A measure that would make it more difficult to investigate and punish prostitution crimes in San Francisco has qualified for the November ballot, opening another passage in the city's long fight over decriminalizing the sex-trade industry.
Proponents of the measure were able to collect more than 12,000 signatures, including those from three members of the Board of Supervisors, to put it on the ballot, according to the Erotic Service Providers Union, the labor group backing the measure. The
same group was unsuccessful in putting a similar measure on the ballot in 2006.
The measure would end San Francisco's First Offender Prostitution Program for men who have been arrested for soliciting a prostitute. Men who go to "john school," which was created in 1996, pay $1,000 and attend a class on prostitution in
exchange for the district attorney's office dropping the misdemeanor charge against them.
Mean minded politicians such as Mayor Gavin Newsom this week said the measure would severely hamper the city's ability to investigate and prosecute sex-trafficking cases.
The main goal of decriminalization, proponents say, is the safety of prostitutes. Maxine Doogan, a founder of the Erotic Service Providers Union, wrote in an e-mail: We want the right to make reports of crimes against us without being retaliated
against by the Police Department.
San Francisco would become the first major U.S. city to decriminalize prostitution if voters next month approve Proposition K — a measure that forbids local authorities from investigating, arresting or prosecuting anyone for selling sex.
The ballot question technically would not legalize prostitution since state law still prohibits it, but the measure would eliminate the power of local law enforcement officials to go after prostitutes.
Proponents say the measure will free up $11 million the police spend each year arresting prostitutes and allow them to form collectives.
Even in tolerant San Francisco the measure faces an uphill battle, with much of the political establishment opposing it. Proposition K has been endorsed by the local Democratic Party. But the mayor, district attorney, police department and much of the
business community oppose the idea, contending it would increase street prostitution, allow pimps the run of neighborhoods and hamper the fight against sex trafficking, which would remain illegal because it involves forcing people into the sex trade.
Some form of prostitution is already legal in two states. Brothels are allowed in rural counties in Nevada. And Rhode Island permits the sale of sex behind closed doors between consulting adults, but it prohibits street prostitution and brothels.
Police made 1,583 prostitution arrests in 2007 and expect to make a similar number this year. But the district attorney's office says most defendants are fined, placed in diversion programs or both. Fewer than 5% get prosecuted for solicitation, which is
a misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail.
Lawyers Lou Sirkin and Brian O'Connor have filed a case last month in U.S. District Court in San Francisco on behalf of an organization representing prostitutes known as the Erotic Service Provider Legal, Education & Research Project. It names three
current or former prostitutes and a man with a disability who wants to be able to legally hire prostitutes as other plaintiffs in the case.
Their argument centers on people's right to do what they want as long as it's legal. It's legal to have sex, so why should it be illegal to pay for it? the argument goes. O'Connor compared it to having the freedom of the press but making it
illegal to sell newspapers. Sirkin explained:
It's really a constitutional issue, we think. We're talking only about consenting adults here. Our whole theory is that any law based on morality has no place in this country. Morals are different for different people. Legislation should not be
determined by morality. Because you exchange a dollar rather than dinner, why should it be made illegal?
Sirkin hopes to get a ruling by late summer, but he expects the case to be taken to higher courts after that.