‘We need them to come forward’: legislation would make it safer for sex workers to report violent crimes

Following steps taken by San Francisco last year to protect sex workers who are victims of violent crimes, state Sen. Scott Wiener on Monday announced legislation that will expand these policies to the state level.

“We want to send a clear signal to sex workers, and to everyone else, that we want you to report crimes to the police, we want you to feel safe going to the police for help,” said Wiener.

Wiener held a press conference announcing the bill Monday morning in the St. James Infirmary, the nation’s first health clinic for sex workers operated by sex workers.

Senate Bill 233 would shield sex workers that come forward as a witness or victim to report a serious or violent crime. It would prohibit the arrest of individuals for misdemeanor drug possession and engagement in sex work when reporting crimes such as sexual assault, human trafficking, stalking, robbery, assault, kidnapping, black mail, extortion, burglary or violent assault.

Additionally the bill ensures the possession of condoms may not be used as probable cause to arrest an individual for sex work.

The changes are similar to guidelines adopted by the San Francisco Police Department at the end of 2017 to formalize what officials say had already been common practice, according to Deputy Chief Michael Connolly.

For law enforcement, it’s a smart move to allow witnesses and victims of violent and serious crimes to testify without fear of prosecution, especially since sex workers are deeply woven into the community and provide valuable help to the police, Connolly said.

SEE RELATED: Sex worker advocates demand SFPD shut down unit focused on street prostitution

“They will see things and be involved in things that are not necessarily apparent,” he said. “We need their voice and we need them to come forward.”

The unfortunate reality is that regardless of the reasons an individual engages in sex work, they will face a disproportionately high rate of physical violence and sexual assault, according to Dr. Alexandra Lutnick, senior research scientist with Aviva Consulting.

Using data from a study conducted by Research Triangle Institute, Lutnick has found that sex workers are twice as likely to experience violent assault and three times as likely to be sexually assaulted. Based on intake date from St. James infirmary, Lutnick found transgender women reporting the highest rates of ‘sex work related violence.’

“Anytime we allow predators to prey on a particular population, we are giving them permission to prey on all of us,” said Veronica Monet, a sex worker advocate, author and former escort.

In 2001 Monet was sexually assaulted by a serial rapist.

While it took three of years battling with Oakland police and the threat of negative press for then Mayor Jerry Brown to allow her to testify against her attacker, it only took the attacker three weeks to assault another sex worker, this time stabbing her in the face. At the time, Monet felt that the police were far more concerned with her role as a sex worker then that as a victim of crime.

“It’s worse than not caring,” said Monet. “They (police) feel like the predators are doing some of the clean up for them,”

Wiener says that while his “common-sense” bill doesn’t face any major opposition, statewide law enforcement groups have not always seen eye-to-eye with San Francisco.

The first committee hearing will likely held in the second half of March.

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