Kamala Harris Supports Decriminalizing Sex Work & Advocates Have Strong Feelings
One presidential candidate has been on the receiving end of criticism from sex workers who say she’s taken actions that hinder their ability to work safely. Now, in an recent interview with The Root, Sen. Kamala Harris said she supports decriminalizing sex work, as long as “consenting adults” aren’t being harmed. Some sex workers’ rights advocates tell Bustle that they’re hesitant to embrace what appears to be an about-face from the senator, though.
Those advocates tell Bustle that although it sounds like Harris is embracing a more progressive view on the subject, they’re only cautiously optimistic about the prospect that she’d push to decriminalize sex work as president. They point not only to federal anti-sex trafficking legislation Harris voted for last year, which they say hampered sex workers’ ability to find work safely, but also to her record as California’s attorney general. In that position, she pressed charges against executives of the now-defunct classifieds website, Backpage.com, which many sex workers had used to screen clients.
“The issue here comes down to Harris’ track record on that exact issue, and her history says something different than her words in this interview did,” Lee Ann Jennings, founder and CEO of the escort directory Slixa, tells Bustle. “She’s really worked in the past to firm up her place as a direct adversary of sex workers.”
Harris’ campaign did not respond to a request for comment for this story. In her interview with The Root, Harris said she supports creating safe places for sex workers to do their jobs. “I’m a huge advocate for that,” she said in the interview. “Always have been.”
“When you’re talking about consenting adults, I think that, yes, we should really consider that we can’t criminalize consensual behavior as long as no one is being harmed,” she added.
Carol Leigh, a longtime activist who is credited with coining the term “sex work,” tells Bustle that it piqued her interest that Harris acknowledged sex work can be consensual.
“Anti-prostitution theory usually holds that ‘a woman would never consent to such activity,'” Leigh says. “I find the departure from the standard ideology encouraging, that she demonstrates some inclination toward an independent analysis.”
That feeling of encouragement came with a grain of salt for Leigh, however. She points to what she describes as Harris’ “longtime lack of respect and lack of inclusion of the voices and opinions” of sex workers “who she has impacted greatly.”
In light of Harris’ recent comments, the sex workers’ rights organization Decrim NY is asking for a meeting with the senator. “Decrim NY demands a meeting with Sen. Harris so community members can share how criminalization impacts their human rights and safety,” the organization said in a press release. “Decrim NY also calls on all presidential candidates to support the full decriminalization of sex work to promote the safety, wellbeing, and health of all people in the sex trades.”