Amidst the financial crisis, an imminent election and a dozen important state propositions, a proposition decriminalizing (but not legalizing) prostitution in the city of San Francisco is a rather small and contained issue. Essentially, the proposition would prevent local law enforcement authorities from investigating, arresting or prosecuting anyone for selling sex.
While proponents have touted the proposition as a step toward protecting sex workers, it merely allows the city to wash its hands of responsibility. Current laws cite prostitution as a misdemeanor punishable by fines or up to six months in prison, but these sentences are enacted to protect sex workers from a prostitute’s vicious lifestyle. Prostitution is never the rose-tinted equal exchange of money for a service by two consenting adults, but a cruel system of extortion by pimps and prostitutes’ dependency, often through drugs, on the very pimps that take their earnings and force them to work under harsh and abusive conditions.
Proposition statistics on the ballot state that decriminalizing prostitution will save the city’s police department an alleged $11 million in funds used to investigate and prosecute prostitutes. Police methods range from planned “stings,” where undercover police pose as prostitutes and lure unwitting “Johns” into paying for prostitution, to infiltrating a prostitution ring as customers. Saving $11 million in city funds is a paltry sum to prove the worth of decriminalizing prostitution, especially since it neglects to take into account possible increases in crime that will result from decriminalizing prostitution. This could be the drug market that accompanies the pimp’s business territory or the magnetic attraction of sex workers and pimps to a city that makes prostitution easier while impeding police efforts to prosecute worse aspects of prostitution, such as sex trafficking.
The proposition would also hinder rehabilitation projects like San Francisco’s First Offender Prostitution Program (FOPP). The program was introduced in 1995 in order to radically change the city’s approach to prostitution, from its previous revolving-door recidivism to a four-part approach: prevention tactics for young women, intervention for older women, arrest and education services for “Johns” and counseling and support for sex workers wishing to change their occupation. Passing Proposition K would prevent local police from pressuring sex workers to leave their field for beneficial workshops.
San Francisco is not the first big city in California to try to pass a proposition like Proposition K; Berkeley rejected a 2004 attempt to decriminalize prostitution. Only two states allow prostitution in a severely limited form: Nevada allows brothels in strictly rural counties and Rhode Island allows prostitution behind closed doors between consenting adults, but forbids brothels. This extremely limited form of prostitution allows communities some form of control and confines prostitution to private residences and establishments.
The measure is an interesting but terribly drafted piece of legislation that refuses to go the distance by demanding government regulation alongside full legalization. In 2003, New Zealand narrowly passed a law legalizing prostitution, but has several requirements for sex transactions. Prostitutes can refuse to have sex with clients for any reason, even after payment, and cannot be coerced into doing the act; prostitutes must use “prophylactic sheaths” (condoms) or some other form of sexual barrier to prevent sexually transmitted diseases or be fined; sex workers “at work” must comply with Occupational Safety and Health guidelines; brothels can be relocated to specific zones indicated by local Councils but cannot be banned outright; and most importantly, operators (managers) can be heavily fined or imprisoned if they have hired a sex worker under the age of 18.
Clearly, New Zealand has taken steps to regulate the sex industry in a mature fashion to prevent health risks and to protect workers. Without government regulation, San Francisco cannot ensure the health and safety of its workers, nor could it adequately prevent underage sex workers from entering the field or combat sex trafficking. Prostitution in Amsterdam was legalized in 1988, and since then the sex worker population has unionized to receive better representation and fight for legal rights.
California and federal law would still outlaw prostitution if Proposition K was passed, but decriminalizing prostitution without regulating the health and safety of sex workers – in a nutshell, legally endorsing prostitution – can only lead to unclear jurisdiction between city, state and federal prosecution and will impede police from protecting sex workers from pimps, trafficking and drugs. Were the proposition to take a clear stance by advocating the legalization of prostitution (and giving responsibility to the government for its regulation), the proposition would become less of a legal issue and more of a matter subject to debates of morality.
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