CA 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 use of condoms as evidence of sex work.

San Francisco –  Today, Senator Scott Wiener’s (D-San Francisco) legislation to protect sex workers from arrest for sex work after they report a serious and violent crime, such as rape, passed out of the Senate with a 28-10 vote. It will now head to the Assembly where it will be set for a hearing in the coming months.

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 violent crimes can be arrested for 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 HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. 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.

SB 233 prioritizes public safety by ensuring that witnesses and victims 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 safe sex practices and not discouraging sex workers from carrying condoms.

“When a sex worker is scared to come forward and report a crime, the sex worker is less safe, and we are all less safe as a community,” said Senator Wiener. “And, carrying condoms to protect one’s health should never be criminalized. I am grateful to my colleagues for acting to protect sex workers’ health and safety.”

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 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 who exploit this vulnerable population and rescue victims of human trafficking.

“We thank Senator Weiner and his staff for their work on this important legislation,” said Toni Newman, Executive Director of St. James Infirmary. “Not only does SB 233 provide much needed rights and freedoms to the sex workers of the State of California, the bill also provides yet another opportunity for sex workers and their advocates to demonstrate that sex worker led and centered policymaking leads to better health and safety outcomes for all.”

“We are pleased the California Senate voted today on moving SB 233 forward, recognizing that it will increase safety for sex workers,” said Rachel West of US PROStitutes Collective. “This action is in line with public opinion that sex workers should not be treated as criminals and face arrest when we report rape and other violence. Protection, particularly for those of us most targeted for violence and arrest i.e. women of color, street-based workers and trans women, is urgent.”

Along with providing protection to sex workers when reporting specified criminal activity, SB 233 will also prohibit law enforcement from relying on 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 thirteen times more likely to contract HIV. It is in the interest of public health 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 diseases at record high rates. 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, stalking, kidnapping, assault, and other serious crimes feel safe reporting these crimes to authorities.

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 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) and Laura Freidman (D-Glendale).

Full text of the legislation can be found here.

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