Landmark Senate Bill Introduced to Better Protect Sex Workers

If passed, SB 233 will offers sex workers immunity from persecution if they contact police to report a violent crime — but a similar agreement in S.F. faces challenges.

“In 2001 I was raped by a serial rapist who was preying primarily on prostitutes in the city of Oakland,” says Veronica Mamet, a former escort. “I wanted to report that rape, and I was not able to. Rachel West [of the US PROStitutes Collective] tried for about three years to get the Oakland Police Department to take my statement without threatening to arrest me, and they would not do it. And meanwhile, this man continued to rape prostitutes. Three weeks after he raped me he raped another prostitute, and he stabbed her in the face with a knife, permanently scarring her.”

It’s sadly not an uncommon story. Decades of stigma have made it nearly impossible for sex workers to report such crimes to the police without risk of persecution. Current laws are designed to make it ridiculously easy to arrest and charge them — even having condoms on one’s person can be used as evidence that someone is engaging in sex work. Because of this, the majority of violence inflicted upon sex workers goes unreported, over the victim’s not-unjustified fears that they will just be arrested and charged while their assailants walk free.

On Monday, state Senator Scott Wiener introduced new legislation to better protect professional sex workers facing this exact dilemma. Senate Bill 233 eliminates the possibility that condom possession can be used as probable cause for an arrest, and provides long-overdue immunity for sex workers who come forward about assaults. 

“We should be doing everything we can to protect the health of safety for all people, particularly sex workers,” Wiener says. “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.”

SB 233 is a great step in that direction, and Monday’s announcement was held with the avid support of an array of sex workers and industry advocates.

However, one Senate Bill isn’t going to change decades of persecution, as San Francisco has already witnessed. An agreement drafted by advocates and signed by SFPD Chief Bill Scott in 2017 guaranteed nearly-identical protections for San Francisco sex workers, something that Rachel West of the US PROStitutes Collective called a “huge breakthrough that was really the basis for this bill to come forward.”

But even if the wake of that agreement trust in the SFPD remains fairly low; women on the street continue to report arrests, particularly in the Mission District, where a Sex Worker Abatement Unit has been particularly active. 

“The ongoing situation of police crackdowns going on all over the Bay Area… We all know that that situation makes it very difficult to report,” West says. “Women are busy running from the police because they’re afraid of being arrested. In that type of situation, they’re not going to be very likely to report. These crackdowns undermine San Francisco’s policy and this bill. If their safety is going to be seriously prioritized we have to look at this issue, too.”

Nevertheless, the potential passage of this bill could still help people like Mamet, who was willing to report her rape. And she’s not alone; incidents of violence are high, particularly for street-based prostitutes, sex workers of color, or those who identify as transgender. A study conducted in 2014 by the University of California and St. James Infirmary found that 60 percent of sex workers experience some type of violence while at work; 32 percent said they’d experienced a physical attack, 29 percent had been victim to a sexual assault, and 40 percent of everyone interviewed claimed they’d had a negative interaction with law enforcement when trying to report these incidents.

While much work has to be done to improve relationships between sex workers and police, SB 233 can still be seen as a necessary step in humanizing those who work in the industry. 

“This strikes really close to my heart that the lives of any of us would be considered less valuable because of what we do to support ourselves,” says Mamet. “Anytime we allow predators to prey on a particular population we are giving them permission to prey on all of us. It’s always astounded me that anyone could have a designated population that it’s okay to rape or kill and think that that’s somehow or another okay.” 

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