Criminalizing sex workers makes them more vulnerable to violence, SF Bay View


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. In one case, a woman who wanted to press charges against a violent rapist was not allowed to do so because the police said that any outstanding warrants against her would be enforced. We later heard that the same man had attacked another woman.

When a women insists on her right to move forward with her case, sexism, hostility and a “don’t care” attitude by the police and courts means that few rape cases end in conviction, even fewer when the victim is a prostitute. Black sex workers face racism at every stage of the criminal justice process and are even less likely than whites to get protection or justice against rape, racist sexual assault or other violence.

Serial murderers often start with prostitute women and then go on to murder other women. This is one reason we say that when prostitute women aren’t safe, no woman is safe.

Extending criminalization of women with Stay Out of Areas of Prostitution (SOAP) orders has had a devastating effect on the safety of people on the street. Introduced in the ‘90s, SOAPs authorize people to be banned from an area, fined or imprisoned. SOAPs have divided communities, allowed more abuse of power by the police and helped to whip up an atmosphere of hostility against children, other young people, sex workers and people of color.

When women working on Capp Street were asked what changes would help them to get out of prostitution, almost all of them said: affordable housing and childcare. About 70 percent of prostitute women are mothers, mostly single mothers struggling to support families.

There is little or no recognition for women as the main caregivers everywhere. Women’s wages are less than 76 percent of men’s – less for Black and immigrant women – far below what is needed to survive.

Welfare “reform” has taken away the right to the little money that served as a last resort from being out on the street and has resulted in over 11 million women, mainly single mothers, losing their only income.

San Francisco’s recommendations and resolution

You need look no further than the case of serial rapist Jack Bokin to know why San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ Resolution No. 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. He was finally convicted and sentenced to 231 years largely because of a campaign spearheaded by US PROStitutes Collective and Legal Action for Women, who kept a constant presence of observers in court and publicized the court proceedings.

Implementation of the Supervisors’ “Mitigating Violence Against Women” resolution could for the first time mean that the police and courts would be required to prioritize protecting prostitute women from rape and other violence and that the $7.6 million now used to prosecute sex workers would be used instead for protection and services for women.

The 1996 San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution, of which US PROS was a key member, brought for the first time representatives from Black, immigrant, youth, l/b/g/t and women’s groups, organizations on AIDS, health workers and lawyers together with the mayor’s office, the district attorney, the public health department, the police and neighborhood residents

After two years of active debate and careful considerations, the task force put forward groundbreaking recommendations that protection from violence is the priority and that the City should move towards decriminalizing prostitution, a view shared by the majority of the general public.

But some have questioned why the San Francisco resolution demands that offences of rape and violence be vigorously prosecuted. Nia Jackson from US PROStitutes Collective explains:

“Ideally we are against prisons. We campaign against imprisonment especially for crimes of poverty like prostitution. We are against the abuse of prisoners and recognize that prisons are the new sweatshops, all of which we oppose. We have fought for an end to the brutal regimes that exist where women and others imprisoned are systematically raped, abused and pushed to suicide.

“But in a case like Jack Bokin, and other rapists and murderers, in the absence of any secure alternative to prison, women’s right to live in safety has to take precedence.”

Amnesty for the homeless, a solution for women?

According to a 1991 Senate Judiciary hearing, nationally 50 percent of all homeless women and children are on the streets because of violence in the home. Hundreds are forced to sell sex to survive. One third of San Francisco’s homeless are women. Yet domestic violence is still treated as a low priority by SF police.

As a result of pressure from homeless people, the District Attorney in San Francisco recently agreed to an amnesty that withdraws all pending warrants for so-called “nuisance crimes.” This amnesty could also be granted 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.

As poverty, homelessness, debt and cuts in welfare have increased, more women, especially mothers, have ended up in jail or prison for “crimes of poverty.” Those convicted of a drug related felony upon release cannot get welfare for life and cannot get access to subsidized housing. 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 a day is spent on the Iraq war and occupation, while those in power claim there is no money for education, healthcare, housing, social security and other community resources.

It is clear that the demand is intensifying in San Francisco and many other places for money not to go to war or to criminalize people, and also for an end to criminalization of sex work and the violence and divisiveness it promotes. Recent legislation to decriminalize prostitution in New Zealand has resulted in women having the support to report violence.

The SF Task Force recommendations on prostitution offer direction for the City, and the implementation of the Supervisors’ Resolution No. 1564 would be a big step on the road to justice for all of us made vulnerable to attack and other degradation by poverty and lack of resources. We ask for your support.

by Rachel West May 05

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