Justice for all?
Policy banning victim benefits for sex workers repealed
After she was raped and nearly killed inside her apartment last September, a 36-year-old escort asked a state victims’ panel for a few things.
In her application to the California Victim Compensation Program (CalVCP), the woman requested financial assistance for lost wages while she recuperated. The money would also be used to replace a lamp that was broken when she was slammed into a wall and to clean the semen her rapist left on the carpet.
This program paid out nearly $62 million to tens of thousands of crime survivors for such things last year—but not to this Oakland woman, who asked the News & Review to identify her as Ms. R.
In October, the state rejected Ms. R’s claim, citing rule 649.56, which disqualifies sex workers from receiving victim reimbursements, even in cases of rape. The board did the same to Savannah, a former Sacramento escort who was abducted by two men and then beaten and sexually assaulted for 10 hours about a year ago.
Ms. R and Savannah (not her real name) are two of the nearly 80 women to fall victim to this little-known policy over the past three years. According to the state, they’re ineligible for statutorily provided victim benefits because of their profession.
“The regulation sends a dangerous message to victims and perpetrators that, for at least some women, ‘no’ doesn’t really mean ‘no,’ and, effectively, some women deserve to be raped,” Kimberly Horiuchi, a American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California attorney, told the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board. “Regardless of how a victim got into a position to be raped, it doesn’t make her any less worthy of compensation.”
Until recently, California begged to differ.
The rule, which has been on the books for 14 years, has been used to deny “almost all victims who were prostitutes or involved in prostitution,” Chief Counsel Wayne Strumpfer told his board.
On Dec. 12, feeling the full heat of a campaign that began in February, the board—during an unusually packed meeting inside the organization’s Sacramento conference room—finally struck down what Chairwoman Marybel Batjer deemed a “repugnant” statute.
“I don’t understand why it was passed in 1999, but I think it’s time that we do something about it,” she added, before calling for the unanimous vote and drawing relieved applause.
Ms. R said the long-anticipated vote—and the crowd’s reaction to it—left her stunned. “That’s maybe the only time we got real, sincere applause,” she said of the sex-worker community.
Last month’s action followed a 10-month campaign by the ACLU and groups representing sex workers and rape survivors, many of whom offered powerful, damning testimonies about the ways the criminal-justice system treated them like second-class victims.
“Ayla” said she was sexually assaulted by a man who offered her a ride to Denny’s, then accused her of being “an angry prostitute” when she told police of the encounter hours later in a Bremerton, Wash., emergency room.
When authorities found the man’s wife tied up in the trunk of his car months later, Ayla recalled, “Then they wanted me all of a sudden to come in and testify because he had done something to a ‘worthy, pure woman.’”
Sex workers from Sacramento and the Bay Area shared similar tales.
But the policy’s ripple effects don’t start or stop with the paid-sex community.
A computer programmer who identified herself as Jane Doe said she was raped by a home intruder in June 2011. While not a sex worker, her CalVCP application for moving costs was swatted just the same.
“I’m not the target population of this regulation, yet feel that this regulation created the policy of criminalizing victims, causing more harm,” she said. “I ended up homeless and the victim of two other violent crimes that could have been prevented with relocation funds. We need to fight the culture of victim-blaming.”
The three-member panel, which included Batjer, San Bernardino County District Attorney Michael A. Ramos and a stand-in for State Controller John Chiang, often listened with hands over their mouths.
The board’s repeal of rule 649.56 won’t be immediate. The process, including public comment, could take up to three months. The board must also hold a procedural vote before sending the policy change to an administrative law judge for final approval.
According to Jon M. Myers, the board’s deputy executive officer, the repeal wouldn’t be retroactive, meaning past denials of compensation would stand.
And the panel could still mask future denials in concerns about fraud, Ms. R believes. But the rape survivor, who is still appealing the board’s denial of her application, also focused on the positives. Relatives of murdered sex workers now stand a better chance of being able to afford funeral costs, she said.
“It was a great victory.”