Sex workers: California repeals anti-loitering law

California Gov. Gavin Newsom on Thursday signed a controversial bill repealing a provision in state law that bans loitering with the intent to sell sex — a proposal that deeply divided Democrats in the Legislature and pitted transgender rights activists against advocates to stop human trafficking.

Anti-loitering laws are controversial nationwide, in part because they are often vague in their definition of what constitutes loitering, giving police a great deal of latitude to arrest or disperse individuals. While New York State and cities like Seattle have repealed anti-loitering laws, California is now the largest state to do so.

In his signing statement released Friday, Newsom alluded to the difficult political debate surrounding the law, but noted that it “does not legalize prostitution.”

“It simply repeals provisions of the law that have led to disproportionate harassment of women and transgender adults,” Newsom wrote. “While I agree with the author’s intention and sign this law, we must be careful in its implementation. My government will monitor crime and law enforcement trends for possible unintended consequences and take steps to mitigate such consequences.”

Lawmakers initially passed Senate Bill 357 in September, but Senator Scott Wiener (D-San Francisco) delayed sending it to Newsom until June during Pride Month to buy time to address opposition concerns and state the reason the measure should be law will.

“Everyone – regardless of race, gender or how they make a living – deserves to feel safe on our streets,” Wiener said in a statement.

The bill repeals a misdemeanor statute against loitering in public for the purpose of prostitution, which SB 357 supporters say is used by police to disproportionately discriminate against sex workers and LGBTQ people, many of whom are black and brown. They expressed concerns that the law would worsen conditions for workers and lead to unsafe and violent situations, particularly towards transgender women.

“This is a law that will ensure people are safe on the streets and that we will not continue to be harassed and oppressed by law enforcement,” said Bamby Salcedo, President and CEO of the TransLatin@ Coalition. “It’s important to recognize that sex work and sex workers must have dignity and that we too are safe navigating the streets of the state of California.”

Opponents have argued that the bill puts California on the path to full decriminalization of sex work and that police are using the law lurking around to hold johns and pimps accountable for allegedly exploiting young women and girls.

“The law is dangerous and is the first step towards full legalization of prostitution. A misrepresentation was used in the drafting of the bill,” said Rima Nashashibi, founder and president of Global Hope 365, a nonprofit organization focused on gender issues, during a news conference. “We reject the idea that decriminalizing loitering will make conditions safer for women and girls who are victims of sex trafficking.”

While the proposal passed the entire Senate with ease last fall, the Assembly approved it by just one vote. Several Democrats joined Republicans in opposing the measure, while some withheld their vote. This put more moderate Democrats at odds not only with members of their own faction, but also with the civil liberties and LGBTQ organizations with which they are often associated.

“The thing about this bill is that it really is a double-edged sword. It has been presented by advocates, it has been presented by organizations that are often my allies, as a way to protect our vulnerable communities, as a way to protect transgender people and other vulnerable people in particular from harassment and discrimination,” said Cottie Petrie- Norris (D-Irvine) said during the press conference.

“But this bill is also one with immense unintended consequences. And those unintended consequences, I believe, are putting young women, young girls, and really and truly our most vulnerable Californians, at greater risk of human trafficking.”

Petrie-Norris said she wanted her colleagues to instead find a “different approach and strategy” to “ensure we can protect and uplift all Californians.”

But Ayako Miyashita Ochoa, co-director of the Southern California HIV/AIDS Policy Research Center and associate professor at UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs, said criminalization is pushing sex workers into “isolated and unsafe spaces” with “little evidence” to support it all positive health consequences. Instead, the data shows that criminalizing consensual sex work leads to an increased risk of STDs, HIV and sex without a condom, Miyashita Ochoa said, and creates distrust in law enforcement.

“What we are talking about here is moral legislation. And what we should be talking about is health and safety,” said Miyashita Ochoa. “And if we can’t give women and other people who work in the sex trade that dignity as workers, then we’re just as bad as the people who take advantage of it.” Sex workers: California repeals anti-loitering law

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