Kamala Harris Says She Supports Decriminalizing Sex Work

That’s a big switch for the Democratic presidential candidate, whom sex workers have criticized for good reason.
Sen. Kamala Harris campaigns in the early presidential caucus state of Iowa.
Sen. Kamala Harris campaigns in the early presidential caucus state of Iowa.

Democratic presidential hopeful Kamala Harris said on Tuesday that she supports the decriminalization of sex work ― a massive shift from her days as a prosecutor.

“I think so,” she said when asked by The Root if sex work should be decriminalized

But the California senator added that “it’s not as simple as that.”

“There is an ecosystem around that that includes crimes that harm people, and for those issues, I do not believe that anybody who hurts another human being or profits off of their exploitation should be free of criminal prosecution,” the California senator said. “But when you’re talking about consenting adults, we should consider that we can’t criminalize consensual behavior.”

Sex workers have long criticized Harris for her role in marginalizing their community by conflating sex work with sex trafficking.

“There are lots of good reasons to root for Kamala Harris,” Melissa Petro, a writer and former sex worker, wrote in The Establishment in 2017. “But the fact that Harris was an active force behind a campaign that endangered the lives of sex workers makes it understandably difficult for people with experiences in the sex trades to throw her our support,” Petro added.

As district attorney for San Francisco, Harris wrote in her 2009 book, Smart on Crime, that prostitutes should be arrested. “Smart always starts with enforcing the law ― we must arrest the prostitutes as well as the pimps and the johns,” she said. 

In 2016, as attorney general of California, Harris went after the founders of Backpage on pimping charges. Backpage was a website that sex workers used to screen clients, protect their own identities and keep themselves safe. Harris said on Tuesday that she has “no regrets” about getting it shut down.

As AG, she also failed to investigate Bay Area police officers for trafficking sex worker Celeste Guap, which they started doing when Guap was just 14 years old. Many of those officers are still working in law enforcement.

Sex workers protest against criminalization of their trade and FOSTA-SESTA, the combined legislation that included the Stop E
Sex workers protest against criminalization of their trade and FOSTA-SESTA, the combined legislation that included the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.

More recently, Sen. Harris voted in support of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, a law that was ostensibly written to protect victims of sex trafficking but that, in effect, has done severe damage to sex workers. The legislation holds online platforms, such as Craigslist and Backpage (before it was shut down), liable for user content related to sex trafficking and encourages websites to censor sex-related ads to protect themselves from litigation. What this has done is move the sex trade further underground and make sex work more dangerous. A recent study suggested that Craigslist “erotic services” section had actually reduced fatal violence against women in the sex trade.

Members of the Sacramento, California, branch of the Sex Workers Outreach Project sought to work with Harris during her Backpage lawsuit but said they were ignored. 

“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, a current consensual sex worker and a human trafficking survivor, told HuffPost. 

DiAngelo believes that Harris’ sudden support for decriminalization is an empty promise made to help the senator’s presidential run. 

“My take on it is that we are actually starting to do some damage to her campaign ... so she had to change her stance,” DiAngelo said. “But do I think she believes it? No.”

Other sex workers feel the same. 

“Harris has not only been negligent of sex workers, she’s also been an active antagonist,” employees at Slixa, an escort directory, wrote in a blog post after Harris announced her candidacy in late January. The post was titled “On The Topic Of Sex Worker Rights, Kamala Harris May As Well Be Trump.”

Since announcing her presidential bid, Harris has had to answer for her record as a prosecutor ― not just on the topic of sex work, but reparations, mass incarceration, truancy and legalization of marijuana as well.

In a CNN town hall gathering last month, Harris stuck by the decisions she’d made.

“I’ve been consistent my whole career,” she said.