“Brutalized with little recourse”: Colorado lawmakers take a first step to protect sex workers

By ALEX BURNESS | aburness@denverpost.com | The Denver Post

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.

At the hospital, staff wanted to call police on the man who’d assaulted her, but she wouldn’t let them.

“I knew that if I told the truth about what happened to me, I would be in jail,” said Ripley, of Longmont, who no longer does sex work.

Colorado lawmakers say it’s unacceptable that anyone would feel the way Ripley did, and they’re poised to pass a bill to do something about it.

HB22-1288, which debuted in committee Wednesday, proposes to grant sex workers immunity from prostitution charges when reporting any of about two-dozen serious crimes, including human trafficking, murder, manslaughter, assault, false imprisonment and stalking.

“These are heinous crimes, horrible crimes,” said bill sponsor and state Rep. Matt Soper, a Republican of Delta. “The ability to encourage someone who has actually seen these crimes or been a victim of these crimes to go ahead and come forward, … it really is trying to encourage those witnesses.”

The House Judiciary Committee includes far-right and leftist members alike, and seldom agrees on any legislation of consequence. But it advanced this bill unanimously, and a couple of members said afterward that they expect it to move through the Capitol with little resistance.

Distrust of law enforcement is second-nature to most in this line of work, so many sex workers are skeptical that the bill, if signed into law, will be broadly impactful. In Denver alone since 2016, about 1,000 people — including some of the most vulnerable, street-based sex workers — have been arrested on prostitution charges, an October Denver Post investigation found.

One former street-based sex worker, Tiara Kelly, told the committee a story that underscored why sex workers are so often scared to report crimes.

“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,” she said. “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.”

She said she was made to feel as though she had done something to deserve the assault, and that she was then pressured into not pressing charges.

“Put yourself in their situation: after being raped or assaulted and under extreme duress, the power of going to jail is a strong motivator,” said bill sponsor and state Rep. Brianna Titone, an Arvada Democrat.

“People who engage in sex work are being brutalized with little recourse.”

Ripley, Kelly and members of the committee said that to make HB22-1288 as effective as possible, it will be important to get the word out about it.

Sex workers face plenty of challenges that this bill won’t solve. There are some 600 felonies in Colorado, and all but a sliver are excluded from this immunity policy. The bill doesn’t propose to eliminate any penalties related to prostitution, meaning sex workers are still criminals in the eyes of the law. Many, and particularly people of color and transgender people, get into sex work because of economic desperation — to which this bill doesn’t contemplate any fixes.

Plus, the legislature can’t solve widespread misunderstanding. At the Capitol, in law enforcement and in the general public, false notions that all sex workers are forced into it, and that sex workers cause human trafficking, remain persistent.

That’s part of why some sex workers are glad to see this bill. It is, if nothing else, they say, it’s a rare recognition by people in power of the humanity of this population and of the danger they routinely face.

Ripley was in tears as lawmakers voted in the committee.