California Figures Out, Even Sex Workers Can Be Victimized

SACRAMENTO, Calif.—Many people may not be aware that there exists in California a Victim Compensation Program (CalVCP) whose mission is to provide "compensation for victims of violent crime who are injured or threatened with injury." Among the crimes covered by the program are "domestic violence, child abuse, sexual and physical assault, homicide, robbery, and vehicular manslaughter."

The program, which is funded by restitution fines and orders, penalty assessments levied on persons convicted of crimes and traffic offenses, as well as matching federal funds, allows victims of the above-named crimes to be reimbursed for up to $62,000 in expenses related to treatment of the injury and ongoing medical and psychological care.

So if, for instance, you were raped or otherwise sexually assaulted, you could file a claim with the Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board and possibly recover the full amount of your treatment costs—unless you were a sex worker, in which case you were on your own—at least until yesterday. That's when the Board voted to repeal California Code of Regulations Rule 649.56, a 1999 amendment to the Code which prohibited anyone identified as a sex worker from recovering expenses from his/her assault or other injury if such injury occurred during or in connection with an act of prostitution.

When originally passed, the Rule was seen as a means to discourage people from engaging in the profession of sex work—but as one of the 11 sex workers who testified before the Board on Wednesday stated, "I was raped and beaten, and I did everything you're supposed to do, and I got denied compensation. Why? Because of this outmoded type of thinking and laws that go along with it."

"Sexual assault, in any context, is absolutely a violation of basic human rights," agreed Marybel Batjer, Secretary of the Government Operations Agency and Chairperson of the Board. "Victims of this violent crime deserve compensation, regardless of circumstance."

Though groups like the United States Prostitutes Collective and the Erotic Service Providers Union had fought against Rule 649.56 for years, the Board began to look at changing the rule when, in May of 2013, the California legislature passed an amendment to the rule protecting victims of human trafficking by excluding them from the "sex work exemption," so that even if the trafficking victim were engaged in prostitution, he or she could apply from compensation from the program. After the amendment passed, the Board instructed its staff to conduct a comprehensive review of the rule.

"After evaluating stakeholder input collected at multiple public hearings and via written submissions, the three-member Board determined that the existing regulation inappropriately restricted victims of violent crime from receiving necessary assistance," the Board said in a written statement. "As a result, the Board unanimously ruled that involvement in prostitution should no longer be a barrier to receiving help from CalVCP."

"What [the rule] says is that sex workers are asking for it," testified Rachel West. "That sex workers are asking for rape. That the rape of sex workers is not as serious as the rape of other women, and that sex workers are not deserving of support."

"What happens when we have a regulation like this, it segregates us from the normal population... The laws don’t apply to us like they do other people," Kristen DiAngelo, another sex worker, told the Board. "Up until today, there was no rape of us. Sex workers can’t be raped. They can’t be mugged. They can’t be robbed. And unfortunately that allows predators to hone their skills on us."

Sadly, the Board's move doesn't legalize prostitution in the state, and it won't take effect until sometime this spring, but sex workers and their advocates were nonetheless overjoyed that the state now recognizes that prostitutes can be hurt just like any other person.

"Prostitution is a crime, but it's a minor one," testified Kent Scheidegger, Legal Director of the Criminal Justice Legal Foundation, a conservative group. "If someone's been a victim of a major crime like rape or battery, it shouldn't disqualify them from restitution."

"Redress is like an American thing, and it's an honor to be able to participate in that and to make something happen as a citizen," said one sex worker who wished to remain anonymous. "I'm proud to be able to tell [my] little six-year-old [nephew] what I did and that it worked."