Suspension of relief

Could south state Republican’s bill make handing out condoms a crime?

A human trafficking survivor shows the poster she made about her story outside of a Backpage court hearing in Sacramento in November 2016.

A human trafficking survivor shows the poster she made about her story outside of a Backpage court hearing in Sacramento in November 2016.

Photo by Raheem F. Hosseini

A local organization that provides shelter, condoms, rides and other assistance to marginalized sex workers and trafficking survivors has stopped doing so because of pending state legislation that could make such aid illegal, the group’s founder says.

The Sacramento chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, or SWOP, announced March 31 on Twitter that it would “suspend many of its direct services” following the introduction of state Senate Bill 1204, which would greatly expand the legal definition of “pandering,” a felony crime that is often charged with pimping and refers to the act of procuring someone for prostitution. SB 1204, from California Senate Republican Leader Patricia Bates, would broaden the legal definition of what it means to pander—replacing specific restrictions on using “promises, threats, or violence” with more interpretive language that prohibits “arranging” or “persuading” someone to engage in prostitution.

Kristen DiAngelo, who runs SWOP’s Sacramento chapter, fears the opaque terminology could be applied to the help she and her volunteers provide to people entangled in the underground sex economy.

“The things we do to save people’s lives could actually criminalize us in the long run,” she told SN&R.

Bates’ press secretary didn’t respond to an SN&R request for comment before press time. DiAngelo says she attempted to address her concerns with Bates’ office, but found whoever she spoke to unable to answer basic questions about the bill and its consequences, intended and otherwise.

“If we’re passing out condoms, I want them to use it while they’re working,” DiAngelo said. “We don’t want a public health crisis.”

But could giving a sex worker prophylactics—or housing or clothes—be construed as “inducing” someone into prostitution under the new pandering definition? DiAngelo says Bates’ office couldn’t give her a straight answer.

Convincing sex workers to accept condoms was already difficult because Sacramento County’s sheriff’s department and district attorney’s office often cite the possession of three or more condoms as probable cause to charge someone with prostitution.

SWOP adheres to a harm-reduction philosophy, where resources are provided without the judgment or strings that might resemble the oppressive conditions survivors escaped. For instance, the group runs a six-bed safe house where survivors can come and go as they please, and design and apply their own programs that address their health-care, housing and economic needs. Granting survivors agency over their own lives is intentional, as many are coming from situations where their choices were tightly conscripted by their oppressors.

Bates’ proposed legislation hasn’t had its first hearing, but it comes at a rocky time in the prostitution debate. President Donald Trump may this week sign the Stop Enabling Sex-Trafficking Act, or SESTA. The bill would amend the Communications Act of 1934 so that online content hubs such as Backpage and Craigslist can be held legally responsible for sexually exploitative content created by third parties advertizing on their websites.

Supporters of the bill include U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris, California’s former attorney general, who took Backpage to court and argued the online classified portal made millions of dollars from child sex traffickers who advertised on the site using thinly veiled keywords. Free speech and sex workers’ rights advocates say the law punishes all people engaged in sex work while doing nothing to stop actual exploiters.

“Websites don’t exploit trafficking victims, their traffickers and their clientele do,” wrote a Twitter user named Amanda Brooks, who identifies as an escort on her profile.

Sometimes the system exploits victims, too.

“Monroe” is a 25-year-old woman who recently prevailed in an 18-month legal standoff to get a misdemeanor prostitution charge dismissed in San Joaquin Superior Court. The case was shaping up to be a showdown between a trafficking survivor asserting her rights under a new California law and prosecutors who want to maintain their ability to pressure victims into informing on traffickers.

The county district attorney’s office kept threatening to take the working single mother to trial unless she accepted a plea deal and conviction—or agreed to testify against the man she said threatened her family if she didn’t return to the stroll. After months of frustrating court continuances, Monroe learned on March 15 that the DA’s office would dismiss the charge.

She’s now planning to get her record expunged, so that the September 2016 arrest doesn’t show up in background checks, and apply for college scholarships so that she can one day become a legal advocate for women like her.

“Nothing should stand in my way now,” she said.

Monroe says she wouldn’t be where she is without DiAngelo, who attended many of her court hearings and legal appointments, and wrote letters and made phone calls on her behalf. She says she wants to help SWOP stay afloat any way she can.

“It’s not for me. I’m never going back to that life,” Monroe said. Then, referring to the hardening federal landscape, she added, “I feel like I got out at the perfect time.”