San Francisco’s Prostitutes Support a Proposition

Sex-related businesses have expanded in the North Beach neighborhood of San Francisco. A ballot measure in the city would decriminalize prostitution.


Published: October 31, 2008
New York Times

SAN FRANCISCO — When Proposition K was added to Tuesday’s ballot, many people likely snickered at the possibility that San Francisco might take its place alongside such prostitute-friendly havens as Amsterdam and a few rural counties in nearby Nevada.

Kamala D. Harris, the city’s district attorney, called the proposition “ridiculous.”

Carol Leigh, an advocate for prostitutes, said the measure would protect women.

But this week, it became readily apparent that city officials are not laughing anymore about the measure, which would effectively decriminalize the world’s oldest profession in San Francisco. At a news conference on Wednesday, Mayor Gavin Newsom and other opponents seemed genuinely worried that Proposition K might pass.

“This is not cute. This is not fanciful,” Mr. Newsom said, standing in front of the pink-on-pink facade of a closed massage parlor in the Tenderloin district. “This is a big mistake.”

Supporters of the measure say it is a long-overdue correction of a criminal approach toward prostitutes, which neither rehabilitates nor helps them, and often ignores their complaints of abuse.

“Basically, if you feel that you’re a criminal, it can be used against you,” said Carol Leigh, who says she has worked as a prostitute for 25 years and now works as an advocate for those who trade sex for money. “It’s a really serious situation, and ending this criminalization is the only solution I see to protect these other women working now.”

The language in Proposition K is far-reaching. It would forbid the city police from using any resources to investigate or prosecute people who engage in prostitution. It would also bar financing for a “first offender” program for prostitutes and their clients or for mandatory “re-education programs.”

One of the measure’s broadest prohibitions would prevent the city from applying for federal or state grants that use “racial profiling” in anti-prostitution efforts, an apparent reference to raids seeking illegal immigrants.

The fight over the ballot initiative has become an awkward test of San Francisco’s dual attitudes of live-and-let-live and save-the-world. In the campaign’s closing days, the rhetoric on both sides has heated up. Supporters of the measure accuse the city of profiting from prostitution through fines. They also imply that laws against prostitution are inherently racist because minorities are disproportionately arrested.

Proposition K, they say, will increase safety for women, save taxpayer money, and cut down on the number of murders of prostitutes at the hands of serial killers.

But opponents dismiss the notion of legions of prostitutes happily romping through the city’s neighborhoods. “This isn’t ‘Pretty Woman,’ ” was how one put it.

Anti-Proposition K forces paint grim pictures of girls and women from across the country held against their will in dark and dangerous brothels here, forced into unsafe sexual behavior, and often beaten, intimidated and raped.

“You’re going to have young girls recruited and brought to San Francisco, and they are going to be standing on these corners,” said Norma Hotaling, the founder and director of Standing Against Global Exploitation, an outreach project here. “And there’s not going to be any services for them to go to, and the police are not going to have any means of investigating the cases.”

The measure seems particularly abhorrent to San Francisco’s district attorney, Kamala D. Harris, who has made fighting human trafficking a priority.

“I think it’s completely ridiculous, just in case there’s any ambiguity about my position,” Ms. Harris said. “It would put a welcome mat out for pimps and prostitutes to come on into San Francisco.”

Central to Ms. Harris’s objections is the theory that prostitution is a victimless crime. Instead, she said, it exposes prostitutes to drug, gun and sexual crimes, and “compromises the quality of life in a community.”

She also dismisses the argument that prostitutes would be more likely to come forward if their business were not illegal.

“We’re in the practice and habit of protecting victims, not criminalizing victims,” Ms. Harris said, adding that she often reminds juries that the law protects people even if they are prostitutes or drug users. “Our penal code was not created just to protect Snow White,” she said, noting that 65 percent of cases handled by her department’s sexual assault unit involved sex workers as victims.

Officials with the State Attorney General’s Office would not comment on the measure.

The city’s Board of Supervisors, several of whom have expressed support for the measure in the past, would have the power to amend Proposition K if it passed. San Francisco, which has an exotic dancers’ union and a well-established history of sexual freedom, is not the first liberal outpost to mull legalizing prostitution. A decriminalization bill was defeated by voters in Berkeley, Calif., in 2004.

Heidi Machen, a spokeswoman for the opposition, said her side was hoping for a solid defeat. “We want this to fail by a landslide,” she said. “So it doesn’t come back.”

A local CBS poll released Thursday found that 35 percent of likely voters supported the measure, while 39 percent were opposed. But 26 percent were still undecided.

On Thursday night, about 50 supporters of the measure gathered at a church to press their case. One of them, Patricia West, 22, said she has been working for about a year as an “independent, in-call escort.”

Ms. West said that she enjoyed her work and believed that Proposition K would allow prostitutes to organize into collectives and negotiate for safer working conditions and better wages.

Ms. West concedes that what she does for a living “can be dangerous.” But she hoped Proposition K would make her occupation safer and more legitimate. “Working in a coal mine can be really dangerous, too,” she said “but it pays a lot of money so you’re compensated for your risk.”

Correction: An earlier version of this article misstated the number of years Carol Leigh says she has worked as a prostitute. It is 25 years, not 35.


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