Stepping into the already crowded Democratic presidential field Monday, Sen. Kamala Harris said she was running to “bring our voices together.” But some sex workers say they feel the California senator left them behind.
Harris’s history as the district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California has brought criticism from segments of the left, who say she supported the prison system and failed to confront police brutality. But as Motherboard reported Tuesday, her prosecutorial past has been of special concern to sex workers, who feel she trampled over their rights in the name of curbing human trafficking.
“Her progressive achievements and championing for the underprivileged are completely overshadowed by her hostile initiatives against sex workers,” Lee Jennings, the CEO of online sex worker directory Slixa, told The Daily Beast. (In a blog post, the company suggested Harris “might as well be Trump” on the issue of sex worker rights.)
Much of the concern stems from Harris’s recent support of FOSTA/SESTA, the 2018 anti-trafficking law that made web publishers responsible for third-party ads for prostitution on their sites. The passage of the law resulted in the shutdown of personal ad sites like Backpage that sex workers used to advertise their services and screen clients.
While Harris and other proponents of FOSTA/SESTA claimed Backpage was complicit in the trafficking of minors, many sex workers argued the site made adult workers safer, allowing them to stay off the streets and out of the hands of pimps. In the months after the law was passed, several major cities said they saw their street prostitution arrests more than double.
“As soon as FOSTA/SESTA passed and as soon as Backpage went down, we were inundated by texts from would-be pimps saying, ‘Baby, you need me now,’” said Caty Simon, an escort and and co-editor of sex-work blog Tits and Sass. “And for some people that became the best choice among many many horrible options.”
Harris was not alone in her support of the law: She was one of 174 Democrats in the House and Senate—including fellow presidential candidates Tulsi Gabbard, Elizabeth Warren, and Kirsten Gillibrand—to vote for it.
But the bill was not the first time Harris had gone after Backpage. As state attorney general, Harris pressed charges against Backpage’s chief executive and former owners multiple times—a fact she touted in a press release after her vote on FOSTA/SESTA, and in an interview on the popular podcast “Call Your Girlfriend” this summer.
In the podcast, Harris said she wanted to focus not on sex workers but on those who are “profiting off of the exploitation of girls and boys.”
“[Backpage] had a business model that was about... trafficking off of selling children, minors,” she said. “So yeah, I want them to shut down and I'm glad they had to. And I'm glad those guys are being prosecuted and I'm never going to defend their content, never.”
Harris’s campaign did not provide additional comment.
Even before prosecuting Backpage, however, Harris drew criticism for her policing of sex work. Her DA’s office participated in a First Offender Prostitution Program (FOPP) that focused on purchasers, not on sex workers, but wound up disproportionately affecting Latino men. She also co-sponsored a state law to help curb human trafficking that was not used once in the year after it was instituted.
Maxine Doogan, founder of the Bay Area-based Sex Workers and Erotic Service Providers Legal, Educational and Research Project (ESPLERP), had several run-ins with Harris’s offices during that time. Harris spoke out against a proposition that Doogan championed to legalize sex work in 2008 and later, as attorney general, fought back against a lawsuit the activist filed challenging California’s prostitution laws.
Doogan says she doesn't see much of a difference between the Harris she knew back then and the Harris who supported FOSTA/SESTA last year.
“It should be a big concern to the American public that Kamala is voting with President Trump,” she said. “It should be a big concern to American women that you have politicians like Kamala who want to champion women's right to choose when it comes to abortion, but they don't want to uphold women's sovereignty to access their own commercial commerce.”
While prostitution remains illegal in most of the United States, there has been a push to decriminalize the practice in recent years. And sex workers have proven to be a political force in local elections; Julia Salazar won her New York Senate race last year after campaigning on decriminalization and door-knocking with sex workers and their allies.
Still, sex workers have yet to find many mainstream candidates who will champion their cause. Simon said she had similar qualms about Hillary Clinton in 2016, and with candidates like Elizabeth Warren this cycle. And if it came to a decision between Donald Trump and Harris, she said, it would be no contest.
“I suppose that sex workers have to be like everybody else and hold their nose and vote for the lesser evil,” she said, “but it's always us who has to make the compromise.”
“It's always sex workers, incarcerated people, poor people, trans people—these overlooked sections of society—that have to say, ‘Oh well, she's a little bit more progressive, so even though she screws us over we're going to have to take that deal.’”