on into San Francisco.”
Harris, explaining her “history on the issue” to the Root, left that part out. “Back when I was elected D.A.,” Harris said, “I was advocating then that we need 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 associated with it, who were making money off of it or profiting off of it.”
More recently, in 2017, Harris supported SESTA/FOSTA, a bill that was intended to curb online sex-trafficking, but which took no steps to differentiate trafficking from commercial sex work. Sex workers say that, by threatening to punish third-party sites where sex ads were posted, the law has mostly succeeded at pushing them offline and onto the streets, making their lives more dangerous in the process. Asked directly about her vote on SESTA, Harris spoke specifically about Backpage.com, a website that hosted classified ads before it was shut down by the federal government in 2018.
“Backpage was providing advertisement for the sale of children, of minors. And, unlike Craigslist, which said we’re going to stop doing it, the people who were running Backpage basically thumbed their nose at us and kept doing it, making money off of the sale of youth, and so I called for them to be shut down,” Harris said. “And I have no regrets about that. Now, on the issue of providing a safe place for sex workers — I am a huge advocate for that, always have been.”
Harris was not alone in supporting SESTA/FOSTA — most senators did. And, as Broadly has pointed out, every Congressional Democrat running — Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Kirsten Gillibrand, Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar John Delaney and Tulsi Gabbard — supported it as well.