The Real Significance Of Kamala Harris’ Shift On Sex Work

On Tuesday morning, 2020 presidential candidate Kamala Harris told The Root that she supports decriminalizing sex work.

It was the second time this week that the issue made headlines. On Monday morning, New York state lawmakers said they were drafting a bill to decriminalize sex work, as well as release sex workers from prison and remove prostitution from their criminal records.

The two incidents aren’t the same ― Harris, a former prosecutor, has faced years of criticism from sex workers, whereas New York lawmakers worked in conjunction with the community.

But taken together, they represent a major shift in Democratic politics: Sex work is no longer a topic too taboo for elected officials to touch. 

Shifting Ideologies

“It’s completely ridiculous, just in case there’s any ambiguity about my position,” Harris, then district attorney of San Francisco, said about a proposition to legalize sex work in her district in 2008.

Progressive groups have criticized Harris’ prosecutorial record since she announced her candidacy on Jan. 21, and part of that criticism has included her treatment of the sex worker community.

As attorney general of California, Harris fought to have the website Backpage shut down, despite efforts from sex workers to collaborate with her office and explain why that would do more harm than good. She failed to investigate a group of police officers who trafficked a young sex worker. As a senator, she supported the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, a piece of legislation that both sex trafficking survivors and sex workers say will do more harm than good.

Now, she is openly embracing decriminalization. And by doing so, she is inviting other popular Democrats to do the same.

Why Her Support Matters

LGBTQ, immigrant rights, harm reduction and criminal justice reform groups, led by people who trade sex, have launched a coal

LGBTQ, immigrant rights, harm reduction and criminal justice reform groups, led by people who trade sex, have launched a coalition, Decrim NY, to decriminalize the sex trade in New York city and state.

It’s reasonable for sex workers and their allies to be suspicious of Harris’ shift, given her record. But it would be a mistake to underestimate the significance of her choice. Harris is a mainstream Democrat with a massive platform, millions of supporters, and a reasonable chance of getting the Democratic nomination to face off with President Donald Trump. In the 24 hours after she announced her candidacy, her campaign raked in more than $1 million of donations. She is an outspoken member of the resistance against the Trump administration, having spoken at the Women’s March and consistently grilling the president’s appointees. 

So her support, however flawed it may be, matters.

No other Democratic candidate in the 2020 race has said he or she supports decriminalizing sex work, and all of the current senators who are running also voted in support of SESTA. Harris’ decision to support decriminalization represents a significant shift in the discourse around sex work for mainstream Democrats who have long avoided the topic. 

Years In The Making

"Sex work is work, and we need to start treating it as such," New York state Sen. Julia Salazar (D) said Monday.

“Sex work is work, and we need to start treating it as such,” New York state Sen. Julia Salazar (D) said Monday.

One day prior to Harris’ interview, sex-work activists stood at the side of several members of the New York state Legislature as they announced a new coalition, Decrim NY, and their plans to draft legislation to decriminalize the sex trade.

In attendance were several sex workers who have been working for decades for a moment such as this. The movement to decriminalize sex work in New York has largely been led by current and former sex workers of color, many of whom are members of the trans and immigrant communities who have faced discrimination and incarceration for their work and identities.

“It feels surreal to be talking about this,” Cecilia Gentili, a former undocumented sex worker and trans woman who is a member of Decrim NY, said through tears on Monday.

Because marginalized women like Gentili have been fighting for their rights for years ― despite harmful policies like those enacted by Harris ― some members of the sex workers’ rights community have a hard time trusting that Harris’ switch in policy is authentic. 

It feels surreal to be talking about this.
Cecilia Gentili, a former undocumented sex worker and trans woman who is a member of Decrim NY

Members of Decrim NY on Wednesday called for a meeting with Harris and lamented her support for what, in her interview with the Root, sounded like the Nordic model ― in which clients are arrested and sex workers are not.

“The Nordic Model—which targets, arrests, and incarcerates clients of sex workers, as well as drivers, landlords, family members, partners, who provide services and care to sex workers, and sex workers collaborating to keep each other safe — is not ‘decriminalization,’” Decrim NY wrote in a statement.

Ending The Taboo

Despite their skepticism, activists were cautiously optimistic after Harris’ interview this week.

“It does feel significant,” Nina Luo, a member of the Decrim NY steering committee and organizer of the Decrim NY rally, told HuffPost on Wednesday. “But movements are always in danger of being co-opted,” she said. “If she’s going to take this up, we want her to meet with communities most directly impacted by criminalization because she’s missing vital information.”

“This is a taboo topic,” New York state assemblymember Dan Quart said at the Monday rally. “But it can’t be taboo anymore.”

Harris’ shift shows that maybe that taboo is finally dying.

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