The Criminalization of Survival: Poverty, Violence and Prostitution


Street Sheet, (San Francisco) June 2005, p7

You need look no further than the case of serial rapist Jack Bokin to know why the SF Board of Supervisors (BOS) resolution 1564, Mitigating Violence Against Prostitutes should be immediately implemented. Bokin had attacked and violently raped at least three women when Judge Perker Meeks let him out on bail.

When the case came to court the prostitute women who testified against him faced character assassinations by the defense lawyer, and made to feel that they were on trial rather than their attacker.

Bokin was finally convicted and sentenced to 231 years largely because of a campaign spearhead­ed by US PROStitutes Collective and Legal Action for Women which kept a constant presence of observers in court and publicized the proceedings.

Lori Nairne from LAW described the case as a “prototype of how sex workers are treated by the police and courts when they report rape and sexual assault.”

Some people have questioned the demand that offences of rape and violence be vigorously prosecuted. Nia Jackson from US PROStitutes Collective explains: “Ideally we wouldn’t want anyone to be sent to prison. We campaign against imprisonment especially for crimes of poverty like prostitution. We have fought for an end to the brutal regimes that exist where women are systematically raped, abused and pushed to suicide, but in a case like Bokin, in the absence of any secure alternative, women’s right to live in safety has to take precedent.”

Implementation of the. “Mitigating Violence Against Women” resolution could for the first time mean that the police and courts would be truly obliged to prioritize protecting prostitute women from rape and other violence. The $7.6 million cur­rently squandered on prosecuting sex workers could instead be spent on protection and services.

The resolution grew out of one of the most comprehensive community consultations on the issue of prostitution. The 1996 SF Task Force on Prostitution, of which US PROS was a key member, uniquely brought together representatives from Black, immigrant, youth, LBGT and women’s groups, organisations on AIDS, health workers and lawyers together with the Mayor’s office, the District Attorney, the public health department, the police and neighborhood residents. For the first time sex worker organizations were included and the police didn’t dominate the agenda. Public concern over violence against sex workers was instrumental in making it happen.

After two years of active debate and careful con­siderations, the TF put forward ground-breaking recommendations reflecting the public sentiment that it’s time for the City to move towards decrimi­nalizing prostitution. Recommendations included: shifting police priorities by stopping the arrest and prosecution of sex workers and customers; vigor­ously enforce laws against rape and other violent crimes; redirect money currently spent on enforce­ment of the prostitution laws into services; support asylum and protection from violence and abuse for sex workers who are immigrant or refugee; support services for youth; lobby for the removal of prosti­tution-related offenses as grounds for deportation or denial of citizenship; recognize sex workers as workers with legal, civil and employment rights.

Decriminalization is the priority, and is support­ed by the majority of people in San Francisco, because all the evidence shows that criminalization makes sex workers more vulnerable to violence. Prostitute women facing rape, sexual assault and murder are afraid to report violence for fear of arrest (especially if they have outstanding warrants) or deportation. So violent men feel they can hunt down hookers and get away with it.

Rachel West from the In Defense of Prostitute Women’s Safety Project describes the problem: “A woman who wanted to press charges against a violent rapist was prevented from doing so because the police insisted that any outstanding warrants against her would be enforced, despite receiving a letter from the Office of Citizen Complaints. We later heard that the same man had attacked another woman.”

Where a woman courageously persists and a case comes to court she is then subjected to what many women describe as the second rape. Sexism, hostility, indifference from the police and courts ensures that very few rape cases end in conviction, even less where the victim is a prostitute. Black sex workers who face racism at every stage of the criminal justice process are even less likely to get protec­tion or any form of redress against rape, racist sexual assault or other violence. Serial attackers often start with prostitute women (or with wives and other family members who suffer a similar lack of protection) and then go on to attack other women, proving our slogan that when prostitute women aren’t safe, no woman is safe

Criminalization also traps women and young people in prostitution. One woman described it as “The conviction that ruined my life.” She had tried for all kinds of jobs since getting a criminal record and had been rejected from all. When she was eventually employed her employer was able to pay her less because he knew she couldn’t go elsewhere.

Extending criminalization in the form of Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution (SOAP) orders has had a devastating effect on the safety of people on the street. Introduced in the 90′s, SOAPS ban people from an area under threat of a fine or prison sen­tence. They have encouraged abuse of power by the police and have fuelled a climate of hostility against children and young people, sex workers, Black people and immigrant people.


When women working in Capp Street were asked what changes would enable them to get out of prostitution they almost unanimously answered: affordable housing and childcare. About 70% of prostitute women are mothers, mostly single moth­ers struggling to support families. There is little or no recognition for women as the primary carers in society. With women’s wages still pitched at less than 76% of men’s, most jobs available to women go nowhere near covering the costs of survival. Welfare ‘reform’ has destroyed the safety net which saved many from destitution — over 11 million mainly women-headed families have lost their sole income.

And what of the thousands of homeless people who are forced to sell sex to survive. Why are they there? According to a 1991 Senate Judiciary hearing, nationally 50% of all homeless women and children are on the streets because of violence in the home. One third of San Francisco’s homeless are women. Yet domestic violence is still treated as a low priori­ty by SFPD.

As a result of pressure from homeless people, the District Attorney in San Francisco recently agreed to an amnesty which withdraws all pending warrants for so-called nuisance “crimes.” This amnesty could easily be extended to sex workers facing charges of loitering and soliciting. It would help break the endless cycle where women are forced back on the streets to pay outstanding fines and as mentioned above would go a long way in enabling women to report violence.

As poverty, homelessness and debt have increased and with welfare cuts more women, espe­cially mothers, have ended up in jail for “crimes of poverty.” Those convicted of a drug related felony are no longer entitled to welfare for life. What are women supposed to do if not turn tricks to ensure that there is food on the table?

This is in a country where $1.1 billion is squan­dered daily on the Iraq war and occupation while those in power say there is no money for education, healthcare, housing, social security and community resources.


The “Mitigating Violence against Prostitutes” resolution would free up much needed resources currently wasted on criminalization. The Task Force found that tax payers pay over $7 million a year on arrests, street sweeps, decoy operations, prosecutions and jailing of sex workers but “there is no evi­dence that if does any more than force street workers to move from one place to the next.”

Currently, the vulnerability caused by criminalization and its resulting stigmatization, prevents most prostitute women from getting access to services, and saying what services are needed and how to make existing services accessible and relevant. How can services be effective if those of us who live and/or work on the streets are not involved in shaping them? Forcing women to accept-services under threat of prosecution is not protection. It is punitive, abusive and judgmental treatment.

“We don’t want to be corralled into hostels which are little better than prisons. Staff at one place told us that our children were better off without us. That’s wrong seeing as I went on the streets in the first place to support my daughter after my violent ex left us with nothing.”

Services including drug rehabilitation, have to be independent of the police and criminal justice system non-punitive and non-mandatory. We want the money for housing, welfare benefits, affordable childcare — all the resources that would enable women to leave prostitution. Community-based bodies which include sex workers, could monitor the services to ensure that the principle of helping women is enforced.


What has not worked and must not be extended is the “Johns School” (First Offender Prostitution Program (FOPP). Under FOPP, men facing prostitu­tion charges have the option of attending a course, for which they pay a $1000 fee, instead of being prosecuted. Yet women report that arresting clients makes it even more dangerous to: work on the streets. Established safety systems among women are broken up and negotiations with clients have to be done faster as there is less time to check men out. People out on the streets for reasons unrelated to prostitution, often people of color, get targeted in these police stings.

According to the public defenders office, there is no record of how much money is made from arrest­ing men nightly, but fees paid are divided between the District Attorney office, the police and The SAGE Project, Inc. The SAGE Project runs FOPP and provides services — counselling, outreach for prostitute women and young people referred by the police after arrest, who also pay $500-1000. SAGE opposes the decriminalization of prostitution, yet their oppo­sition surely has to be seen in the context of them receiving funding from people being arrested and referred to their programs — less arrests would mean less money.

Other measures, such as anti-trafficking legisla­tion which is also promoted as helping the victims of “commercial sexual exploitation” have in reality been mostly used to deport immigrant sex workers.


Other options that have at times being consid­ered are the legalization of prostitution and /or zoning. This was rejected at the time of the Task Force and is vigorously opposed by the majority of prostitute women. Where legalization or zones exist, they are usually in isolated industrial areas, further segregating women from the rest of the community. Having to register with the police prevents women leaving prostitution and getting other jobs.

Women in the Netherlands describe the impact of legalization there: “A two tier system has devel­oped where premises can be licensed but street work, except in the few ‘tipplezones’ remains illegal. Police use their powers to clamp down even harder on those who do not work in the legalised areas… Administrative and legal controls have been intensi­fied by the Dutch police in order to ban and deport illegals, in line with the overall stricter control of illegal migrants.” (Gisela Dutting, Women’s Global Network for Reproductive Rights newsletter, no.3, 2000)

Those who proposed toleration zones have often been shown to be more interested in the potential revenue of an expanded sex industry than in protecting the rights of sex workers.

In New Zealand which decriminalized prostitution (including street work) over a year ago, the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective reports that: “Decriminalisation has made, a big difference to whether women feel able to report rape and other violence. We have made substantial gains and in some cases have turned police and courts around. Women can now question police actions.”

It is clear that the demand is intensifying in San Francisco and many other places for an end to criminalization of sex work and the violence and divisiveness it promotes. The Task Force recommendations can guide us and the implementation of Resolution 1564 would be a significant step on the road to justice for all of us made vulnerable to violence and other degradation by poverty and lack of resources. We ask for your support.

For more info: contact US PROStitutes Collective             (415) 626-4114      ;; 

PO. Box 14512, San Francisco, CA 94114.


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