SF’s Proposition K: Changing the Landscape for Sex Workers

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SF’s Proposition K: Changing the Landscape for Sex Workers

Sienna Baskin and Melissa Ditmore

Proposition K, San Francisco's measure to prohibit the use of public funds to enforce laws criminalizing prostitution, would change the landscape for sex workers in the city in critical ways.

Next week, San Francisco voters
will vote on Proposition K, which would prohibit the use
of public funds to enforce laws criminalizing prostitution, and mandate
that police investigate crimes against sex workers.  The passage
of Proposition K would change the landscape for sex workers in San Francisco
in critical ways.  

First, by removing police officers’
power to arrest sex workers, it would reduce sex workers’ vulnerability
to all of the abuses of that power sex workers currently experience:
police profiling and harassment, sexual harassment and assault, rape,
and extortion of sexual favors under threat of arrest by police officers,
and entrapment.  

Second, as a public statement
that sex workers deserve the same protection from violence as any other
person, it would reduce sex workers’ vulnerability to violence at
the hands of community members, employers, clients, partners and family
members.  If this proposition is passed and enforced, not only
would sex workers’ vulnerability to police violence be decreased,
but people who do sex work or trade sex for survival needs would also
be less likely to have to take greater risks to avoid police attention,
and would no longer be forced to run the risk of arrest when trying
to report a violent crime committed against them. 

The assumption that criminalizing
prostitution reduces its prevalence, or even more absurdly, helps those
engaged in the sex trade, is fundamentally flawed. Prostitution arrests
help no one, especially not the people arrested. Not only is arrest
itself traumatic and often violent, it drives sex workers into a broken
criminal justice system and comes with a host of collateral consequences.
Sex workers who have been arrested may face the loss of their mainstream
jobs, adverse impacts on their immigration status, eviction from their
homes, or even problems retaining custody of their children. All of
these factors may force them to return to the trade, if only to be able
to pay fines and legal costs, or because their criminal record precludes
them from securing other employment. Most people, when asked why they
engage in sex work, cite money as the reason. Criminalization
and arrests do nothing to address the lack of living wage alternatives
to prostitution, which should be the real goal of anyone seeking to
reduce its prevalence. In fact, criminalization is expensive, both for
those arrested and for the city. One thing about Proposition K is that
it gets right to the heart of the matter — the pocketbook — by prohibiting
use of public funds to enforce laws against prostitution, it diverts
money away from criminalizing and arresting sex workers and makes it
available for more effective efforts to keep everyone safe and secure.
These are compelling reasons, but the most compelling reason to stop
arresting sex workers is to decrease their vulnerability to violence. 

Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.

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"Revolving Door,"
a report from the Sex Workers Project (SWP), found that 27% of New York City street-based
sex workers interviewed had been subjected to police brutality. In "Behind
Closed Doors
," the second report released by the SWP, 14% reported violence at the
hands of the police. Sex workers described being thrown on the ground
and stepped on, having food thrown at them, and being kicked hard enough
to require a hospital visit. One sex worker interviewed for a 2005 update
to Revolving Door
 described a police officer who routinely
threatened sex workers with violence, telling them: "You are not going
to jail tonight, you are going to the hospital."  

These patterns are not isolated
to New York:  A 2007 D.C. study by community organization Different Avenues found that one in five
actual or perceived sex workers surveyed who had been approached by
police indicated that officers asked them for sex. Most indicated that
this had been a negative or humiliating experience. A 2002 Chicago study found that 30% of exotic dancers
and 24% of street-based sex workers interviewed who had been raped
identified a police officer as the rapist. Approximately 20% of other
acts of sexual violence reported by study participants were committed
by the police. It is clear that giving police the power to arrest sex
workers increases, not decreases, their risk of sexual violence. 

Police harassment and police
violence against sex workers let others know that if they prey on sex
workers, they are unlikely to be apprehended. Indeed, sex workers routinely
report that they cannot count on police to protect them.  One sex
worker quoted in "Revolving Door" described her efforts to report violent
crimes to the police. "If I call them, they don’t come. If I have
a situation in the street, forget it. ‘Nobody told you to be in the
street.’ After a girl was gang raped, they said ‘Forget it, she works
in the street.’" In Behind Closed Doors, 46% of the sex workers
interviewed had experienced violence in the course of their work, and
42% had been threatened or beaten for being a sex worker. Sara, a respondent
in the report, describes a client "who came in and had a knife…
I was cornered and I was about to be attacked and raped… I didn’t
go to the police because it would be coming out about what I’ve been
doing." These types of experiences are heightened for transgender
women who are or are perceived to be in the sex trades, who experience
additional discrimination and abuse by law enforcement officers based
on their gender-nonconformity.  

Current law enforcement
efforts to police sex work have failed to eliminate prostitution. In
fact, sex workers who are arrested are more likely to keep engaging
in sex work in order to pay legal costs and because they are precluded
from engaging in other employment by their criminal records. In other
words, it is a largely ineffective use of public funds. Moreover, arrests
increase, rather than decrease, sex workers’ vulnerability to police
and interpersonal violence alike, making them largely ineffective in
"protecting" sex workers and trafficked persons from violence and

As pointed out by Proposition K, existing laws against assault,
battery, kidnapping, forced labor, rape and sexual assault can and should
be used to address violence against sex workers and trafficked persons
without criminalizing sex workers and subjecting them to the violence
of law enforcement. Suddenly, Proposition K starts to make fiscal and
social sense rather than seem like a far-fetched idea. 

Prostitution arrests make up
only a small number of the charges brought against people involved in
informal sexual economies. Sex workers in San Francisco are also charged
with solicitation, loitering, and "nuisance" offenses, and could
also be vulnerable to more serious criminal charges, including promoting
prostitution. This means that Proposition K will not entirely eliminate
sex workers’ vulnerability to arrest or to police and interpersonal
violence. However, the passage of Proposition K would be a critical
first step toward reducing sex workers’ vulnerability to violence
in San Francisco.

Next steps must address the arbitrary use of vaguely
worded "quality of life" offenses and other crimes to accomplish
the same result. And, most importantly, we must do the deeper work of
changing the cultural perceptions of sex workers while increasing economic
opportunity for everyone. All members of our society are deserving of
human rights and a life free of violence.