Senator Wiener Introduces Legislation to Repeal Discriminatory Law Prohibiting Loitering Related to Sex Work

March 10, 2021

SACRAMENTO - Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) has introduced Senate Bill 357, repealing provisions of California law that criminalize loitering for the intent to engage in sex work. This proposal — arrests for which are based on an officer’s subjective perception of whether a person is “acting like” they intend to engage in sex work — results in the disproportionate criminalization of trans, Black and Brown people, and perpetuates violence toward sex workers. SB 357 does not decriminalize soliciting or engaging in sex work. Rather, it simply eliminates an anti-loitering offense that leads to harmful treatment of people for simply “appearing” to be a sex worker.

Criminalizing sex work does not make sex workers or our communities safer. Most criminal penalties for sex workers, loitering laws included, do nothing to stop sex crimes against sex workers and human trafficking. People engaged in sex work deserve to be treated with dignity and respect.

In February, a similar piece of legislation to end this type of loitering ban became law in New York. SB 357 is part of the movement to end discrimination against and violence toward sex workers, especially the most targeted communities — trans, Black, and Brown people. SB 357 is cosponsored by Positive Women’s Network – USA, St. James Infirmary, SWOP LA, Trans Latin@ Coalition, Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach, and the ACLU of California.

Under current law, it is a crime to loiter in a public place with the “intent” to commit a sex work-related offense. But this law can be broadly interpreted, and thus allows for discriminatory application against the LGBTQ community and people of color. Law enforcement can use a non-exhaustive list of circumstances to “determine” if someone intends to engage in sex work, including factors such as speaking with other pedestrians, being in an area where sex work has occurred before, wearing revealing clothing, or moving in a certain way. Because current law regarding loitering is highly subjective and vague, law enforcement officers disproportionately profile and target Black and Brown transgender women by stopping and arresting people for discriminatory and inappropriate reasons. This is how Black and Brown transgender women get arrested and cited for quite simply walking on the street. It also gives law enforcement the ability to more easily target and arrest sex workers.

People within the LGBTQ, Black, and Brown communities report high rates of police misconduct throughout the United States and are disproportionately affected by police violence. Transgender people who have done street-based sex work are more than twice as likely to report physical assault by police officers and four times as likely to report sexual assault by police. A Black person is 3.5 times more likely to be shot by police than a white person. These statistics are a daily reality that transgender, Black and Brown people face and lead to mistrust of law enforcement.

SB 357 will repeal a discriminatory law that makes it a crime to loiter with the intent to engage in sex work, given that it fails to prevent street-based sex work and disproportionately results in the criminalization of transgender people and communities of color.

“We’re experiencing a terrifying epidemic of violence against trans women of color, and we need to be proactive in improving their safety,” said Senator Wiener. “Our laws should protect the LGBTQ community and communities of color, and not criminalize sex workers, trans people and Brown and Black people for quite literally walking around or dressing in a certain way. New York has led the way, and shown that it’s far past time we end this discriminatory targeting of suspected sex workers. We must stop enabling law enforcement to harass trans women of color on our streets. We need to stand with trans women of color and sex workers, and stand with all people fighting for autonomy and safety and against racist and transphobic discrimination.”

“We must stop criminalizing the color of a person’s skin, their gender or livelihood,” said Celestina Pearl of St. James Infirmary. “We all deserve to exist in public peacefully without fear of arrest.”

"Sex work is labor that is deserving of respect and protection,” said Tyler Barbarin of Positive Women’s Network – USA. “Sex work decriminalization is vital to the health of our communities because it brings an end to the over-policing and incarceration of people who do sex work, both of which increase vulnerability of sex workers to violence, abuse and exploitation."

“Repealing the statute is important because it has been a tool of oppression against sex workers and those perceived as sex workers for decades, particularly Black and brown trans women,” said Saerom Choi of Asian Pacific Islander Legal Outreach. “Criminalization of people trading sex or even purported to be trading sex leads to increased vulnerability to exploitation, creates barriers to accessing safe housing and legal employment, adds stigma, and further puts communities at risk of violence.

“California’s loitering law gives law enforcement a weapon to discriminate against and harass Black and trans sex workers simply for existing in public,” said Arneta Rogers of ACLU of Northern California. “We are proud to partner with the strong coalition of current and former sex workers to repeal this harmful law.”

“Sex workers are necessity-based entrepreneurs that should be protected and not dehumanized by laws criminalizing the entire industry,” Cesar, a current sex worker and a co-lead of the Mutual Aid & Fundraising team of the Decrim Sex Work CA Coalition. “Some Clients weaponize the criminalization of sex work by using threats of calling the police to exploit or harm sex workers by agreeing to a verbal contract for service and getting this service without paying for service. Why is it illegal to sell something that is legal to give away?”