California recently became the second state to repeal its laws criminalizing loitering for the purposes of prostitution. Senate Bill 357, introduced by Sen. Scott Wiener, D-San Francisco, which eliminates the crime, went into effect January 1st.
The repeal was a hard won and important step toward a future where no one is arrested, evicted, fired, or loses custody of their children just for engaging in the oldest profession — or for even appearing to. It also opens the door for sex workers to help law enforcement combat real, violent crime and human trafficking.
For decades, law enforcement has used loitering laws to justify the arrest of visibly queer, poor, Black, brown, and immigrant women, who are taking up space in public. Some of those arrested may have been soliciting, but many were not.
Loitering laws empower police officers to detain and arrest people for being in certain areas, dressed a certain way, or for talking to other people in public spaces. The intent is to crack down on prostitution, but a lot of the time, police get it wrong. Profiling people based on race and geographic location, police have arrested many innocent people — on their way to pick up dinner for their family, hailing a cab or waiting for the bus, on a night out with their partner, or simply walking home after work.
Even when police correctly catch people soliciting for prostitution, the arrests and subsequent court fees do nothing to deter future prostitution. They just compel sex workers to take more risks to avoid arrests while working. Arresting people for loitering has never reduced or effectively suppressed the activity. What’s more, these arrests have never helped victims of trafficking.
When someone is threatened or attacked by an abusive manager, partner, client or landlord people engaged in prostitution cannot report those crimes for fear of being arrested themselves. If someone has ever been arrested for prostitution in the past, they are far less likely to feel safe reporting crimes committed against them or that they witness.
Victims of trafficking are often arrested, and convicted, of prostitution related charges. Each arrest creates new barriers to independence, secure housing, and employment. Criminalization traps people in poverty and makes those arrested more vulnerable to predators. Once arrested, the data is clear, people become targets for future arrests and experience barriers accessing the basic building blocks we all need to move our lives forward.
The practice of arresting people for being in the wrong place or in the wrong outfit erodes trust in law enforcement. Sex workers are driven to work in more isolated areas away from the communities that keep them safe. It becomes harder to identify victims of exploitation making it less likely that they will receive legal, social, and health services that are actually helpful.
Fortunately, things are starting to change. Legislators around the country are finally listening to sex workers, human and civil rights advocates, public health researchers, and harm reduction advocates. Seattle, Washington and New York State repealed their loitering for the purposes of prostitution laws last year as part of a growing movement to decriminalize consensual adult sex work.
In 2013, sex workers in California successfully advocated for inclusion in the state fund for victims’ compensation.
Three years later in 2016 they effectively stopped law enforcement from charging minors with criminal prostitution. And in 2019, California Senate Bill 233 stopped law enforcement from using the possession of condoms as evidence when making suspected prostitution arrests. The law also ensured that victims or witnesses of certain crimes could report those crimes to law enforcement without being prosecuted themselves. All vital common-sense legislation.
Senate Bill 357 in Decriminalizing Prostitution is a great next step for reducing violence, exploitation, and STIs. Without fear of arrest and persecution, sex workers can report crimes committed against us, advocate for our own health and safety, and invest our time and energy into building our lives instead of avoiding arrest.
Kaytlin Bailey is the founder and executive director of Old Pros, a non-profit media organization creating the conditions to change the status of sex workers. She is also the host of The Oldest Profession Podcast and is currently workshopping, Whore’s Eye View, a 75-minute mad dash through 10,000 years of history from a sex worker’s perspective. Decriminalizing Prostitution is a great start.
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