“On the issue of finding a safe place for sex workers, I’m a huge advocate. I always have been,” Vice President–elect Kamala Harris said in a February 2019 interview with The Root. But if you ask sex workers, they’ll give you a different story.
“I’m thrilled that we have a black woman vice president. I wish it was anyone else but Kamala Harris,” said Alex Andrews, cofounder of Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) and SWOP Behind Bars. Andrews and other objected to the “torture” Harris put sex workers through when she was district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California. “She helped the Oakland Police Department cover up a lot of the misdeeds that they were doing in regards to sex trafficking,” she added, referring to how Harris declined to intervene in an explosive case in which multiple police officers had sexual contact with underage sex worker Celeste Guap, whose attorney explicitly asked Harris’s office for help. “Kamala Harris didn’t do anything to those cops. She was an active participant in this young woman’s exploitation.” As DA, Harris also opposed the decriminalization of sex work in 2008, saying it would roll out “a welcome mat out for pimps and prostitutes to come on into San Francisco.”
Andrews is not the only sex-worker advocate to feel ambivalence. “I’m like, wow, this is the first black woman on a major party ticket,” said Zola Z. Bruce of the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project (SWP). “A lot of black cis women or gender-nonconforming people and trans women just don’t know that it’s possible for a black woman to sit in such a high position.” But Bruce adds that “there’s some challenges because historically, we know that she hasn’t been supportive of trans women in particular, and also not supportive of sex workers. I just feel like for us to see positive change in our communities, we need to see her also change.”
Much ink has already been spilled on Harris’s prosecutorial background. What is significant about the topic of sex work is how recently the vice president–elect’s actions contradicted her alleged views. During her tenure as AG, she led a campaign to shut down Backpage, a classified advertising website frequently used by sex workers, calling it “the world’s top online brothel” in 2016 and claiming that the site made “millions of dollars from trafficking.” While Backpage did make millions off of sex work ads, its “adult services” listings offered a safer and more transparent platform for sex workers and their clients to conduct consensual transactions than had historically been available. Harris’s grandiose mischaracterization led to a Senate investigation, and the shuttering of the site by the FBI in 2018.
“Backpage being gone has devastated our community,” said Andrews. The platform allowed sex workers to work more safely: They were able to vet clients and promote their services online. “It’s very heartbreaking to see the fallout,” said dominatrix Yevgeniya Ivanyutenko. “A lot of people lost their ability to safely make a living. A lot of people were forced to go on the street or do other things that they wouldn’t have otherwise considered.” M.F. Akynos, the founder and executive director of the Black Sex Worker Collective, thinks Harris should “apologize to the community. She needs to admit that she really fucked up with Backpage, and really ruined a lot of people’s lives.”
After Harris became a senator, she cosponsored the now-infamous Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which—along with the House’s Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA)—was signed into law by President Trump in 2018. FOSTA-SESTA created a loophole in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, the so-called “safe harbor” provision that allows websites to be free from liability for user-generated content (e.g., Amazon reviews, Craigslist ads). The Electronic Frontier Foundation argues that Section 230 is the backbone of the Internet, calling it “the most important law protecting internet free speech.” Now, website publishers are liable if third parties post sex-work ads on their platforms.
That spelled the end of any number of platforms—mostly famously Craigslist’s “personal encounters” section—that sex workers used to vet prospective clients, leaving an already vulnerable workforce even more exposed. (The Woodhull Freedom Foundation has filed a lawsuit challenging FOSTA on First Amendment grounds; in January 2020, it won an appeal in D.C.’s district court).
“I sent a bunch of stats [to Harris and Senator Diane Feinstein] about decriminalization and how much SESTA-FOSTA would hurt American sex workers and open them up to violence,” said Cara (a pseudonym), who was working as a sex worker in the San Francisco and a member of SWOP when the bill passed. Both senators ignored her.
The bill both demonstrably harmed sex workers and failed to drop sex trafficking. “Within one month of FOSTA’s enactment, 13 sex workers were reported missing, and two were dead from suicide,” wrote Lura Chamberlain in her Fordham Law Review article “FOSTA: A Hostile Law with a Human Cost.” “Sex workers operating independently faced a tremendous and immediate uptick in unwanted solicitation from individuals offering or demanding to traffic them. Numerous others were raped, assaulted, and rendered homeless or unable to feed their children.” A 2020 survey of the effects of FOSTA-SESTA found that “99% of online respondents reported that this law does not make them feel safer” and 80.61 percent “say they are now facing difficulties advertising their services.”
Perhaps in the Biden-Harris administration, which touts itself as responsive to experts and researchers, FOSTA-SESTA will be rolled back. But that’s if Biden and Harris are willing to shift their views.
“I hope that both Biden and Harris have the strength of character to both see and admit that they were wrong about how to combat human trafficking,” said Kaitlyn Bailey, who was until this October the communications director of Decriminalize Sex Work (she now hosts the Old Pro podcast). “I have no delusions that either of them will lead on this issue, but I hope that they might follow.”
In the 2019 Root interview, Harris claimed to be in favor of decriminalizing prostitution, a major shift from her 2008 stance: “We should really consider that we shouldn’t criminalize consensual behavior, as long as no one is being harmed.” She declined to elaborate in much detail, but her comments suggested she would not support full decriminalization but rather the so-called Nordic model, which involves criminalizing “johns” but making selling sex legal.
“Career politicians usually do what is trendy or popular,” said R.J. Thompson, the managing director of the SWP. “And the groundwork we’ve laid in this movement has unintentionally brought us to a point where the Nordic model is very viable in this country…. And that worries me very much because it’s a very harmful position…. It’s bad for workers. It targets our customers and clients and directly takes work from us. As sex workers it makes us more vulnerable to violence, putting sex work further into the shadows, but also exacerbates and makes people more vulnerable to human trafficking, which is what they say they’re against in the first place.”
Some sex workers think Harris can be pushed to move away from the Nordic model. “I believe she’s too smart to believe that arresting our clients makes anyone safer,” said Bailey. Andrews added, “We’re hoping for the best, but fearing for the worst.” Andrews points to research in New Zealand, where sex work has been decriminalized for 15 years. “All of the evidence shows that exploitation and violence and abuse has dramatically decreased” in New Zealand, she said. “And the Nordic model that is used in Switzerland has increased violence and exploitation.”
Whether Harris would support full decriminalization of workers and buyers is unclear. But there’s some movement at the state and local levels, where most prostitution arrests occur. “I think we have to see bold local leadership on decrim, like what’s happening in New York, D.C., Rhode Island, Vermont, Washington, and California,” said Bailey, referring to a variety of decriminalization bills introduced in state legislatures, and California’s passage of SB233, which prohibits condoms from being used as evidence of sex work and grants sex workers immunity from prosecution if they report a crime. Andrews thinks sex work decriminalization will follow the model of marijuana decriminalization, with grassroots movements creating change. And the SWP is “trying to pass full decriminalization laws in multiple states,” Thompson said. Although he fears “we may end up with a Nordic model.”
While a vice president doesn’t have the direct power to change state laws, many anticipate the resurgence of troubling proposals during the Biden-Harris administration. The Eliminating Abusive and Rampant Neglect of Interactive Technologies (EARN IT) Act—which ostensibly aimed to prevent child sexual abuse online by allowing states to sue website operators for hosting child pornography on their sites (even if uploaded by third parties)—would have made it illegal for websites to have end-to-end encryption unless they provide a “key” to the government. Bailey and Andres called it “FOSTA on steroids.” While EARN IT died in the last Congress, experts fear the introduction of similar bills with high potential to harm sex workers in the upcoming legislative session.
Harris also has the opportunity to support the SAFE Sex Workers Study Act, proposed by senator Ro Khanna (D-Calif.) in December, 2019, and supported by Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). If the bill passes, it would “mandate the first federal study investigating how the shutdown of websites in connection with SESTA/FOSTA impact the health and safety of people who rely on consensual, transactional sex,” said Khanna in his statement announcing the bill.
If Harris is willing to support the SAFE Act or shift her views on sex work, some sex workers and advocates are willing to work with her, even though many I spoke to were wary of trusting the “top cop” of California when their lives have been criminalized. “If she put forward some sort of initiative that got decriminalization of sex work passed across the US that would make up for her, and I would be her loyal stump speech giver, speaker in elevators,” said Cara. “That would be a great way to give restorative justice to the people who she hurt with her policies, and it would be a way of her saying, I got it wrong. I’m sorry.”
Sex workers aren’t asking Harris for a lot: They’re simply asking to be treated as any other group of American workers. “You don’t have to like sex work, but you need to respect the people doing it, and you have to listen to them and ask for their opinions,” said MF Akynos. Sex workers are a larger demographic than most people realize. “I don’t know how many sex workers she’s actually talked to, personally or directly about the realities of our lives. It makes a big difference when you talk to us who have been in the sex trade. We come from every race, religion, educational background, and socioeconomic status,” said Thompson. “Someone you know is a sex worker. And the reason you don’t know that is because of the stigma.”
While Harris’s inauguration will be historic, many remain vigilant regarding her next moves. “We have such low standards in this country that we will take any representation we can get,” said Thompson. As Mistress Velvet says: “You could jail me as a white man or you can jail me as a Black Indian woman, I would still be going to jail. It doesn’t matter what your identity is.”
The work has already begun. The Adult Performance Artists Guild already has six meetings with senators scheduled early this year to ensure that bills like EARN IT and the Stop Internet Sexual Exploitation Act drafted on December 4 (created in response to Nicholas Kristof’s New York Times op-ed about PornHub) do not get reintroduced in Congress.
And sex workers are already calling out Harris. On January 9, Harris posted a video of herself on Twitter, saying, “My mother taught me that no matter how you earn a living, whether you’re a caregiver or truck driver, grocery store clerk or small business owner, every job has inherent value and worth.” Sex workers jumped on her. “So then you agree, sex work has inherent value and worth?” asked a woman calling herself NY Dominatrix. Harris never replied.