An activist shares why they advocate to repeal sex work criminalization

Cesar finds meaning in advocating for policies and funding that speak to his experience as a formerly homeless person living with HIV, who traded sex for a place to stay or a place to sleep at night.

Cesar, a member of our HIV Advocacy Network (HAN), says he finds connection to community in his advocacy work through HAN. He also finds meaning in advocating for policies and funding that speak to his experience as a formerly homeless person living with HIV, who traded sex for a place to stay or a place to sleep at night when he found no other options for shelter.

“I didn’t realize how traumatic homelessness could be,” said Cesar (whose last name is withheld for this article). “I mean, I was lucky that I never had to stay outside or sleep on a sidewalk. But it was still so difficult to never be sure where you would end up staying. One of the things I did was use dating/hookup websites to exchange sex for a place to sleep at night.” 

This experience using sex work as a way to survive is one reason Cesar is advocating for SB 357–a bill introduced by Senator Scott Wiener that would repeal a section of the California penal code (Section 653.22) that criminalizes loitering for the intent to engage in sex work. Because of the vague and subjective language of the statute, police have broad discretion to make arrests–leading to the disproportionate arrests of Black women and transgender people under this problematic statute. 

If passed, SB 357 could help end some discriminatory policing practices, and could also enable people who have been convicted of loitering with the intent to commit sex work to seal their records. 

“The way the current law works is really unfair and harmful,” said Cesar. “Police don’t need much of an excuse to arrest people, and those arrests can be based on implicit bias and racism. Systemic racism is absolutely a piece of this. And for people of color, arrest can be very traumatic and harmful. This creates strong distrust in police and government.” 

Stigma against sex work also plays a role in discriminatory policing, said Cesar. This is something he felt acutely when he relied on sex work to survive.  

“People think just because sex work is criminalized, that it is wrong,” he said. “In my experience, the only harm I have experienced in the sex industry has been from law enforcement and clients who have exploited me because it is legal for us to be exploited due to the criminalization of sex work.” 

Cesar said his mindset about sex work changed dramatically after being connected to St. James Infirmary, a peer-based nonprofit in San Francisco, and reading their Occupational Health & Safety Handbook for sex workers.  

“I began to understand that sex work can be a legitimate profession. It doesn’t have to be harmful, risky, or met with a violent response from police,” he said. “Criminalization is an extreme form of state regulation that is responsible for making California a leader in mass incarceration. SB 357 only one of the steps in protecting sex workers and non-sex workers from over-criminalization. So much has changed in one century, when prostitution was first criminalized. The time has come for us to innovate public safety. Sex workers are part of our community. If we want to improve public safety, we must protect sex workers.” 

Ande Stone, senior community mobilization manager, said that the HIV Advocacy Network offers a way for community members to advocate for issues they are passionate about and that affect their lives. “There are many ways for folks to get involved, and we have members fighting for everything from mental health services for long-term survivors, housing subsidies for people living with HIV, to harm reduction. Please join us!”


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