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  • Writer's pictureMikayla Dukes

Small Success for Sex Workers in California

On July 1, 2022, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a new law that will stop the police from making arrests for loitering for prostitution. The bill's passage follows a wave of sex work decriminalization measures across the country in states like Vermont and New York.

Since 1995, California's anti-loitering code has allowed law enforcement to arrest anyone suspected to be in violation. Originally established to prevent sex trafficking, critics claim it has done just the opposite, making it both harder to identify trafficking victims and less likely for them to come forward out of fear.

Sex work advocacy groups and women across the state have long claimed that the practice disproportionately targets women of color and LGBTQ+ individuals for simply appearing as likely to solicit for prostitution in public. Left to subjective interpretation of law enforcement, Black individuals have constituted over 56% of loitering charges between 2017-2019 in Los Angeles, despite being less than 10% of the city’s population.

As one former sex-worker wrote, "These laws give police the power to decide what prostitution looks like."

Originally introduced by State Sen. Scott Wiener, SB 357 seeks to eliminate the discriminatory law criminalizing loitering with the intent to engage in sex work. The proposal grew out of collaboration amongst a large coalition made up of current--and former--sex workers, LGTBQ groups Equality California and Transgender Gender-variant and Intersex Justice Project (TGIJP), and civil rights groups like the ACLU.

The legislation also allows those who were previously convicted or are serving sentences to request that a court dismiss and seal record of the conviction.

Diverse reactions from the bill's passage illustrate the complex web of interests interconnected through public policy.

Sex work decriminalization advocacy groups have commended the repeal, citing the dignity it restores to sex workers, eliminating state sanctioned harassment.

LGBTQ+ advocacy organizations also recognize this to be a step in the right direction, toward ensuring gender-nonconforming and transgender individuals are able to live "peacefully without fear of harassment or arrest."

Source: Rachel West, US PROStitutes Collective

Outspoken critic since its inception, non-profit CEO, Vanessa Russell states:

"357 is not the ‘Safe Act’ that needs to be implemented [...] until you offer an alternative to sex work, what they’re doing is sheer survival [...] these sex workers have no rights, no advocacy. This is human trafficking, and those that have been indoctrinated for years and consider themselves independent have few options or choices."

The Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department and Peace Officers Research Association of California opposed the passage, claiming that the law would make it harder both to confront those who offend related to prostitution and human trafficking and to help those who are being victimized.

While some are disappointed, concerned that the state will see an influx of sex trafficking with the bill's passage, others are optimistic, hoping for this to be a step closer toward full decriminalization of sex work.

In a statement to the Governor upon, 357's enactment, Sen. Wiener wrote “Everyone — no matter their race, gender or how they make a living — deserves to feel safe on our streets."

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