After an awful lot of back-pedaling and confusion, both the Honolulu Police Department and Hawaiian lawmakers are in agreement that it's time to permanently strike a sexist and harmful piece of legislation from the Hawaiian books. In case you missed it, Hawaii's 1972 law known as HB 1926 exempted undercover police officers from prosecution for sexual conduct with a prostitute if they engaged in sex while "in the course and scope of duties." In other words, the law gave a pass to police officers who had sex with a prostitute, as long as they could demonstrate that it was related to an investigation (i.e. "Let me have sex with you before arresting you, since that's more fun for me."). Whether or not the exemption was actually used, the law provided police officers an opportunity to grossly violate the public's trust and abuse their power.
Even if the world of sex work and criminal justice is completely foreign to you, the strike-down of this insane exemption is a big deal for women. Here's why you can breathe a little easier every time America says enough to laws that hurt women, no matter their background.
The relationship between women and law enforcement is fraught with complexity. On one hand, the vast majority of police officers honorably serve and protect men, women and children from violence and harm. But on the other hand, police brutality, sexual violence and sexual harassment are all too common for many women. Recall, for instance, stories of women reporting rape only to have police officers ask them, "What did you do to encourage it?"
When abusive laws like HB 1926 are dismantled, women can claim law enforcement as our own, rather than an outside force that furthers harm rather than relieves it.
It's all too easy to make assumptions about other women from a place of judgment and victim-blaming, but it's those pervasive attitudes that make the world more dangerous for all women. For instance, when prostitutes report sexual assault, their concerns are often disregarded because they're blamed for the decisions that preceded the assault. They're seen as "asking for it," or "dressing for it." Unfortunately, those victim-blaming phrases are found throughout our culture and make it difficult for women to seek help when they've been harmed.
The strike-down of HB 1926 allows women to stand united against any type of victimization, against any type of woman. The safety we secure for ourselves, after all, is only as strong as the safety we secure for all women.
Even beyond prostitution, our criminal justice system appears supremely concerned with people who aren't the problem. Consider, for instance, the young man who is locked up for months because he is caught carrying a small amount of weed. Meanwhile, where is his supplier? And where did it all come from? We have fewer answers when it comes to perpetrators and criminals on a large scale.
It's the same thing with prostitution. Many prostitutes work for pimps, and when they do, they usually can't get out of the game without risking life or limb. Furthermore, many prostitutes were trafficked into the industry as minors. Why on earth did HB 1926 afford police officers the opportunity to have sex with a prostitute as part of a criminal investigation, when the sex workers aren't even the source of the problem? Now that the exemption is gone, women everywhere can hope that law enforcement returns to the hard work of finding the criminals who exploit women in the first place.
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