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New law protecting sex workers stirs emotions

A photo illustration of a young girl in custody. (Image: structuresxx, via Shutterstock

The woman, writing to Gov. Gavin Newsom about Senate Bill 233, called herself voiceless.

In her letter she told the governor about rapes she’s suffered while homeless and on the streets. Pimps had beaten her. One once threw her out of a hotel, leaving her naked in the parking lot.

She feared to call police. They never listened to her before, the unnamed woman wrote.

“But as a sex worker, I am voiceless,” she writes. “I have no protection like other women. Police act like I am a problem so I am scared of them. I know they can take me to jail just because I’m out here.”

“When sex workers believe that reporting violent crimes or carrying condoms will get them arrested, they simply won’t take these steps.” — Scott Wiener

The governor’s July 30 approval of SB 233 makes changes its supporters say removes fear of prosecution from sex workers. First, police may no longer use possession of condoms as a basis for probable cause when making a prostitution arrest. Second, a victim or a witness to a serious felony can’t be prosecuted for certain crimes related to sex work when reporting a crime.

“I think it’s historic for the sex worker community,” said Kristen DiAngelo – co-founder and executive director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project – Sacramento. “We get to report without being afraid. Both components are huge in different ways.”

Maxine Doogan, president of the Erotic Service Providers Legal, Education and Research Project, said she was thrilled by passage of the bill, which becomes effective Jan. 1. She called it a “harm reduction bill,” adding it’s only one of her organization’s goals. Future legislation focused on sex workers is in the works.

State Sen. Scott Wiener, the bill’s sponsor, said in a release that SB 233 shows that the state values the health and safety of sex workers.

“When sex workers believe that reporting violent crimes or carrying condoms will get them arrested, they simply won’t take these steps, and we will all be less safe as a result,” Wiener said.

For Doogan, SB 233 is about equal protection under the law.“

(Sex workers) would be more than happy to carry condoms if we didn’t get arrested for just carrying them.” — Letter to the governor

Before its passage sex workers faced prosecution for reporting a crime. Reporting serious crimes and pursuing those suspects outweighs charging the reporter with misdemeanor prostitution, Doogan said.

“Police are really confused as to which laws they should be enforcing as to priority,” she added.

Prohibiting the use of condoms as evidence in prosecutions also brings massive change.

Doogan said sex workers have less incentive to carry condoms when they know their presence can be used against them.

DiAngelo said sex workers hit hardest by carrying condoms are the most marginalized and those in desperate straits.

One sex worker who wrote to Newsom urging him to sign the bill said it wouldn’t only save lives, it would save people’s health.

“(Sex workers) would be more than happy to carry condoms if we didn’t get arrested for just carrying them,” the writer said.

DiAngelo regularly tweeted about the bill when it appeared before various legislative committees, and about meeting with people about the legislation. She urged supporters to write to Newsom and plead for the bill’s passage.

A high priority is the prosecution of law enforcement officers who engage in sexual contact with people investigated for prostitution.

The California Police Chiefs Association, which represents municipal police chiefs and associated agencies, said it took no position on SB 233. However, when asked the group said in a statement that it’s always wanted an environment that allows victims to report crimes to authorities.

“The impetus behind SB 233 was to prevent the arrest and prosecution of those individuals who have fallen victim to the human trafficking industry,” the group’s president, Ronald Lawrence, stated. “An overwhelming number of police chiefs believe making serious and violent crimes, such as human trafficking, a priority is the best and most effective way to protect California’s communities.”

People like Doogan and DiAngelo want sex work decriminalized. SB 233 was a goal, but wasn’t necessarily a direct line toward decriminalization.

Decriminalizaion creates an environment that allows people to engage in sex work and pay taxes without fear of arrest.

Doogan said her organization wants laws that would allow sex workers to remove prostitution arrests and convictions from their records. She wants to chip away at the harm those convictions cause.

Additionally, Doogan said a high priority is the prosecution of law enforcement officers who engage in sexual contact with people investigated for prostitution.

Doogan referenced Celeste Guap, a name used by a teen sex worker who claimed she had sexual contact with over 30 members of law enforcement. The 2016 allegations rocked the Oakland Police Department and Bay Area law enforcement, leading to resignations, discipline and terminations. Guap said she traded sex for information about prostitution stings and protection.

Criminal cases in connection with the case resulted in dismissals or plea agreements.

DiAngelo also pointed to the need to examine police practices.

“We believe that needs to stop,” DiAngelo said.

For DiAngelo, decriminalization creates an environment that allows people to engage in sex work and pay taxes without fear of arrest. If someone wants to leave the industry, they can exit without getting hurt.

DiAngelo pointed to Nevada brothels as an example of legalization, which she said brings a host of restrictions that creates an environment for a privileged few. Entry into that environment isn’t guaranteed, is financially onerous for its participants and can be difficult to leave.

“I don’t think big business is what we’re looking for,” she said.

Wiener said his bill wasn’t broad decriminalization, but instead focused on sex work in specific situations.

“That’s a discussion we can have,” he added. “I hope at some point we do decriminalize sex work in California.”


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