By CAITLIN ESCH
For 22-year-old call girl Patricia West, Proposition K—a ballot measure to decriminalize sex work—is about protecting prostitutes by bringing the age-old profession out from underground.
For Francine Braae, program director of the SAGE Project, an acronym for Standing Against Global Exploitation, the proposition is “appalling” and “misleading.”
Nationally, 11 Nevada counties have legalized sex work, enabling the state to collect tax revenues from prostitutes. The state of Rhode Island takes a different approach, prohibiting street-based prostitution, while allowing private sex work.
Internationally, decriminalization of prostitution in Australia has led to a decrease in violence against sex workers and a decrease in street-based prostitution, according to local infectious disease expert Dr. Jeffrey Klausner, who spent two weeks in Australia last month interviewing sex workers and infectious disease experts.
Proposition K’s author Maxine Doogan points to a recent New Zealand study, completed five years after the Prostitution Reform Act of 2003. The study found that “the sex industry has not increased in size, and many of the social evils predicted by some who opposed the decriminalization of the sex industry have not been experienced.”
West sees decriminalization as a way for sex workers to legally organize for safer conditions. Braae sees it as a license for pimps and traffickers to exploit women.
By decriminalizing prostitution, Prop K would prohibit the city from enforcing prostitution laws. It would also discontinue funding for the First Offender Prostitution Program, known as “john school,” where first offenders caught soliciting sex are educated about the legal and health-related risks of prostitution.
“Sex workers live in a state of fear—they’re hiding all the time,” said West, who is active in the Yes on K campaign. “Right now, workers who are abused or raped are unlikely to go to police for help. They learn to fear the police, so these crimes go unreported.”
According to Violet, a 24-year-old outreach worker who lives in the Mission, the face of prostitution in the neighborhood is varied. Violet does street-based sex worker outreach through St. James Infirmary, a health clinic for sex workers. She said only 15 percent of the prostitution in the Mission happens on the street. The rest takes place in private residences and brothels.
However, street-based prostitutes tend to be older, have higher rates of drug addiction and often are single mothers, she said.
The hot spots stretch from 15th to 21st streets, between Mission and Potrero, according to Officer Ray Salvador, who has worked in prostitution enforcement in the Mission for four years.
In 2005, Salvador averaged three prostitution-related arrests per day, according to a Mission Station newsletter from that year. Since then, he estimated, prostitution has decreased in the neighborhood, largely due to law enforcement efforts.
The biggest problems surrounding sex work, he said, include “increased drug traffic, littering, crimes, robberies, sex acts in public, and businesses calling to report loitering by prostitutes and johns.”
Advocates like Klausner believe passing the proposition would lead to a decrease in street-based sex work, followed by a decrease in related crimes.
Though there is no routine monitoring of sexually transmitted diseases among sex workers, Klausner points to a recent UCSF study based on 250 female sex workers in San Francisco. Of those surveyed, 82 percent had been exposed to the herpes virus, 5 percent had chlamydia, and 4 percent were HIV positive. Only half reported using condoms with new clients, while less than half reported condom use with frequent clients.
District Attorney Kamala Harris opposes the proposition. Harris has said Prop K “empowers pimps and human traffickers, allowing them to exploit their victims without repercussions.” Prostitution, she said, is a “blight on neighborhoods.”
Braae agreed. “Pimps and traffickers run rampant in the Mission,” she said. “If Prop K passes, those cases won’t be prosecuted; their hands will be tied…Instead of providing more services for women and girls, there will be fewer.”
Many prostitutes feel unprotected under current law, leaving them to fend for themselves.
As coordinator of The Bad Date List, Violet documents abusive johns, based on reports made by sex workers. The list—now six names long—details cars, appearances, habits, and even names of perpetrators to warn sex workers which clients to avoid.
“It’s a list of people who try to harm sex workers during their work,” explained Violet. “Like one guy who removes his condom without permission.”
West said by decriminalizing prostitution, sex workers will be able to organize, get out from under abusive management, and create cooperatives—a safer alternative to the streets—where prostitutes pool their resources and rent a space to work.
The proposition was placed on the November ballot after supporters gathered more than the 7,168 signatures required. City Controller Ben Rosenfield said in a statement the city now spends between $1.6 and $3.2 million on prostitution enforcement. The costs would depend on the proposition’s implementation.
In the Mission, groups like La Raza Centro Legal, the Harvey Milk Lesbian Gay Bisexual Transgender Democratic Club, and PODER (People Organizing to Demand Environmental and Economic Rights) support the proposition. Most District 9 supervisor candidates—Mark Sanchez, David Campos, and Eric Quezada—also support Prop K. Eva Royale opposes it.
Mayor Gavin Newsom, the Coalition for San Francisco Neighborhoods, and members of the Mission Merchants Association oppose the proposition.
“We’re criminalized,” West said. “We face dangerous situations, [including] police stings…It affects the way we talk and negotiate during sessions, which can lead to misunderstandings, and face-to-face conflict. It’s very scary for a sex worker.”