The recent passing of SB 233, a bill that makes it easier for sex workers to report violent crimes, demonstrates California’s progress in increasing protections for some of its most vulnerable community members.
There is a clear need for legal protections for sex workers; they are 400 times more likely to face violence while working than the average laborer. According to a study from the Urban Justice Center’s Sex Workers Project, 46 percent of sex workers experience violence in the course of their work. Sex workers are also more likely to be murdered on the job than police officers.
SB 233, signed into law by California Gov. Gavin Newsom, prohibits prostitution-related arrests of people who witness or are victims of certain violent crimes and prevents condoms from being used as evidence of sex work. This bill will enable sex workers to report crimes such as domestic violence, sexual battery, human trafficking and stalking without fear of legal retaliation. And by facilitating sex workers’ ability to report crimes against them, this bill makes it possible to hold violent offenders accountable — which increases the public safety of all community members.
Berkeley and San Francisco set significant precedents for this statewide legislation by instituting similar laws prior to the passing of SB 233. In fact, the Berkeley Police Department had already implemented both clauses of the bill before Newsom had signed it.
This is an encouraging indication of Berkeley’s commitment to protecting sex workers and championing progressive legislature, and Berkeley and the Bay Area must continue to spearhead improvements to legislation surrounding sex work. These changes should ultimately be made by the state of California as well.
As an initial step, Bay Area cities and the state of California should push for a repeal of the U.S. House bill known as FOSTA, the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, and the Senate bill known as SESTA, the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. These bills, signed into law by President Donald Trump, have increased dangerous street-based sex work by making it harder for sex workers to safely advertise online. Local and state governments must do what they can to circumvent this bill.
And while changes in legislature regarding sex workers is crucial, protecting these individuals requires more than just new and reformed laws. People in this line of work face social obstacles as well that can threaten both their physical and mental well-being. The city of Berkeley should take steps to address and deconstruct the aggressive stigma surrounding sex work.
Sex work is a way for people to make a living; sometimes it’s their only viable option. And those individuals deserve to know that their community and government will protect them as they work to support themselves. The Berkeley community, the Bay Area and the state of California need to make sure that they continue to push for that protection.