Still, Wiley acknowledged, the investigation “did take longer than was acceptable.”
And it’s reasonable to ask whether, if Ms. R had been, say, a prominent business leader or politician, the case would have twice been handed to retiring investigators.
But the long wait for her assailant to get off the streets was only the beginning of Ms. R’s struggle with the state’s law-enforcement system. And her fight to get public recognition for the rights of sex workers who are raped has spread to the ACLU and has become an organizing tool for sex-worker groups around the state.
What Ms. R is trying to do seems simple: She’s asking the state of California to treat people who are injured while on the job as sex workers to be treated the same way as any other crime victims who are temporarily disabled and unable to work as the result of a crime.
This state has a Victim’s Compensation Fund, and for most people hurt by criminals, it’s a valuable safety net: It offers payments to people who miss work because of injuries that clearly weren’t their fault.
But when Ms. R applied to be compensated for her inability to conduct her normal professional trade, the fund board said no: A small phrase that’s an interpretation of state law specifically bars payment to anyone engaged in the act of “prostitution.”
In a Dec. 19, 2012 letter, the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office recommended that Ms. R’s application be denied because “the victim was involved activity related to prostitution and the crime occurred as a direct result of activity related to prostitution.
“It’s unfair,” Ms. R told me over coffee in downtown San Francisco, where she’s going to school and seeking to earn a real-estate license. I feel victimized all over again.”
The ACLU agrees. In a June 12, 2013 letter to Victims Compensation Board, ACLU attorney Micaela Davis said that the provision barring sex workers from compensation when they’re victims of a crime runs completely against the original intent of the law.
“The purpose of the CalVCP is to assist residents of the state of California in obtaining compensation for the pecuniary losses they suffer as the result of criminal acts.” Prostitution, they ACLU argues, isn’t likely to cause physical injury to anyone else, and thus shouldn’t be listed as a crime that invalidates the rights of rape victims.
“If an act of prostitution preceded an injury-causing crime, it would not be the crime from which the injury resulted. Instead, it would be the crime, such as sexual assault, that would be injury-causing.”
It turns out that Alameda County District Attorney Nancy O’Malley agrees. “The current law states that a person involved in a crime is ineligible for compensation, so we had no choice but to make that determination,” Teresa Drenick, a spokesperson for the office, told me. “But the district attorney believes that anyone who is the victim of a violent crime, including a sex worker, ought to be eligible for compensation.”
And at a forum Nov. 12, a series of speakers pointed out the double standard. “Denying compensation based on involvement in the crime of prostitution is blaming the victims and dividing us into who is worthy and who isn’t,” said Rachel West of the US Prostitutes Collective. “When a rape victim is not compensated, it sends a message that rape is tolerated or even encouraged.”
Ms. R’s testimony to the commission was compelling: “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 – and all of this was discounted.
“I was made to feel that I was somehow responsible for the events leading to the [crime]. No, I didn’t ask to be raped. And my actions did not encourage the rape.”
Losing the state compensation is particularly rough because it’s a last-ditch program: There’s no compensation if the victim has insurance or other resources or can continue to work after the crime. It’s only when someone has nothing else to live on that VICAP kicks in.
The section that bars compensation to sex workers isn’t enshrined in state law; it’s part of the administrative regulations to board has adopted. And the board could simply overturn it.
But it’s more than a technicality at issue here: The board, and if not the state Legislature, would have to, in the words of the venerable sex-worker group COYOTE, “Cast Off Your Old Tired Ethics” and recognize that sex workers, like all workers, can be injured in the line of work, and it that injury is due to a crime, they ought to be treated no differently from anyone else.
Is that too much of a stretch for California in 2013?