Update: The next hearing for the ACLU/EFF lawsuit will be heard by U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson on November 20th.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California and the Electronic Frontiers Foundation have successfully blocked one part of the CASE ACT aka Prop 35. Their move is intended to protect the freedom of speech and privacy rights of more than 72,000 registered sex offenders- a number that is going to increase when sex workers are forced to register as sex offenders under this new law. This lawsuit is an important step, but it is not enough. Sex workers in California need support from friends, family and allies more than ever.
Prop 35 was passed on Tuesday by 81% of the voters in California. Looking over some of the county results, I suspect that many people just skipped over the question, or voted yes because it sounds good. Everybody wants to go after the “traffickers,” right? Voters might have made a different choice had they read this story in the Chicago Reporter highlighting the failures of a very similar law in Illinois:
“…a Chicago Reporter analysis of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office data shows that prostitution-related felonies are being levied almost exclusively against sex workers. During the past four years, they made up 97 percent of the 1,266 prostitution-related felony convictions in Cook County. And the number is growing: Felony convictions among sex workers increased by 68 percent between 2008 and 2011.”
The situation in Illinois reflects the problem at the core of the CASE Act- it will ultimately result in enhanced arrests and sentencing of sex workers and will do nothing to actually prevent human trafficking. All those felony convictions and arrests of sex workers make it nearly impossible for them to get out of the industry and into other work. The CASE Act is enhanced, life-long punishment of sex workers disguised as punishment of predators.
The ACLU/EFF lawsuit calling out the problems with the Sex Offender Registry portion of the act is helpful, but we have more work to do to expose the way that campaigns like Prop 35 are organized for the benefit of the organizers rather than the victims they claim to be protecting. These “saviors” of trafficking victims understood that the issue was not only confusing, but that few people really cared about it. As Melissa Gira Grant writes: “What they counted on was the profound and damning absence of grassroots support for people in the sex trade and people most impacted by criminalization – people who might oppose them…”
California voters most likely never saw any opposition to Prop 35, considering the complete lack of funding available to the opposition campaign. Nonetheless, a coalition of organizations did work to raise awareness, including The Erotic Service Providers Union, Black Women for Wellness, St. James Infirmary, BaySWAN, Global Network of Sex Work Projects, US Prostitutes Collective, Global Women’s Strike, SWOP Chapters in the Bay Area and Los Angeles and others. They got the word out to their membership, targeted the media and organized phone banks.
It’s impossibly expensive to win or defeat a ballot initiative in California. This is why we have to focus on educating our families and communities. We need to expand the ranks of people who know us, care about us and support us. The next time an opportunistic, office-seeking millionaire uses us as pawns in his bid to gain recognition with a deceitful proposition, we will have a grassroots army to do the important campaign work. We need our friends and family to be part of this struggle with us, to help humanize sex workers and to illuminate the real conditions of the industry.
But more urgently, sex workers need to strengthen our support networks, help each other stay safe, keep an emergency response plan, spend time together, talk to each other, meet people we can trust to share our stories with, resist being isolated and alone as much as possible. The results of Prop 35 were an ominous reminder to me that we are almost completely alone in our struggle. A super-majority of people in California are indifferent to what happens to us. All we’ve got is each other. Let’s take good care of us.