After more than a decade of denials, sex workers in California can now demand reimbursement from a special victim compensation fund for hospital visits and other costs related to rape and other violent crimes. Sex worker support groups say they are "thrilled" with the change made thanks to a decision by the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board Thursday to scrap a regulation denying the claims.
"It really opens the way for women who have suffered a very violent and traumatic act to get recognition from the state that something terrible happened and that you can get compensated for it," says Rachel West of the U.S. PROStitutes Collective, one of several activist groups who have campaigned on sex workers' behalf.
The 3-member board agreed with the activists in their unanimous decision Thursday, saying, "Sexual assault, in any context, is absolutely a violation of basic human rights."
"Victims of this violent crime deserve compensation, regardless of circumstance,"said Marybel Batjer, secretary of the Government Operations Agency and board chairwoman in a release. About 11 sex workers, not all who were attacked, testified before the board Wednesday, describing in detail accounts of discrimation from authorities.
"I was raped and beaten, and I did everything you're supposed to do, and I got denied compensation," one woman who testified told U.S. News. She declined to be identified due to an ongoing criminal trial.
"Why? Because of this outmoded type of thinking and laws that go along with it," she says.
When her 6-year-old nephew asked where she was going Thursday, she felt it was important to tell him.
"Violence and crime are not really subjects I really want to talk to a 6-year-old about, nor is rape and prostitution age-appropriate for that kid, but democracy is," she says.
She explained to him she was setting right a rule that was unfair.
"Redress is like an American thing, and it's an honor to be able to participate in that and to make something happen as a citizen," she says. "I'm proud to be able to tell that little six-year-old what I did and that it worked."
While she's proud of changing policy, the victim says the experience soured her, and she wouldn't report her rape to the police again.
"Rape victims are not protected by the law. If you want to protect yourself, do yourself a favor and don't rely on the authorities to do their jobs," she says.
No one spoke in opposition to the repeal during Thursday's hearing.
The campaign to repeal the sex worker prohibition on compensation, which comes from a fund generated through criminal fines and matching federal monies, started in February and received broad support from churches, legal groups, non-profits and various district attorney offices, according to West. Groups such as US Pros and the Erotic Service Providers Union asked the American Civil Liberties Union to challenge the rule, which was initiated in the mid-1990s in an anti-criminalization push that denied prostitutes access because of their unlawful conduct. After rallies, petitions and letters, including one from Assemblywoman Nancy Skinner, D-Berkeley, the board agreed to a hearing.
Batjer, who was appointed in July by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, said she was concerned when she learned about the regulation. The board's staff still does not know what prompted the enactment of a regulation that specified prostitution as a qualification for denying compensation.
Corrected 12/13/13: A previous version of this article misstated the name of the California Victim Compensation and Government Claims Board.