On election day many hope for a transformation away from the politics of war, greed and repression. Many San Franciscans also hope for a transformation for sex workers and our families, away from violence and criminalization.
Proposition K on the San Francisco ballot calls for the decriminalization of consenting sex, and for laws against rape, coercion and other violent crimes to be vigorously enforced regardless of whether the victim is a sex worker. It aims to increase women’s safety and make it easier for sex workers to report violence without fear of arrest.
Prop K is a remedy for the daily terror that sex workers face. Terror of not knowing how we are going to feed our children or pay for healthcare, of being arrested and jailed, of losing custody of our children to state agencies, of being raped knowing that police and courts won’t protect us, of being ostracized by family and friends. and for those of us who are immigrants, the terror of being deported:
I come from Brazil. At age 12, I was forced to work as a domestic servant to help support my family. I was sexually assaulted. I moved (to another) country to marry and after the relationship broke down, I became a sex worker to support myself and my child. I saved enough to open a working flat and made sure the women who worked there would be safe. After two years, I was arrested and convicted of trafficking even though the police and courts accepted that I treated women “kindly.” I was put in prison for three years and separated from my young daughter. My home and savings were confiscated. My family and I were vilified in the press and I am now fighting deportation. All I did was enable women to work safely — why is that a criminal offense?
Racist policing and courts ensure that the majority of people arrested and in jail for prostitution are people of color.
But sex workers are done with being terrorized. We’ve come together with people in all walks of life to fight for Prop K: mothers, grandmothers, students, doctors, nurses, lawyers, San Francisco’s Democratic Party, community organizations and even newspapers. We are taking on those who victimize us: the police and District Attorney, merchants and property developers, and programs that benefit from city contracts for anti-prostitution law enforcement, including those feminists on a moralistic crusade.
They are spreading lies to discredit Prop K, claiming it will prevent traffickers from being prosecuted. But the head of the Public Defenders’ Office says that “Prop K would not prohibit local law enforcement from enforcing the federal law to combat the exploitation of persons who are kidnapped, transported, abused and held captive by sex traffickers.” He also points out that traffickers are not being prosecuted under the California law. We know from experience that immigrant sex workers are the real target.
In New Zealand, prostitution and sex work were decriminalized. A recent review showed there has been no increase in prostitution, but there is less coercion and exploitation, and women feel safer as they are more able to insist on their rights and report violence to the police.
Prop K would enable the estimated $11.4 million a year spent on terrorizing sex workers to be used to tackle the poverty, low wages, homelessness, domestic violence and debt that force many women, particularly single mothers and young people, into prostitution to survive.
A win for Prop K is a win away from the years of repression that has criminalized the most vulnerable among us. It will set an important precedent in the US and far beyond.
Rachel West is a spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based US PROStitutes Collective (US PROS), part of the International Prostitutes Collective, and works with the “Yes on Prop K” campaign. She was appointed to the San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution. See Terror for Women Exists Throughout History, Across Cultures by Mahin Hassibi in this edition of On The Issues Magazine. Also See Works Hard for Her Money: Feminists and Prostiutes, the Summer 2008 edition of On The Issues Magazine.com