The move may constitute the first step toward decriminalization of sex work in the state
The California Legislature passed SB 233 last week, an exciting—and much needed—bill that Bill prohibits the arrest of sex workers who report being victims of, or witnesses to, violent crimes, as reported by Refinery29. Gov. Gavin Newsom now says he intends to sign the bill into law.
The bill, which is sponsored by State Sen. Scott Wiener, contains two key provisions. First, it will stop the carrying of condoms being used as proof of sex work (a practice which, essentially, criminalizes sex workers but not the people who seek out sex work—and stigmatizes safe sex), and second, it will offer immunity to sex workers when reporting (some related) crimes.
Why is this an issue? Sex workers are vulnerable to begin with—for example, when it comes to physical assault, sexual violence, or stalking—but additionally fear reporting the crimes against them because they’re afraid of being then prosecuted for their sex work, or even social shaming.
“We should be doing everything we can to protect the health [and] safety for all people, particularly sex workers,” Wiener, who introduced the bill, stated. “To be a victim of a crime, and then to be fearful that to go to the police to report the crime you yourself might get arrested for sex work… is not the right incentive. We want to send a clear signal to sex workers and everyone else that we want you to report a crime to the police, we want you to feel safe going to the police for help.”
“Carrying condoms to protect one’s health should never be criminalized,” ~ state senator Scott Wiener
Let’s look at some specific examples of how this would play out. For instance, sex workers can report a crime as a witness (as well as a victim) such as human trafficking, sexual battery, domestic violence, and assault, without risk of arrest for prostitution. So, for example, if a sex worker was working and suspected they saw evidence of human trafficking, they could report it without fear of the police turning around and arresting them for sex work.
This is important because, as it stands now, the country’s legal system fails sex workers. When sex workers who are victims of crimes essentially can’t come forward, not only do they suffer, but perpetrators of violence are also going free of consequence or record. And while the stereotype of a sex worker is a cisgender woman, this issue impacts trans women—especially trans women of color—as well as people who have relatively higher chances of experiencing financial insecurity or homelessness, such as LGBTQ teenagers.
Perpetrators may target sex workers specifically because they know these people are vulnerable and may be less likely to report crimes committed against or around them.
The bill comes at a time of increasing conversation about sex work in the public and the legal system’s failure to protect sex workers from violence. According to a 2014 study by the University of California, San Francisco and St. James Infirmary, 60% of sex workers will experience some form of violence while working. Because of the potential of being arrested for sex work, victims often do not come forward, effectively leaving many perpetrators free of consequences.
We commend Gov. Newsom for his support of the Rep. Weiner’s Immunity from Arrest bill.