color photograph of an outdoor protest in support of workers' rights. a femme person with shoulder-length curly brown hair holds up a red umbrella with the white text "sex work" wrapping around the perimeter. they wear a trans flag like a cape and walk along several people holding a larger trans flag parallel to the ground
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - MAY 01: People march as they participate in a May Day rally on May 1, 2023, in New York City. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

A new report has found that efforts to decriminalize sex work in California set marginalized communities up for further discrimination and infringe on consenting adults’ rights.

The report, “Californians for Privacy: How the War on Sex Work Is Stripping Your Privacy Rights,” was released by the Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational, and Research Project (ESPLER) and the Electronic Frontier Foundation. It analyzes public data about the war on sex work in California between January 2020 and February 2022.  

The report states that local and national law enforcement have successfully shifted and widened the definition of sex trafficking, claiming that these measures save victims. This allows agencies like the Los Angeles Police Department to intentionally conflate sex work between consenting adults and sex trafficking, arresting both victims and consenting adults in the process. 

“Arresting people to rescue them is a failed approach,” said Maxine Doogan, the president of ESPLER and a primary researcher. “Causing all this additional criminal history and damage to consenting adults is not what we want to be doing as a society.”

Doogan was a proponent of Proposition K in San Francisco back in 2008, a measure that would have prohibited law enforcement from using public funds to criminalize sex work. This ballot measure wasn’t passed, and because law enforcement in California has a stated goal of saving victims, local funds are still allocated to support sex trafficking task forces. 

“That slush fund incentivizes groups to promote the cookie-cutter sex trafficking legislation that expands the definition of sex trafficking, and it also funds the law enforcement agencies to make those prostitution arrests,” Doogan said.

According to the report, this war on sex work does not provide increased safety—it actively causes harm. The researchers detailed reports from different states recounting police sexually assaulting sex workers, illegally searching their phones, and ignoring the accounts of victims of sex trafficking. 

Police arrest survivors under the guise of protection, but Tara Burns, a research consultant for the report and the research director for COYOTE RI, said the opposite is true. Survivors are not protected after incarceration, and when charged with sex trafficking, a publically available label follows you, negatively impacting your ability to access resources, employment, and housing. 

Because of this, sex trafficking survivors are more likely to be turned away from resources like shelters and can find themselves without many viable sustainable options for meeting their needs. 

“We need legislation to protect us from discrimination and accessing public services … that’s one major cause of people being trapped in the industry when they don’t want to be,” Burns said. 

These policies zero in on sex workers, but the report suggests that everyone’s safety and privacy are at risk, especially people of color and LGBTQIA+ communities. 

Due to the over-policing and racial profiling within the U.S., this focus on sex work exacerbates the institutional-level bias within the carceral system. According to the report, Black and Latinx folks, whether perceived as victims or perpetrators, make up the primary demographic of Los Angeles arrests concerning sex work. 

Researchers believe these disparities are made worse by law enforcement training materials surrounding prostitution and the bias built into tools like facial recognition. According to the data and what Doogan believes is a clear violation of the California Racial Justice Act, the recordings, seizures, and sting operations connected to sex trafficking often overlap with California’s predominantly Latinx or Black areas. This includes those who are arrested for perpetrating sex trafficking, as the report also states that only 9% of Los Angeles’ overall population is Black, but 42% of the men charged in connection to prostitution with the LAPD were Black. 

LGBTQIA+ folks, especially Black trans women, contribute to a significant portion of the sex work field and are likely to be negatively impacted by sex work criminalization. The report also details how trans folks outside the field are at-risk for profiling and often wrongfully accused or arrested for solicitation. 

“I’m in the bubble of San Francisco, but a big majority of the sex worker nation here is our LGBT people. We make up a lot of that population that works in the underground economies,” Doogan said. 

According to Burns and Doogan, because of this rampant discrimination within the carceral system, other vulnerable populations also have a higher risk of increased trauma, deportation, and unstable living conditions. Additional reports have found that undocumented sex workers are particularly vulnerable to civil asset seizure, wage theft, and deportation due to the moral clause connected to U.S. immigration laws.

Burns believes law enforcement’s focus on demonizing sex work not only criminalizes sex worker safety measures and limits their income, but punishes sex trafficking survivors, all while encroaching on the privacy rights of the general public. The report states how both law enforcement and non-government entities are legally able to access data and crawl websites for information.

“They can’t do live tracking without a warrant, but they can track your old movements, listen to your phone calls, see your texts, and they even have software that lets them put several phones on a map and watch how they move in relation to us,” Burns said.

To shift away from actively harming marginalized communities and removing the public’s right to privacy, both Burns and Doogan believe decriminalizing sex work is vital alongside an increased understanding that LGBTQIA+ communities will continue to be disproportionately impacted by these laws.

“We see the criminalization of prostitution being the gateway into re-criminalizing all LGBT activities, especially our entertainment … our public expression,” Doogan said. “It’s really important for the LGBT nation to understand that the criminalization of prostitution laws and that violation of our sexual privacy in that way is going to undermine all of your LGBT rights that we have fought for, for decades.”

Taneasha White (she/her) is a Black, Queer lover of words and community. By way of advocacy, journalism, and storytelling, she pushes for continued action and conversation around the need for social equity....