California finally agrees: Sex workers are people, too

After she was raped and nearly killed inside her apartment last September, Ms. R asked the state for a few minor things.

In her application to the California Victim Compensation Program, Ms. R requested financial assistance to replace the lamp that was broken when she was slammed against her wall, and to clean her attacker’s semen stains from the carpet.

The CVCP paid out nearly $62 million to tens of thousands of crime survivors last year for things like medical expenses and moving costs—but not to Ms. R.

In October, the state rejected the 36-year-old Oakland escort’s claim, citing rule 649.56, which disqualifies sex workers from receiving victim aid, even in cases of rape.

Ms. R and former Sacramento escort Savannah (read Desperately seeking justice) are two of the nearly 80 women to fall victim to this little-known policy over the past three years. But the rule has been around since 1999, and has been used to deny “almost all victims who were prostitutes or involved in prostitution,” CVCP chief counsel Wayne Strumpfer told his board Thursday.

On December 12, that board 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 a relieved smattering of applause.

Today’s action followed a 10-month campaign by the ACLU of Northern California and groups representing sex workers and rape survivors, several of whom attended and gave powerful, damning testimonies about the ways the criminal justice system discriminates against a segregated class of victims.

Most spoke of being ignored by law enforcement, even as their rapists went on to attack others.

“This is an injustice to all women and puts all women in danger,” said “Ayla,” who was anally raped in a car by a man who offered to take her to Denny’s. Ayla said police in Bremerton, Wash., believed her attacker’s claims that she was just “an angry prostitute” until months later, when they found the man’s wife tied up in the trunk of his car.

“And then they wanted me all of a sudden to come in and testify because he had done something to a ‘worthy, pure woman,’” she told the three-member panel, most of whom covered their mouths.

“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,” added ACLU attorney Kimberly A. Horiuchi. “Regardless of how a victim got into a position to be raped, it doesn’t make her any less worthy of compensation.”

And the ripple effects of the policy don’t stop with sex workers.

A computer programmer who identified herself as Jane Doe was in her apartment in June 2011 when a stranger broke in and raped her. Her attacker was arrested and is now serving seven years in prison, she said, but that wasn’t the end of the story. While not a sex worker, her CVCP 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 board’s repeal of rule 649.56 is one step in that direction, observed Pearl Callahan, a former Sacramento escort who now resides in Nevada.

“It was a long time coming,” the 60-year-old told SN&R.

It will be another three months before the rule if officially repealed, staff explained, but Maxine Doogan, president of the Erotic Service Providers Legal Education and Research Project, a San Francisco-based advocacy group, hoped to spin the day’s momentum into fruitful policy discussions with lawmakers at the state Capitol.

“They sent a message today that all victims count,” she told SN&R.

As for Ms. R and Savannah and the hundreds like them, the policy change doesn’t appear to be retroactive. While their stories helped get the rule get repealed, their victory will have to be a vicarious one.

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