The legislature considers so many terrible, horrible, no good, very bad bills (apologies to Judith Viorst)—and passes many of them—that it’s a breath of fresh air when the legislature actually does something reasonable and good.
Recently I praised the “Free-Range Kids” bill, which passed both chambers unanimously. Now the legislature has gone and done something else praiseworthy, again unanimously! I may faint. On April 13, the Senate passed House Bill 22-1288 (which had previously wound through the House), “Safe Reporting Assaults Suffered By Sex Workers.”
Mitigating harm the legislature caused
Here’s what the bill’s summary says: “The bill grants immunity to the charge of prostitution, soliciting for prostitution, or prostitute making display (prostitution offense) to a person who seeks assistance from a law enforcement officer, the 911 system, or a medical provider for a victim or as a victim of a violent crime or offense (crime) if the evidence for the charge of a prostitution offense was obtained as a result of the person seeking assistance or as a result of the need for assistance.”
The idea here is that sex workers are not likely to call in a report of criminal violence, against themselves or others, if the government will punish them for their troubles. When violent men (and, let’s face it, usually we’re talking about violent men in this context) know that sex workers face punishment for reporting a violent crime, they’re more likely to assault or otherwise harm sex workers or others in their presence.
We need not redden our hands with applause, though. Here the legislature is merely mitigating some of the harm that the legislature created in the first place. This becomes clear if you read through the bill and see that the legislature is offering partial immunity from actions for which the legislature previously created punishments. Still, this is a big step forward. Well done, our (sometimes) good and (occasionally) faithful servants.
Alex Burness of the Denver Post also deserves a lot of credit for his excellent reporting on this matter. He begins his March 17 article: “After the man pulled Pasha Ripley’s hair, raped her and beat her to the point that she’d later need 140 stitches, he reminded her of what little power sex workers like her have in these situations. ‘Who are you gonna tell? What are you gonna do?’ she recalled him saying as he walked off.”
Burness also quotes committee testimony of Tiara Kelley: “I can recall a time that I was beat up in a parking lot by a client. It was very brutal. I was all bloody, really beaten badly, and I called the police looking for help. The police arrived and they never asked me one single question about the gentleman that beat me up. . . . They asked me what I did, why I was in the person’s car.”
Hopefully this new legislation also will put police on notice that they ought to prioritize bringing violent criminals to justice over making the easy bust of a nonviolent sex worker. That we need to remind some cops of that indicates a problem beyond the scope of this article or the legislation at hand.
Why is consensual sex a crime?
I realize what I’m about to say will be a tough sell for social conservatives, but I’ll say it anyway. This new bill raises the question of why government punishes consensual sexual relationships among adults in the first place. Any decent person immediately recognizes that a violent assault is a vastly more serious matter than nonviolent, consensual sex. Should the latter even be considered a crime? I say no.
Consensual prostitution involving adults should not be a crime for the same reason that possessing “large capacity” gun magazines should not be a crime: It violates no one’s rights. Government should criminalize only rights-violating actions.
Some years ago I heard a talk by Reggie Rivers (the former Bronco). Rivers made the point that it’s perfectly legal (or practically so) for a man to take a woman out to an expensive restaurant and to buy her nice gifts with an implicit or explicit expectation that the woman will have sex with him.
Whether that’s a nice thing to do is another question. Obviously it’s a jerk move. My advice: If someone tries to in effect buy a sexual relationship with you, run! Obviously if at any point the woman backs out, that is her right. We’re not talking about a legally binding contract. We’re talking only about an adult woman who agrees to the arrangement and follows through with it. That’s legal, at least in practice.
Technically, Colorado statute 18-7-201 covers “other things of value” besides money “in exchange” for sex, but if a couple says the expectation of sex wasn’t a formal exchange but merely verbal foreplay, there’s no way a prosecutor could convict (especially if the couple could afford a decent lawyer). We all know the prostitution laws don’t apply to men of means who, in effect, indirectly buy sexual relationships with attractive young women.
But, Rivers noted, it is clearly illegal for a man to pay the woman the cash equivalent of the dinner and gifts in exchange for sex. If government agents find out about that, they will punish both the man and the woman for it.
Some legislators are starting to rethink the government’s war on prostitution. On March 21, Senator Rhonda Fields (D-Aurora Tweeted, “HB-1288 protects and understands the ways in which criminalization impacts the lives of people in the sex sector.” She used the hash tag for “Decriminalize sex work.”
Burness remarked, “This is the first time I’ve seen an active Colorado lawmaker call for decriminalizing sex work. (There may be others who agree with Fields, I’ve just not seen/heard it before.)”
I hope that other legislators start to think seriously about the broader issues. Living in a free society means we must tolerate behavior by others that we don’t like and even that is positively harmful, so long as it violates no one’s rights. Consensual sex among adults for money is in that category. Legal prostitution would dramatically reduce criminal violence against sex workers, free up law enforcement resources to go after rights violators (including people who traffic children), and move most prostitution into a safer, regulated environment.
Regardless, we can evaluate House Bill 1288 on its own terms. It puts miscreants on notice that their crimes against sex workers will not be tolerated or abetted by government. That’s a good start.
Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com. This op-ed was originally published at Complete Colorado.