"Human Trafficking" Legislation Would Further Criminalize, Endanger Sex Workers, Activists Say



Legislation that purports to combat "human trafficking" in California would only serve to further criminalize, stigmatize, and endanger adult sex workers. That's the perspective of a group of sex workers' rights activists that is headed to Sacramento tomorrow morning to protest Senate Bill 1388, which would establish harsher fines and sentences for prostitution-related offenses. The bill, they say, would make their jobs more dangerous, lead to increased arrests and jail time for consenting adults, and would do nothing to stop child trafficking.

Representatives from the US PROStitutes Collective and the Erotic Service Providers Union plan to speak out tomorrow against SB 1388 at a 9 a.m. hearing scheduled at the California Assembly's public safety committee. These advocates have repeatedly protested proposals that they say aim to further stigmatize sex work under the guise of fighting trafficking. In February, the groups protested a San Francisco anti-trafficking panel discussion centered on an anti-prostitution court diversion program that they argued unfairly targeted clients and pushed sex workers into unsafe conditions. And last year, the same organizations spoke out against a policy that compelled state officials to withhold aid from rape victims involved in sex work.

This ongoing fight against sex worker discrimination is driving the opposition to SB 1388, which passed the Senate in May and is now under consideration in the Assembly. Senators Ted Lieu (D-Redondo Beach), Jerry Hill (D-San Mateo), and Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) introduced the legislation. As written (PDF viewable here), SB 1388 states:

This bill would ... make a person who seeks to purchase or purchases a commercial sex act guilty of a misdemeanor, punishable by imprisonment in a county jail for at least 48 hours, but not more than 6 months, and by a fine of at least $1,000, and, if probation is granted, by a fine of at least $1,000, but not more than $50,000, to be deposited in the Victim-Witness Assistance Fund to fund grants to local programs.

The problem, according to advocates, is that these higher fines and fees — which would benefit law enforcement officials and nonprofit organizations — would effectively create a new financial incentive to arrest sex workers and their clients. The sex worker activists also criticize the policy proposal for increasing jail time for those involved in sex work, given that the state's prison system is already overcrowded. Advocates argue that when the state implements harsher punishments like these, sex workers are forced to go underground in an effort to avoid arrest, which can make them more vulnerable to potential violence.

"Customers are going to be put at higher risk, and negotiating with them is going to be very difficult," said Maxine Doogan of the Erotic Service Providers Union. "They are not going to want to come to our spaces where we are safe. ... They are going to want us to go to them, to go to hotels." With customers fearing jail time, for example, they may refuse to use condoms, since law enforcement officials have sometimes used them as evidence of prostitution, she noted.

Doogan said this is one of many trafficking bills that doesn't actually address trafficking that she and her colleagues have opposed over the years. While the legislation focuses on customers, Doogan noted that it is the workers who ultimately stand to suffer. "When they do these sex-trafficking stings or whatever they are doing, they always end up arresting adults — adult consensual sex workers."

Rachel West from US PROStitutes Collective said in a statement sent out this morning:

Criminalizing clients will not stop prostitution, nor will it stop the criminalization of women. But it will make it more dangerous and stigmatizing for sex workers. We are appalled that at a time when nearly 1 in 4 people live in poverty in California and California has the highest povertyrate in the country, high unemployment, increased homelessness, loss of benefits and debt are forcing more women, particularly mothers, into prostitution, the best that legislators can come up with is to increase criminalization.

West also argued that by further policing consenting sexual activities, this proposal will end up diverting police resources from investigating rape, trafficking, and other violent crimes.

The activists noted that in 2011, there were more than 10,000 arrests for prostitution in California, meaning the mandatory 48-hour minimum jail time could in theory result in hundreds of thousands of additional hours of jail time moving forward and would also result in higher fines that defendants would struggle to pay.

Supporters of the legislation argue that increasing fines and the jail-time minimum would "deter more than 70% of sex buyers." Lieu's office has argued that the bill is designed to fight "child-sex slavery," releasing a statement in April, saying: “Instead of going after those who sell the sex, we need to go after those who buy the sex." (You can read his fact sheet here). While proponents emphasize child trafficking in their statements and press materials, activists note that the language of the legislation doesn't clearly distinguish between minors and adults.

The Assembly public safety committee meeting starts tomorrow at 9 a.m. in Room 126. You can listen to the meeting here.