Sen. Scott Wiener introduced a bill on Feb. 11 that would make it easier for sex workers to report violent crimes to the police without the fear of being prosecuted.
Senate Bill 233 acts as a safeguard for sex workers and witnesses or victims of abuse. The law also eliminates the possession of condoms as probable cause for arrest, thus encouraging safe sex.
The bill helps ease the fears victims may have due to the criminalization of sex work by eliminating the prospect of arrest for reporting violent crimes and prioritizes public safety.
“It’s about keeping our whole community safe,” said the senator’s communications director, Victor Ruiz-Cornejo. “When anyone does not feel safe reporting crime, our entire community is less safe, which allows violent criminals and serial criminals to target vulnerable communities who are less likely to report crime.”
Sex worker and human rights activist Ckiarra Rose said, although SB 233 has room for improvement, it’s a step in the right direction.
“It’s the best thing we got right now, at least we’re moving somewhere,” Rose said. “This isn’t an attack on sex workers and I appreciate that.”
Many sex workers choose not to report their abuse due to fear of not being taken seriously, which leads to further manipulation from their abuser.
“Violent men know that sex workers are unlikely to report rape,” said U.S. Prostitutes Collective spokesperson Rachael West. “They get away with it over and over again.”
Studies such as the Sex Workers and Police Promoting Health in Risky Environments analysis show that police officers are less likely to believe sex workers who report abuse.
SB 233 would help mend the relationship between sex workers and police.
Michael Ellsberg, an author and free speech advocate, began his writing on sex worker politics after he became alarmed with the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, a bill that would reduce sex trafficking online. Ellsberg wrote about the harmful effects of the bill for self-employed sex workers.
“Most of them have been harassed by police officers and very often have been raped [by officers] in the sense that these police officers know that the sex worker will have no recourse to justice and won’t be believed due to stigmatization,” Ellsberg said. “[This policy] sends a message throughout the police force that sex workers do have access to reporting crimes, including crimes committed by police officers.”
Historically, women of color face the most harassment by police, according to West.
“Women of color are most likely to be arrested and most likely [to be] criminalized if you look at the arrest statistics, they’re way higher for black women and women of color,” West said.
Ellsberg said, “Street-based sex work has increased about 170 percent in San Francisco, which was totally predictable, and was predicted by sex workers and advocates fighting against [the] Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act.”
The new legislation introduced by Wiener would help decriminalize sex work, just as countries such as Switzerland, Belgium and Denmark made steps to clear this stigma.
“New Zealand is held up by sex workers and advocates as the model of this,” Ellsberg said.
New Zealand decriminalized prostitution in 2003 under the Prostitution Reform Act. The act was implemented to minimize harm and give rights to sex workers.
In 2012, sex workers in the state who were raped were not eligible for compensation due to a regulation from the Victim Compensation Program. West managed to overturn the regulation in California through organizing efforts.
“Any woman can be assumed to be a prostitute or accused of being a prostitute,” West said. “The criminalization of sex work really needs to be addressed next, because that is making women vulnerable to violence.”