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

Senate Bill 233 prohibits the arrest of people involved in sex work when they come forward as a witness or victim of specified violent and serious crimes, as well as prohibiting the use of condoms as evidence of sex work.
July 30, 2019

San Francisco –  Today, Governor Newsom signed Senator Scott Wiener’s (D-San Francisco) legislation to protect sex workers from arrest for misdemeanor sex work related crimes after they report a serious and violent felony, such as rape. Senate Bill 233 also ensures that the possession of condoms cannot be used as probable cause to arrest someone for sex work or introduced as evidence to prosecute someone for sex work. SB 233 will take effect on January 1, 2020

SB 233 provides unprecedented sex worker health and safety protections – the first law with these protections in the country.

Sex workers are at high risk of victimization, including assault, rape, robbery, and kidnapping. Yet, under current law, sex workers who come forward to report these violent crimes can be arrested for their engagement in sex work. That sends a powerful signal to sex workers that reporting a crime places them at risk for arrest. Sex workers are also at heightened risk of contracting sexually transmitted infections, such as HIV, or experiencing unwanted pregnancies. Yet, under current law, sex workers can be arrested and prosecuted based on evidence that they had condoms in their possession. That reality creates an incentive not to carry condoms and for traffickers (i.e., pimps) to prevent their victims from carrying condoms.

SB 233 prioritizes public safety by ensuring that witnesses and victims of violent felonies are able to safely report crimes and identify criminals without trepidation. It also ensures that the possession of condoms may not be used as probable cause to arrest someone for sex work or introduced as evidence to prosecute someone for sex work. By protecting workers who carry condoms, SB 233 improves public health outcomes by encouraging safer sex within a high-risk population and not discouraging sex workers from carrying condoms.

“By enacting SB 233, California is sending a powerful message that we value the health and safety of sex workers,” said Senator Wiener. “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. We need to create every incentive for sex workers to report crimes and to protect themselves and their clients from HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. SB 233 moves us in that direction.”

Individuals who engage in sex work witness and 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 felonies 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 who prey on this vulnerable population and rescue victims of human trafficking.

Along with providing protection to sex workers when reporting specified criminal activity, SB 233 will also prohibit law enforcement from relying on the possession of condoms as evidence that an individual is engaging in sex work. We know that treating condoms as evidence of sex work exacerbates an already unsafe work environment because it will discourage sex workers from practicing safer sex. People engaged in sex work are already five times more likely to contract HIV. It is in the interest of public health and aligns with our national HIV-prevention strategies to support the use of condoms and not criminalize any individual who carries them. This is especially important in light of the fact that California is experiencing the spread of sexually transmitted infections at record high rates this year. Our policies need to promote safer sex and not deter it.

SB 233 will prioritize the safety of sex workers, our communities, and public health, by ensuring that the victims and witnesses of sexual assault, human trafficking, kidnapping, assault, and other serious felonies feel safe reporting these crimes to authorities.

Quotes:

“Simply put, treating condoms as evidence is unsafe. Our community members deserve the right to safety and to control their working conditions. SB 233 is a commonsense policy change that supports the self-determination and the right of sex workers to protect themselves,” said Toni Newman, Executive Director of St. James Infirmary. “A step toward decriminalization, we applaud Governor Newsom for signing this important bill.”

“This is a historic day for sex workers in the State of California as we now have a voice,” said Kristen Diangelo, Executive Director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project Sacramento, Sex Worker, and Trafficking Survivor. “We will no longer be silenced by the fear of arrest when attempting to report.”

“We welcome the signing of SB 233 by Governor Newsom,” said Rachel West of US PROStitutes Collective. “This bill is a breakthrough - sex workers in California can now report violent crime without fear of arrest! It will notably benefit those of us who are most at risk of violence and harassment, that is street-based workers, women of color and transgender sex workers. When sex workers’ safety is prioritized, all women will be safer”.

“All Californians should be able to use condoms and report violent crimes without fear of arrest,” said Minouche Kandel with the ACLU of Southern California. “SB 233 will create unprecedented protections for some of the most marginalized members of our community, as the criminalization of sex work disproportionately affects people of color, street-based sex workers and transgender people.”

“After 40 years in the sex trade, and being trafficked for 10 of those years, I never thought that we would see a change in my lifetime,” said Pearl Callahan, Outreach Director for the Sex Workers Outreach Project Sacramento, Sex Worker, and Trafficking Survivor. “Allowing sex workers to carry condoms and report violent offenses will be lifesaving.”

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, Sacramento, Dr. Alexandra Lutnick, and a number of other LGTBQ, public health, and social justice organizations. It is co-authored by Assemblymembers Bill Quirk (D-Hayward), Wendy Carrillo (D-Los Angeles) Laura Freidman (D-Glendale), Sydney Kamlager-Dove (D- Los Angeles), and Buffy Wicks (D-Oakland).

Full text of the legislation can be found here.

 

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