People from different communities came together to discuss the Criminalization of Survival: Poverty, Violence and Prostitution on June 9, 2005 at St. Boniface Church in San Francisco. This Community Dialogue was called by the In Defense of Prostitute Women’s Safety Project (IDPWS) and was attended by a multiracial crowd of sex workers, church women, community activists, attorneys, neighborhood residents, homeless people, trade unionists, anti-war activists and others….
Much of the event focused on bringing out the vulnerability of sex workers to violence and other abuse as a result of criminalization and at building public support for implementing the Mitigating Violence Against Prostitutes Resolution in San Francisco. The Resolution, which grew out of recommendations of the 1996 SF Task Force on Prostitution, was passed by the Board of Supervisors in 2000. It calls on the police and courts to protect prostitutes from violence. It demands that the $7.6 million dollars a year (1998 estimate, more by now) that is being spent to arrest, investigate, prosecute and jail prostitutes, be spent instead on protection and services to benefit sex workers and the entire community. Given that violence against sex workers is often not taken seriously by law enforcement, the resolution also recommends vigorous enforcement of laws against rape and other violent crimes against sex workers.
Central to the resolution’s demands is decriminalization of prostitution in San Francisco. According to Rachel West of the US PROStitutes Collective (US PROS)
“Evidence shows that criminalization makes sex workers more vulnerable to violence. Prostitute women facing rape, sexual assault and murder are afraid to report for fear of arrest – especially if they have outstanding warrants – or deportation. Women of color also face the racism of the criminal justice system, and les-bi-gay-trans sex workers face homophobia.”
A woman who spoke about her experience in prison illustrated why many sex workers are deterred from reporting violence to the police. Once while working, a man pulled a knife on her. She reported the attack to some nearby police whilst the assailant was still present and the knife he used was visible. The police failed to write a report, saying that because of her history of prostitution, her story may not be credible. One officer even suggested that she could have initiated the assault.
Nell Myhand from Women of Color in the Global Women’s Strike, initiated a humorous but deadly accurate skit that illustrated the problem with Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution Orders (SOAPs) – orders banning people from particular areas under threat of arrest and imprisonment. It showed the true story of a woman with a SOAP imposed on her as a result of a previous arrest for prostitution, who was picked up by the police whilst waiting for a bus. Even though she wasn’t working at the time, she was re-arrested and faced either 30 days in jail or a 500-dollar fine. Ms Myhand went on to say that SOAP orders are not well known in San Francisco but are being widely used around the country and are resulting in increased criminalization of prostitute women. She concluded that SOAP orders are unconstitutional and could be legally challenged.
Eric Luce, a public defender in San Francisco gave his perspective on the current laws against prostitution. He said that most of the cases he’s been involved in resulted in those arrested being diverted to either SAGE (Standing Against Global Exploitation) or the John School (First Offender Program or FOPP), diversion programs. FOPP charges $1000 and both programs have a punitive approach to prostitution.
According to Mr Luce, there is no clear understanding on how this money is spent and by some accounts, decoys are known to bust about 10 men a night. “Its unconfirmed if the DA is getting part of this money,” said Luce, “but if they are, it’s a conflict of interest. There is also talk of it funding undercover operations.” He said that the Chronicle reported that one decoy managed to supplement her $76,483 salary with $103,257 in overtime pay.
Luce described how the increase in internet busts meant that the vice squad spent a lot of time surfing sex sites targeting certain women they wanted to see naked in the atmosphere of a fraternity party. He confirmed US PROS’s experience that anti-trafficking legislation is primarily used to target and deport immigrant women. He stated that there are some substantial grants for police to go after traffickers but it is only immigrant women that are being busted, not traffickers. This was taken up later by Rachel West who explained that if law enforcement wanted to protect women who might be exploited by so-called traffickers, there were plenty of existing laws which could be used, such as anti-kidnapping or child labor laws. Ms West also reported that SAGE seems to work closely with Homeland Security, Immigration and Customs and the FBI on the issue of trafficking. She condemned attempts by the Bush government to use accusations of lack of action against traffickers to destabilize countries like Venezuela that are seen as a threat to US dominance.
As the evening’s featured speaker, Margaret Prescod put the issue of prostitution in a larger context. She described the history of US PROS which began as a group of women of color sex workers in New York City. The women made clear that for sex workers of color, it was difficult to get work inside houses, and were more often forced to work on the street. “Women of color faced discrimination in sex work as they didn’t often have the look, wardrobe or color to get work in higher paid houses or fancy hotels.”
Ms Prescod brought out the sex work that all women do whatever our job or situation. “Women, because of economic reasons, might have some ‘arrangement’ with the grocery store or worked out some deal with a friend to pay off a note on a couch, or to help pay the rent.” She disputed the moralism of the feminist and left movements that single out sex work as degrading. “Packing boxes in Wal-Mart is degrading. In this society, a society that focuses on killing people, poverty and greed, most of what they force us to do is degrading.”
Ms Prescod spoke forcefully against the devastating effect of imprisoning women on families and communities. 80% of women in prison are single mothers. “When women get out of prison they have little money and nowhere to live, which makes it difficult if not impossible for them to be reunited with their children. They can’t even stay with relatives if the relatives live in public housing.” She was glad to report that AB855, a bill which was passed by the Assembly in Sacramento (but still has to pass the Senate) would remove the ban on welfare mothers getting services if they have a drug felony.
The evening was concluded with a call for help with the Mitigating Violence Against Prostitutes Resolution. Betty Traynor, a Mission resident, explained that implementation of the resolution would benefit residents too. “I have lived on Capp St near 16th Street for ten years and I and my neighbors have seen women being physically and verbally abused on the street on a regular basis.” Ms Traynor explained that the Resolution would enable women to get the protection they deserved. Implementation depended on it being converted to an Ordinance. Considering the widespread support for the Resolution from the public and among Supervisors, everyone present was confident that this could be achieved and a number of people in the audience came forward to help.
To get a copy of the Stop Violence against Prostitutes. Implement the SF Task Force Recommendations on Prostitution petition and/or to get more information including what you can do to support this effort contact: US PROS at (415) 626-4114; email firstname.lastname@example.org; P.O. Box 14512, San Francisco, CA 94114.