The massage parlor mistake

Pub date June 30, 2009
WriterRachel West
SectionNews & OpinionSectionOpinion

OPINION Taking advantage of the recent turmoil over the huge city budget cuts, Mayor Gavin Newsom and Sup. Carmen Chu, have pushed though malicious legislation imposing criminal charges and restrictions on massage parlors. Many are outraged that this costly legislation was prioritized — we want to know why it was, and how much it will cost to implement. Lawyers are questioning its legality.

Under the guise of concern for women’s safety, Chu and Newsom falsely claimed that the law would stop sex trafficking. We’ve heard these lies before. Politicians who want to increase the criminalization of sex workers confuse prostitution, which is consensual sex for money, with trafficking, which is forced and coerced labor, sexual or otherwise. The reality is that most parlor employees work consensually and often collectively, without force or coercion. In Rhode Island, where indoor prostitution is legal, similar legislative maneuvers are in the works, also using the pretext of trafficking to make criminals of women working indoors.

Chu and Newsom claim they are targeting parlor owners, but by pushing the industry further underground, their legislation makes workers, many of whom are immigrant women, more vulnerable to violence and exploitation. Workers will suffer most from the increased raids, arrests, and criminalization. Fearing arrest and/or deportation will mean fewer women will report rape or other violence and exploitation when they occur.

What is the real political agenda here? Chu and Newsom have said that the proposals "could make it easier to close the 50 or so city-licensed parlors suspected of selling sex." If and where sex is being sold, parlor closures would force women onto the streets — where it is 10 times more dangerous to work. Those who are arrested are likely to end up in prison — to the devastation of their children — or deported. What good reason is there to endanger women’s safety and break up families this way, especially during hard economic times?

San Franciscans question why, when most trafficking cases occur in the agricultural, construction, clothing, and domestic industries, anti-trafficking measures target immigrant sex workers working of their own free will. We suspect racist gentrification policies are behind this legislation. Developers will be allowed to seize land in the Tenderloin and downtown areas if massage parlors are forced to close. This deceitful, profiteering law imposes huge fines, criminal charges, and has a punitive clause making the parlors pay for unspecified enforcement charges against them.

Considering that not long ago, police were exposed for taking thousands of dollars from massage parlor workers, involving them in the licensing process creates fertile ground for increased corruption.

What is wrong with selling or buying sex if both parties consent? After all, 42 percent of San Franciscans voted last November for Proposition K, which would have decriminalized sex work, despite a campaign of fear mongering and misinformation by the mayor and district attorney. New Zealand successfully decriminalized prostitution six years ago to "promote occupational health and safety" and "protect from exploitation." There has been no increase in prostitution, pimps, or traffickers, and women are more able to report violence and insist on their rights. It’s time for San Francisco to do the right thing and stop criminalizing sex workers.

Rachel West works with the U.S. PROStitutes Collective.