Sex Work

California Police Can No Longer Arrest Suspected Sex Workers Who Stand Around in Public

The law is an important step, but ending police harassment of sex workers requires decriminalizing the trade entirely.


It is now harder for California cops to harass, intimidate, and arrest suspected sex workers. Last Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the Safer Streets for All Act, which repeals a law allowing police to arrest any loiterer they suspect of being a sex worker.

The bill was introduced in February 2021 by state Sen. Scott Wiener (D–San Francisco), who wrote that "criminalizing sex work does not make sex workers or our communities safer. Most criminal penalties for sex workers, loitering laws included, do nothing to stop sex crimes against sex workers and human trafficking." The bill did not, however, decriminalize sex work itself.

Gov. Newsom, a Democrat, was cautious in his support for the legislation, declaring on July 1 that "we must be cautious about its implementation." Nonetheless, he signed it.

Sex worker advocates have hailed the bill. So have trans rights activists, who have long decried loitering laws as a way cops can single out black and Hispanic transgender women for harassment and arrest. Fatima Shabazz, a sex work activist with the organization DecrimSexWorkCA Coalition, decared that the measure "repeals a Jim Crow law that criminalized Black and trans people in public space."

While the bill is a good start, ending police violence and harassment against suspected sex workers requires full decriminalizationEven those who want to see fewer women engage in sex work should support that change, since the stigma of a criminal record makes it harder to find a more conventional job. Worse yet, when sex work is illegal, police can confiscate sex workers' property under easily abused civil forfeiture laws. To the extent that sex work, as many anti-prostitution activists claim, is an act of economic desperation, allowing cops to confiscate sex workers' wealth will only make that desperation worse.