Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

The path to prioritising safety for sex workers in California

The groups that came together to transform sex worker safety in California only agreed on one thing: violence against sex workers is unacceptable.

Alexandra Lutnick
25 September 2019
Carol Leigh Scarlot Harlot/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nc-sa)

In 2017, the collaborative efforts of sex worker and anti-trafficking organisations and activists resulted in the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office (SFDA) and the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) issuing complimentary versions of the ‘Prioritizing Safety for Sex Workers Policy’. The policies state that if someone engaged in sex work, be it by choice, circumstances, or coercion, reports that they are the victim or witness of a violent crime, they will not be arrested or prosecuted for their involvement in the criminalised act of prostitution or any misdemeanour drug offenses. The policy broadly defines a violent crime to include acts like sexual assault, human trafficking, stalking, robbery, assault, kidnapping, threats, blackmail, extortion, and burglary.

Sex workers’ rights in San Francisco

San Francisco has a robust history of sex workers being involved in local politics. Indeed, the term ‘sex work’ was coined by Carol Leigh in San Francisco. The city is also the birthplace of COYOTE, the first sex worker rights organisation in the US, and the St. James Infirmary, the first peer-run clinic for sex workers in the US. The US PROStitutes Collective and the Exotic Dancers’ Alliance were also founded there. Some of the United States’ most well-known prostitution abolitionist efforts also originated in San Francisco. The now defunct Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE) Project, for example, was rooted in the beliefs that prostitution is exploitation, that no one would ever choose to engage in prostitution, and that the only way to respond to that exploitation was to try to eradicate the commercial sex industry. The still running ‘First Offender Prostitution Program’, created by SAGE, seeks to end demand by arresting men who are trying to solicit sex and sending them to a daylong educational programme. The programme has been replicated throughout the United States despite its well-documented problems.

The safety policy is a result of a collaborative effort that started in San Francisco in 2014. It began with a protest over an ‘end demand’ event held at the San Francisco Public Library. Organised by members of the Sex Worker Outreach Project and Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network, sex workers gathered to protest their exclusion from the event and to demand that they be included in all future conversations about the sex industry in the city. They argued that exclusion can lead to severe consequences for people who are selling sex, regardless of whether it is by choice, circumstances, or coercion. As a result of that protest, the Department on the Status of Women (DOSW) recognised the need to have sex workers and sex worker organisations at the table and began to meet with these groups.

At the same time, the group Demand Abolition announced that San Francisco County had been selected to receive funding from its new Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation (CEASE) programme. This was to fund a collaboration between SAGE, SFDA and SFPD that would seek to reduce the number of people buying sex by 20%. However, after conversations with all the key groups, including with the sex workers now speaking with DOSW, the collaboration chose to withdraw from the grant and give back the money. The grant requirements were too strict for dealing with something as complex as the sex industry, as was the stipulation that recipients pledge that the sex industry is inherently harmful. With the longstanding and diverse involvement of sex workers in San Francisco, the city knew that they could not make such a pledge.

However, through this long and complex path, suddenly all the major players were speaking with each other. And over the course of a series of meetings a sense of clarity emerged that although these organisations and individuals had differing agendas and perspectives on sex work, they were united in wanting to see a reduction in the violence experienced by people engaged in sex work. So they got to work.

The development of the safety policy

A diverse group of agencies and individuals worked collectively to develop the safety policy. This included sex workers, survivors of trafficking, community-based researchers, legal rights and human rights organisations, sex worker organisations, LGBTQ youth, and members of the sex work and trafficking policy impact committee, part of the mayor’s task force on anti-human trafficking. I participated in this group as a social scientist who has been researching the lived experiences of sex workers in San Francisco since the early 2000s. The unique combination of people with lived experience, people doing direct service work and research with sex workers, people experiencing trafficking in the sex industry, and youth involved in sex trades was crucial to getting the safety policy developed and implemented. Also pivotal was the involvement of city agencies, who knew how to navigate the bureaucracy and how to troubleshoot when issues arose.

In the group’s first meeting with the SFPD and SFDA, we shared over ten years of data about the high rates of violence experienced by people engaged in sex work. This data represented the experiences of people who have chosen to do sex work, those who are doing it because it is their only or least bad option, and those who are being forced to sell sex. We shared data about how transgender women have a significantly higher risk of sex work-related violence, including violence perpetrated by customers and police officers. We also noted how women who trade sex and use drugs are almost two times more likely to be physically assaulted, and close to three times more likely to be raped.

High rates of violence exist primarily because perpetrators know that, because prostitution is criminalised, their victims are much less likely to report the crime.

We explained how high rates of violence are consistent over time for young people and adults, and for people experiencing trafficking. We went on to describe how these high rates of violence exist primarily because perpetrators know that, because prostitution is criminalised, their victims are much less likely to report the crime. These research findings, coupled with input from direct service providers and people with lived experience, helped the SFPD and SFDA better understand that most sex workers, including people experiencing exploitation in the sex industry, do not go to the police when they have been victimised.

Both the SFPD and the SFDA recognised the importance of the proposed policy and voiced their support to develop and implement it. The SFDA’s Office drew on the expertise of the group throughout the drafting process, and enacted their policy six months later. Getting the policy enacted by the SFPD proved more challenging. Key staff turnover at the SFPD meant we repeatedly had to restart the process, explaining why the policy was needed and sharing the most recent version of the draft. At times we also had to strategise on how best to ensure that important aspects of the policy were included in the final version. For example, the SFPD did not want to include language that would hold law enforcement officials accountable if they perpetrated violence against a sex worker. This was non-negotiable for the group, so we threatened to take the policy to the San Francisco Board of Supervisors (who would have the authority to enact it). We attended a police commission hearing to voice our complaints, and we also went to the press to share the challenges we were experiencing trying to get the policy passed. Fortunately, these efforts resulted in the desired outcome – the SFPD released their version of the policy, complete with the language holding law enforcement officers accountable.

Statewide safety

The safety policy inspired statewide legislation once it was implemented in San Francisco. Assembly Bill 2243, signed into law in June 2018, prohibits the prosecution of someone engaged in prostitution if they come forward to report being the victim or witness of a violent crime. Unfortunately, AB 2243 did not prohibit their arrest, which for many sex workers is the key barrier to filing a report. Fortunately this was rectified in July 2019 with the signing of Senate Bill 233. This bill, which goes into effect in January 2020, amends the California penal code to ensure immunity from arrest. It also prohibits using condoms as evidence for people charged with prostitution related offenses. What took the safety policy collaborative over three years to achieve in San Francisco was adopted statewide less than two years later.

The safety policy, and the statewide legislation that it has inspired, recognises that the criminalisation of prostitution results in people feeling like they cannot file a report when they experience or witness a violent crime. It also acknowledges that sometimes police officers are the perpetrators of physical and sexual violence against people involved in sex work.

The process that led to the implementation of the safety policy serves as but one example of how sex workers are leading efforts to improve the lives of people involved in sex work, including those experiencing trafficking. It also shows how sex worker organisations and anti-trafficking organisations can work together towards a common goal. Although the groups who came together to develop the policy were diverse and did not always agree on what sex work is (e.g. a form of work or an expression of patriarchal violence against women), we still managed to work together because we agreed on one thing: the rates of violence experienced by people engaged in sex work are unacceptable.

A longer version of this piece was first published in Anti-Trafficking Review, issue 12.

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