Proposition K on RH Reality Check

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

Sienna Baskin and Melissa Ditmore on October 28, 2008 – 8:00am
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.

“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 abuse.

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.

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