SALT LAKE CITY — Sex workers in Utah say it's difficult to find someone in their industry who hasn't had a client take advantage of them.
In extreme cases, they are beaten, raped or robbed. But many don't report such crimes to police for fear they'll face criminal charges stemming from their own line of work. Advocates say the dilemma gives perpetrators license to reoffend and target the vulnerable group.
A proposal now pending at the Utah Legislature seeks to change that. The bill would grant immunity from criminal charges of solicitation and prostitution — generally misdemeanor offenses — for those who report crimes like rape, extortion or aggravated robbery.
"The violence comes from criminalization and stigma," said Nicole Maestas with the Magdalene Collective, a support group for Utah sex workers. "It makes sense to keep people safe."
Several police departments already direct officers not to arrest those who come forward as victims, but not every force takes the same approach, said Rep. Paul Ray, the Clearfield Republican sponsoring the measure. He wants to ensure immunity across Utah for those reporting more serious crimes in good faith.
"These are humans. And to say that just because of what they do, it's OK to victimize them, I disagree with that," Ray said. "It gets the word out a little bit better that if they are victimized, they have the right to call and go after the perpetrators."
Ray opposes efforts to legalize prostitution but believes granting a reprieve for victims is important. He decided to sponsor the bill after hearing Maestas and others raise the concern at a meeting Salt Lake police held in the fall.
The city's police force is among the Utah departments with a policy against investigating sex workers who report crimes, Ray said. His co-sponsor, Senate Minority Leader Karen Mayne, agrees with the tack.
"We need to make sure that all avenues for safety for our citizens are available," said Mayne, D-West Valley City.
The broad classification of sex work applies not just to prostitution. It also encompasses phone sex operators, webcam performers and so-called sugar babies, who generally enter into relationships in exchange for money or gifts.
Despite the vulnerability inherent in the work, "the problems are the minority or we wouldn't stay," said Maestas, a relationship coach and sex educator for adults.
But when a sex worker is victimized, "there is very little compassion," said Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro, a Salt Lake City-based writer, mental health educator and activist. "That's why laws like this one are so important. They're baby steps toward a larger goal of hopefully decriminalization. We're a long ways off, but that's the larger goal."
Many of her counterparts in Utah find the work accommodates their disabilities. Several are already members of other vulnerable populations such as Utah's transgender community, or they are battling homelessness or addiction, Rodriguez-Cayro said.
She and Maestas liken the pending legislative proposal to recent laws in Utah and other states that protect those who call police when a friend overdoses on illicit drugs.
"It's very much a harm reduction thing," Maestas said. "We're not promoting something or encouraging it. We're trying to allow people to come forward safely and have those protections that everybody else has."
The bill advanced Monday in a unanimous vote from the Senate Judiciary, Law Enforcement and Criminal Justice Committee. No one spoke against it.
The panel's chairman, Sen. Todd Weiler, sees it in a similar light to existing Utah law granting amnesty from polygamy charges for those who report abuse to protect a child.
Weiler, R-Woods Cross, said after the hearing that the new measure would help police go after violent offenders, such as a pimp who abuses an employee's young daughter.
"We're not legalizing prostitution. We're just saying, for this call, when the police come out, they're going to focus on the complaint and not on, 'By the way, how do you pay your bills?'" Weiler said.
The Beehive State would not be first to pass such a bill. California enacted a similar measure last year.
Still, Utah is "on the leading edge of a national movement," said Turner Bitton, board chairman of the Utah Harm Reduction Coalition. His meetings with lawmakers and law enforcement in conservative Utah have shown him there is "widespread agreement that this is the right thing to do," he said.
The proposed move is tucked into HB40, a wide-ranging bill born out of a task force focused on improving Utah's criminal code. If successful, it would make other changes, including a repeal of sodomy and adultery as offenses.
The measure awaits a vote in the full Senate.