Senator Wiener Introduces Legislation to Protect Sex Workers from Arrest when Reporting Violent Crimes & to Prohibit Use of Condoms as Evidence of Sex Work

February 11, 2019

San Francisco –  Today, Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) announced legislation to protect sex workers from arrest when they report a serious and violent crime or come forward as a witness to a violent crime. These crimes include, for example, sexual assault, human trafficking, stalking, robbery, assault, kidnapping, threats, blackmail, extortion, and burglary.  Separately, Senate Bill 233 ensures that the possession of condoms may not be used as probable cause to arrest someone for sex work. SB 233 prioritizes public safety by ensuring that witnesses and victims are able to report crimes without the fear of arrest and criminalization. By protecting workers who carry condoms, SB 233 improves public health outcomes encouraging safer sex practices and not discouraging sex workers from carrying condoms.

Individuals who engage in sex work experience violent crimes at a disproportionally high rate.  A 2014 study by the University of California San Francisco and St. James Infirmary (a peer-based occupational health and safety clinic for sex workers of all genders) found that 60% of sex workers experience some form of violence while working. Specifically, 32% of sex workers reported a physical attack while engaging in sex work, and 29% reported being sexually assaulted while engaging in sex work. Meanwhile, the same report found that 40% of sex worker interactions with law enforcement, when the sex worker was a victim of a violent crime, were rated as negative experiences.  SB 233 seeks to remedy this problem by preventing sex workers who report violent crimes from being treated as a criminal themselves. The more sex workers feel comfortable reporting violent crimes, the easier it will be for law enforcement to apprehend violent criminals and rescue victims of human trafficking.

“We’re all worse off when crime victims do not feel safe coming forward, for fear of arrest,” said Senator Wiener. “This legislation is about protecting victims and increasing public safety. Too many sex workers are victimized, and the last thing we need is for sex workers to be further victimized by being arrested when they report a crime. If sex workers risk arrest for reporting a crime, they simply won’t come forward, and violent criminals will go free. We also need to make it easy and safe for sex workers to access condoms. Using condoms as evidence of sex work creates a huge incentive for sex workers not to carry or use them. Criminalizing possession of condoms undermines our efforts to reduce HIV prevention.”

SB 233 prohibits law enforcement from relying on possession of condoms as probable cause that an individual is engaging in sex work. Treating condoms as evidence of sex work exacerbates an already unsafe work environment because it discourages sex workers from practicing safer sex. People engaged in sex work are already thirteen times more likely to contract HIV. Human Rights Watch reported that one woman in Los Angeles was so frightened to be caught with condoms by police that she had to use a plastic bag as a condom to try and protect herself against HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. It is in the interest of public health to support the use of condoms and not criminalize individuals who carry them. The San Francisco District Attorney’s office has already adopted this practice and committed to not use condoms as evidence when prosecuting someone for sex work.

"Predators view sex workers as easy targets because the illegality of their work makes the police a natural threat; abusers know most sex workers will never go to the police, and they take advantage of that,” said Pike Long, MPH, Deputy Director of St. James Infirmary.

We know that most people involved in sex work, including those who are experiencing exploitation, do not go to the police when they have been victimized,” said Dr. Alexandra Lutnick, Senior Research Scientist with Aviva Consulting.  “This legislation is the first step towards creating a social and political environment in California where people can seek help when they are victims of violence 

While some police departments, such as the San Francisco Police Department, have already set guidelines to prohibit the arrest of sex workers who are coming forward as victims or witnesses of various crimes, it is important that California promote public safety and health by adopting this policy statewide. SB 233 will prioritize the safety of workers, communities, and public health, by ensuring victims and witnesses of sexual assault, human trafficking, stalking, kidnapping, assault, and other serious crimes feel safe reporting these crimes to authorities.

“US PROStitutes Collective welcomes California bill SB 233, Improving Sex Worker Health & Safety,” said Rachel West, Spokesperson for US PROStitutes Collective. “Giving immunity from arrest to sex workers who report violence will help reduce attacks as women can come forward without fear that they will be prosecuted for prostitution offences. Violent men often target sex workers as they know they are less likely to be brought to justice. But the recent increase in police crackdowns in some areas of the San Francisco Bay Area is in direct contradiction with this Bill. These police operations must stop if safety is to be genuinely prioritized.”

SB 233 is supported by St. James Infirmary, US Prostitutes Collective, Erotic Service Providers Legal, Education, and Research Project, and the Sex Worker Outreach Project. It is co-authored by Assemblymembers Bill Quirk (D-Hayward) and Laura Freidman (D-Glendale).

SB 233 was officially introduced on February 7 and will be set for a hearing in the coming months. Further amendments will be made to strengthen protections and clarify that the possession of condoms may not be used as evidence to prosecute someone for sex work. Full text of the legislation can be found here.