California Voters Came Down Hard on Sex Workers Yesterday

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On Tuesday, California voters overwhelmingly approved two ballot initiatives that were sharply opposed by the very same "victims" they were allegedly designed to protect. The final vote tallies are not yet in, but it looks like there was statewide approval for new criminal penalties on prostitution-related offenses, while a Los Angeles-only proposal to mandate the use of condoms in all pornographic films shot in the county is also heading to victory.

Performers in the porn industry were almost universally opposed to the Measure B mandatory condom plan, arguing that condoms are bad for business and bad for sex (when you do it for a living, at least.) The law was also seen as attempt by the state to unfairly disrupt their business. If local authorities start enforcing the law—which they have so little interest in doing that the LAPD opposed it—it would drive productions underground, possibly to other states and cities, and further away from the STD testing and oversight system that "Porn Valley" has spent years strengthening. There have been 350,000 condom-free sex scenes shot since 2004, without a single confirmed case of HIV transmission.

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Meanwhile, Prop. 35 appears to have won even more handily, in part because it's designed to be a crackdown on human trafficking. Who can be against that? The problem is that the law was  vaguely worded and the penalties it hands our are so poorly targeted that two organizations devoted to combating human trafficking took the dramatic step of rescinding their endorsements of the proposal, claiming they were misled about the law's true intentions. (Plus, there are strict laws against trafficking already on the books.)

The other issue with Prop. 35 is that it treats sex trafficking much more harshly than labor trafficking, suggesting that those who are trafficked to work in sweatshops and farm fields simply aren't that important. Or alternatively, it shows that law is really just an attack on prostitution, as it redefines trafficking to include anyone who might be considered a pimp, or gains any money from prostitution in any way. It could even be used against the victims themselves, as anyone convicted of a prostitution-related offense—including adults who willingly engage in sex work—would be forced to register as a sex offender. The likely result is an even great danger to sex workers who will become more secretive and more afraid to go to the police when they truly are abused.

The entire ballot initiative process in California has long been derided because of the way it allows special interest groups to bypass the legislature and create laws themselves. It also makes ballot an jumbled mess and frustrates voters with confusing and sometimes contradictory proposals. These are just two of latest examples that will have Californians spending a lot of effort helping people who didn't ask to be helped.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.