Hearing of the Committee on the Judiciary and Public Safety, October 17, 2019
The US PROStitutes Collective (US PROS) is in strong support of the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019. US PROS has been organizing as a multi-racial network of sex workers and former sex workers, working the streets and indoors. We began in NYC where a group of Black women formed New York Prostitutes Collective and went national in 1980. I am based in the Bay Area.
We campaign for decriminalization of sex work, against criminal records, illegal arrests, racial targeting, violence and poverty and for justice. We have seen first-hand the endless and destructive cycle of street sweeps, sting and decoy operations, raids and crackdowns, including anti-trafficking enforcement which targets migrant sex workers in particular. Sex workers of color and including trans workers are disproportionately impacted. Police tell us that arresting sex workers over and over does no good.
Criminalization has, like the prohibition of alcohol, has led to violence and intimidation, driving sex work further underground, making it more stigmatizing and exploitative and creating a climate where sex workers are easy prey to violent men including serial murderers. Hundreds have died as a result. One example is in Los Angeles where over 200 Black women, many of them sex workers, have been murdered or disappeared. The Black Coalition Fighting Back Serial Murders, whose work was in part covered in the HBO documentary Tales of the Grim Sleeper, report that the murders were labelled NHI “no humans involved” by police and ignored. Sex workers are considered an easy target because we are stigmatized and criminalized. We know from our experience that the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019 would have a life-saving impact.
Criminalization also encourages police corruption, racism and brutality. How many more scandals do we have to hear about of police abusing their powers and taking advantage of sex workers before things change?
We have also seen how criminalization of sex work devastates and breaks up families. For the majority of us who are mothers, pushed into prostitution by poverty and homelessness, we face terrible repercussions if we get arrested. Our kids can be forcibly taken from us, fostered or adopted. For those of us who are immigrant, we can get deported and separated from our children.
73% of poor people in the US are women and children. Every cut in welfare, food stamps, housing & other benefits means an increase in prostitution and the numbers of sex workers, mainly women of color, going to prison. Communities of color, disproportionately targeted under the prostitution laws and other low-income communities need access to resources and services, not punishment for trying to survive.
In 1994, US PROS was part of a groundbreaking two year Task Force on Prostitution set up by the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco. It was one of the first of its kind in the country. We organized public debates, hearings with sex workers testifying, invited experts from other countries, discussed the impact of the laws with different sectors of the community, and studied the cost of enforcing the prostitution laws in San Francisco. We found that it cost at least $7.6 million a year back then (much more today) to criminalize prostitution. The key recommendation of the Task Force was decriminalize sex work by redirecting those millions of dollars wasted on enforcement into services and resources to improve the health and welfare of the whole community, starting with opportunities for young people, women and others who want to leave the sex industry.
The work of the SF Task Force is part of a long history of sex workers organizing which laid the groundwork for some major gains in California. We spearheaded a statewide campaign for the repeal of discriminatory regulations in the California Victim Compensation program and won the right to compensation for rape for sex workers and formerly incarcerated people. We got legislation passed that prohibits the police from arresting sex workers coming forward to report violence and using condoms as cause to arrest. These are important steps toward decriminalization but we need more.
Decriminalization is long overdue. It’s time has come. Now for now. This hearing today is a major step forward. Credit must first of all go to the determination of the sex worker led movement that got us here. The Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019 proposing the laws be decriminalized and have a Task Force to study the impact is exactly what’s needed. We already know the bad impact of criminalization. DC can show the way nationally and internationally by ensuring that sex workers have protection from violence, discrimination and exploitation, and the same basic human rights as other workers. Your struggle is our struggle. We urge the Judiciary and Public Safety to do the right thing and support this precedent setting Act. Thank you.