Legislative and law enforcement officials have heard sex workers say over and over that they feel unsafe reporting crimes to police because they fear they won’t be listened to or, worse, they might be prosecuted for their own illegal activity.
In response, one Colorado lawmaker, the Arvada Democratic state Rep. Brianna Titone, said she intends to bring a “safe reporting” bill in the upcoming legislative session, beginning in January.
Details are still being workshopped, but the basic idea is to create a guarantee that illegal sex workers can report crimes without fear of any legal retribution. It’s not unlike a 2012 law Colorado adopted to guarantee immunity for illegal drug users who report overdoses.
A key likely point of debate is where lawmakers would draw the line on immunity.
“It can be done, but you have to define carefully … what crimes the bill would cover,” said Boulder District Attorney Michael Dougherty, a proponent of safe reporting. “It’s fairly easy to say someone engaged in sex work who is beaten during the act should not be prosecuted for the sex work. I’d like to believe most people would fully support that. But if the person engaged in the sex work is committing some other, worse offense, is that covered?”
Sex workers this year detailed in a The Denver Post report the various ways that the criminalization of their work, and the stigma that comes with both legal (stripping and online content creation) and illegal (prostitution) sex work, leave them vulnerable to physical and economic harms, as well as societal isolation.
Desiree Collins, a former sex worker closely involved in advocacy work in Colorado, said she is skeptical that safe reporting alone will do much to help this community. She’s also skeptical that sex workers would take advantage of it.
“It’s probably going to not make that big of a difference, especially if there’s no way to maintain anonymity” in reporting, she said. “You’re talking about a community where part of the culture is distrust, because distrust keeps you safe.”
Some in law enforcement say they already abide by safe reporting standards. Dougherty said a new bill wouldn’t change his outlook, and Denver Police Department Chief Paul Pazen told The Post last month that he can promise illegal sex workers support if they come forward to report having been victims of crimes like assault and robbery.
But, Dougherty understands, sex workers are hesitant to trust in any representatives of a legal system.
He recalled an instance in which a woman in his district was sexually assaulted in the dead of night while on the job as a prostitute.
“When the police came she insisted she was a legal secretary at a law firm, which was not at true, just because she was worried she wouldn’t be taken seriously,” he said.
Most sex work advocacy in Colorado is centered on the goal of decriminalization. That would be the ultimate guarantee, they say, of security in reporting crimes and speaking up for themselves. Anything short of that, including safe reporting laws, preserves close to all of the existing danger that comes with the work.
Sex workers argue their community can be kept safe while staying tough on sex trafficking and human trafficking. The notion that anyone involved in illegal sex work is exploited and would rather do something else is false but pervasive.
“It’s not like we’re asking a whole lot,” Collins said. “We’re not asking for people who are abusive to go unpunished, for people who are exploiting people to go unpunished. In fact, we feel decriminalization would help those efforts.”
The decriminalization conversation is taking place now in New York, but it’s not one government leaders in many other states seem eager for. That’s clearly true in Colorado, where Attorney General Phil Weiser told The Post last month through a spokesman that he has not examined the idea of decriminalization and thus had no opinion to offer. In an interview on Nov. 18, Gov. Jared Polis would not say whether he supports or opposes decriminalization.
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