On January 21, Senator Kamala Harris joined the growing cohort of 2020 Democratic presidential candidates, branding herself a progressive with a robust civil rights platform. But as numerous media sources have pointed out, Harris’s track record doesn’t quite match her purported image.
The former California Attorney General has starkly pivoted on marijuana—going from laughing at the possibility of legalization in 2014 to now supporting federal decriminalization. But she has made no such political 180 when it comes to sex work.
During her time as California AG, Harris pursued legal cases including child sex trafficking charges against the “adult” personals website Backpage. She also cosponsored the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) in the Senate, which was signed into law by President Donald Trump as part of a package with FOSTA (Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017) on April 11, 2018.
“It’s despicable that Backpage & its executives purposefully designed Backpage to be the world’s top online brothel,” tweeted Harris, a few months prior to the charges filed through the Office of the Attorney General.
Harris long advocated for the shutdown of Backpage–which eventually came to pass on April 6, 2018, when the FBI seized it because of the website’s reported connections to child sex trafficking. She gave the opening remarks in a 2017 US Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Government Affairs hearing (see video), in which she characterized Backpage’s business as “clear and pure exploitation for profit” by users who “sit behind their computer committing their crime.”
In September 2018, Filter published an extensive report on this issue by reporter, sex worker and advocate Caty Simon. Interviewing numerous sex workers across the US, Simon established how the closure of Backpage and SESTA/FOSTA exposed sex workers—particularly those who use drugs—to increased client violence and pressure to cross boundaries, overdose risk, law enforcement persecution, and poverty. She characterized the legislation as “an economic assault on the disadvantaged.”
“Claiming a victory over drug use by passing legislation that predominantly endangers women is disgusting,” one sex worker named Michael told Simon.
In the wake of the Harris announcement, more sex workers have spoken up in the media about the consequences of the legislation she sponsored. “It’s forcing me to go back the streets, walking up and down trying to find clients,” Melissa, an escort from Phoenix, told the Huffington Post. “Now I not only have to deal with the police, but now I’m forced to deal with tricks that know this bill is in effect, and trust me, they are taking full advantage of it by being more aggressive.”
Another sex worker interviewed, Dii, said that people they know were “getting contacted by pimps and abusers more because they know we are desperate” due to the elimination of sites like CraigslistPersonals and Backpage that allowed sex workers to self-advertise.
And yet, in her opening remarks in the 2017 Backpage hearing, Harris expressed a sentiment that made her sound like an ally of people who use such sites to stay safer: “We have to do all that is right to make sure as a civil society protect always the most vulnerable among us and not take advantage of them, assuming nobody will care.”
As Harris launches a presidential campaign forefronting civil rights and criminal justice reform, one sex worker interviewed by the Guardian has a message for the Democratic hopeful: “If you want to help marginalized and exploited people, you protect them, you don’t further limit their options … It’s been devastating.”
Photograph of Senator Kamala Harris at at the 2019 Iowa Democrats Hall of Fame Celebration in Cedar Rapids, Iowa on June 9; by Lorie Shaull via Wikimedia Commons