Two views of sex work

Pub date February 18, 2014

There are two starkly different ways to look at prostitution in the Bay Area. One view sees sex workers as victims, not just those exploited by the horrible practices of human trafficking and child prostitution, but all sex workers. The other view accepts that sex work can be a legitimate choice made by consenting adults, a job less demeaning and more empowering than many low-wage service jobs.

Those divergent perspectives clashed on the streets of San Francisco on Feb. 11 when the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women hosted a panel discussion in the Main Public Library on "discouraging demand" for prostitution, a goal that prostitutes trying to cover their rising rents don’t share, as they said outside while protesting the event.

In the spotlight at the forum was San Francisco’s First Offender Prostitution Program, also known as "John School," which was first implemented in 1995 to curb the commercial sex trade and provide an alternative to criminal charges for those caught soliciting prostitution, much like traffic school for bad drivers.

A March 2008 study, "Final Report on the Evaluation of the First Offender Program," by researcher Michael Shively, hailed the program as a success, with claims of vastly reduced rearrest rates and high attendance numbers. In 1999, 822 people qualified to enter the program, and that had dropped to 333 participants in 2007.

Fees generated by the program totaled $3.1 million from 1999 through 2007, which was split among the District Attorney’s Office, San Francisco Police Department, and the anti-prostitution group Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE).

But human trafficking and sex work have shown few signs of abating in the Bay Area, where law enforcement sources say Alameda County is one of the state’s biggest prostitution hot spots. And groups like SAGE say all sex work abuses women, whereas rival groups like the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) say it is the criminalization of prostitution that drives it underground and allows heinous practices like child prostitution to flourish.

Christina Deangelo says she’s been a sex worker since the late 1970s, and she showed up at the event to criticize its judgmental and one-sided program. "Without having even one of us on the panel, who can actually tell you [what is going on], you are killing us," she said.

The sex workers who showed up were particularly critical of panelist Melissa Farley, a controversial psychologist and researcher who spent years studying prostitution and sex trafficking. As an advocate of abolishing prostitution and a proponent of the "Discouraging Demand" strategy, Farley has been met with much criticism in the past.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Susan Himel disqualified Farley as a witness in 2010, ruling that "Dr. Farley’s unqualified assertion in her affidavit that prostitution is inherently violent appears to contradict her own findings that prostitutes who work from indoor locations generally experience less violence."

Sex worker advocates have also slammed Farley, such as blogger and activist Jessica Nicole, who says Farley "makes further manipulative and disturbing language decisions in her research of clients of sex workers," saying that Farley doesn’t "understand the complexities of the industries she is researching."

Farley has argued that prostitution is "inherently violent," and harmful both physically and mentally to the women involved. She says that her research shows that "89% [of sex workers] I spoke to want to get out of prostitution. Most see it as a last ditch effort for survival."

But many sex workers disagree, and they have grown more vocal about their stance on the business. Rather than a profession dominated by victims of forced trafficking and exploitation, they say that a large number of women and men actually like the job. But public and legal condemnation of the profession often prevents sex workers from getting help when they need it.

Workers acknowledge the dangers that go along with their profession, which they see as a major reason to at least decriminalize it and improve methods to protect workers from abusive pimps and clients.

Various studies on the subject have concluded how much more likely sex workers are to be victims of sexual and physical abuse, and have a high chance of drug addiction, more than any group of women in the world.

Sex workers spoke of the need to differentiate between indoor workers (high class call girls) and street walkers, different worlds entirely. They’re critical of Dr. Farley for writing, "while the women in street prostitution work the fields, call girls, escorts and massage parlor workers are the house niggers of this system."

The panel event showed the deep division between law enforcement and sex workers. The government’s ideal method of prosecuting what it deems indecent has not cured most vice businesses, even Casey Bates for the Alameda County District Attorney’s Office’s human trafficking division admitted at the event.

"We cannot arrest our way out of this problem," he said.

Though hardly an advocate of decriminalization or legalization of sex work, Bates does acknowledge that the issue can’t be tackled in the one-dimensional fashion as it is now. And sex workers say they need to be included in discussions about problems in their industry.