In September of 2012, Ms. R, a sex worker in Oakland, California, was beaten, robbed, and raped in her apartment by a man who had contacted her through her advertisement on Redbook. Rape victims in general have to contend with mountains of bureaucracy, shaming, and disbelief in order to get justice or support, but in Ms. R’s case, that advertisement made it even harder. The fact that she had met her rapist through Redbook meant that the State of California was able to deny her basic assistance.
Like many poor and uninsured victims of violent crimes, Ms. R filed a request for assistance from the California Victim Compensation Program (CalVCP), which helps people out with expenses like medical treatment or mental health care. By the time people go to CalVCP, they’re usually desperate; by the agency’s own rules, you’re ineligible for funds if you have any other means of getting them, whether that’s insurance, a wealthy aunt, or a court ruling. The program’s very existence shows good intentions on California’s part. But as they say, intentions aren’t magic, and in any case, California’s intentions don’t extend to sex workers. CalVCP’s regulations disqualify anyone who was hurt while “involved” in an act of prostitution. That includes not only sex workers, but clients and support staff (e.g., drivers, bouncers, etc.)
Ms. R doesn’t have any convictions for prostitution, and there aren’t any charges against her, but the CalVCP rejected her claim, based on their interpretation of the facts in the police report. The verdict was dry and bureaucratically brutal:
We have recommended that your application be denied because: California Code of Regulations, Title 2, section 649.56(a) states that involvement in the events leading to the qualifying crime of prostitution by the victim may be found if the victim was engaged in activity related to prostitution and the crime occurred as a direct result of activity related to prostitution.
If you know anything about rape, if you know anything about sex work, this is a very, very old story, one that gets older and more heart-rending with each telling. Rape victims are routinely humiliated and disregarded by friends, family, and law enforcement. But with sex workers, it goes a step beyond that: the social consensus is that their work makes them unrapeable. In 2007, a man who gang-raped a sex worker at gunpoint with two of his friends had his charges reduced to “theft of services” by Philadelphia Municipal Court Judge Teresa Carr Deni. Earlier this year, a Texas court acquitted Ezekiel Gilbert for shooting 23-year-old escort Lenora Frago to death when she tried to leave without having sex with him. The jury decided that his actions were justified because he was trying to get his $150 back.
If I wanted, I could sit here and fill the page with similar stories going back decades and centuries. Like twisted versions of Aesop’s fables, they each have the same moral tacked to the end: beating, raping, or killing sex workers doesn’t really count.
Ms. R, backed by the Erotic Service Providers’ Union (ESPU), the US PROStitutes Collective (US PROS), the ACLU, and a score of other activist organizations, is literally trying to rewrite California’s version of that story. Since the beginning of the year, they have been working to strike section 649.56 completely from CalVCP’s regulations, so that rape and assault of sex workers is treated the same as that of any other. “I want this changed for the future so that no other victim will get a letter like I got,” Ms. R says.
That might just happen on Monday, when the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board (VCGCB) meets in Sacramento to consider the future of the regulation.
In fact, the VCGCB has already met twice this year to look at changing the rule; they met in February and in May to discuss allowing victims of sex trafficking to be eligible for CalVCB compensation. Prior to May, victims of trafficking were also ineligible for compensation benefits, since they would technically fulfill all the qualifications for being “involved” in prostitution.
For Ms. R and her advocates, the fact that the board was already considering changes to 649.56 in February was an opportunity to push for even greater change. Maxine Doogan, founder of the Erotic Service Providers Union and one of Ms. R’s most passionate advocates, found the proposal to be intolerable because it would enshrine discrimination against consenting sex workers by using the “false framework” of sex trafficking. “I was just like—NO,” Doogan says. “Because no one should be excluded from receiving benefits for injuries.” In a letter submitted to the board in February, Doogan made the case that while the proposed changes sounded humane and compassionate, they “will only further stigmatize and discriminate against prostitutes who are not deemed to be sex trafficking victims, or who refuse to be identified as such.” Furthermore, Doogan wrote,
When victims of rape are belittled in this way, it sends the wrong message to the public and to would-be rapists; that anyone can treat prostitutes as badly as they please and the resulting injuries will never be fully treated as such regardless of involvement in forced labor or not.
Rachel West, spokeswoman for US PROStitutes Collective (US PROS) makes the same point: “No woman, sex worker or not, should be denied compensation. It’s recognition that something terrible happened to you and that you deserve justice. When you tell someone that they’re not eligible, the message is, ‘Well then, you can’t be raped.’ It’s the old-age view that some women are fair game, that what they do encourages rape.”
That’s perhaps the most inescapable point in the whole issue: the regulation, whether intentionally or not, draws a bright-line distinction between “deserving” and “undeserving” rape victims. In testimony before the board in May, Ms. R described how CalVCP placed her securely in the “undeserving” category:
I was judged and disqualified as an unworthy victim by your program, and the seriousness of my injuries was overlooked. I was dragged from room to room, there was blood everywhere, my head was squeezed and my ear drum ruptured and I was raped – all this was discounted. I was made to feel that I was somehow responsible for the events leading to the “qualifying crime”. No, I didn’t ask to be raped. And my actions did not encourage the rape. How can there be a law like this? Are only some rape victims innocent victims?
If the story of Ms. R isn’t adequate demonstration of how tragic and absurd the consequences of the regulations can be, Doogan relates the story of a sex worker who’s going to be speaking in Sacramento on Monday. A client beat her, abducted her in the trunk of his car, and tried to kill her. Like Ms. R, when she applied to CalVCP to reimburse her medical expenses, they rejected her based on her sex work: “When they went to trial, they tried to say ‘Well, your injuries occurred within the prostitution transaction,’ and she was like ‘No, they happened after the prostitution transaction.'”
Meanwhile, the rest of us are left asking the question: why does it matter? When trying to to treat a woman’s bruises, wounds, and mental trauma, why is the relevant question whether they happened during or after a “prostitution transaction”?
Rachel West is very optimistic about what will happen on Monday as a result of the hearing. ESPU and US PROS have gotten strong responses from people inside and outside the halls of government when they explain the issue. “Some people in government were shocked that such a regulation still existed, and that it was allowed to exist,” she says. “We find that when people hear about it and know about it, they are shocked at the blatant discrimination.”
The meeting is open to the public, and even those who can’t be in Sacramento personally can comment or listen via phone.
For Ms. R, it’s been a long journey just to get this far. “Because [CalVCP] is for a last resort, most people can’t even get where I got,” she says. “That’s a little bit of what drives me. I’m a medium victim and there’s a lot of people who would be worse off than me and really, really be up shit creek.”
Addendum: In November 2007, less than a month after her ruling that gang-raping a sex worker could legally be considered “theft of services,” Judge Teresa Carr Deni faced an election to retain her seat on the Philadelphia Municipal Court. Despite rallies by sex work organizations and harsh condemnation for the decision by the Philadelphia Bar Association, she won the election and continues to sit on the court. Her term expires this year, and she faces another vote for retention this November. We hope that Slixa readers in Philadelphia will pay attention to the election and consider their options for judicial seats.