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Prop. K calls for legal prostitution in S.F.

San Francisco- San Franciscans have voted for free citywide wireless, banning handguns and impeaching President Bush.

Now the question is whether residents, no strangers to groundbreaking ideas, think the world’s oldest profession should be considered a crime.

Proposition K would effectively decriminalize prostitution in the city by barring the Police Department from investigating and prosecuting it. The measure is being alternately hailed as a human rights landmark or a misguided venture that will turn San Francisco into a playground for sex tourists and pimps.

Prop. K is far from the first attempt to decriminalize prostitution in San Francisco – a city task force recommended the move in 1996 – but the reaction to it has been visceral.

It’s triggered a court fight over ballot language, drawn swift condemnation from Mayor Gavin Newsom and District Attorney Kamala Harris, split Democratic and Green party officials alike, and caused a heated debate over whether it will help or thwart investigations into the $8 billion global sex trafficking industry, in which San Francisco is a major hub.

The measure was endorsed by the local Democratic Party but opposed by some who are open to legalizing prostitution. They say the measure is flawed because it doesn’t require HIV testing, set requirements on the location of brothels, limit street prostitution or address programs to assist prostitutes who want leave the business.

Backers of the measure, which include sex worker advocacy groups, say it will cut crime and protect prostitutes from assault and rape because they could report crimes without fear of being arrested.

“When I worked as a prostitute in the city, I was raped, and I wasn’t able to go to the police,” said Carol Leigh, now director of Bay Area Sex Workers Advocacy Network. “As prostitutes, we do contribute a lot. We also support our families. Why are we sitting ducks out there with no security?”

Backers say the measure, which needs a majority vote to pass, also will reduce sexually transmitted diseases and save the city millions of dollars spent annually on prosecuting prostitution.

Opponents contend human trafficking will run unchecked, leaving women and children in sexual bondage, while crimes such as drug dealing, assaults and robbery will surge in neighborhoods.

“The danger of this measure is that it’s definitely a wolf in sheep’s clothing,” said Heidi Machen, president of the City Democratic Club. “It promises to protect the very people it will end up hurting. The pimps and traffickers will have a free pass to San Francisco.”

Backers call such arguments a scare tactic. The measure requires authorities to enforce existing laws that prohibit coercion, extortion, sexual assault and other crimes regardless of whether or not the victim is a sex worker.

“It’s their sex-negative, shame-based propaganda around prostitution,” said Maxine Doogan, who describes herself as an erotic services provider. “They conflate prostitution with drug addiction. They conflate prostitution with child sexual assault.”

The measure would deny funding for the city’s lauded First Offender Prostitution Program, commonly known as “john school,” or any similar program. In the current system, men who have been arrested for soliciting a prostitute attend a class on prostitution and pay $1,000 in exchange for the district attorney’s office dropping the misdemeanor charge against them.

Additionally, the measure would prohibit the Police Department from accepting any federal or state funds to investigate alleged trafficking victims using racial profiling.

The upshot, according to prosecutors, is that the measure will cripple human trafficking investigations, which almost exclusively arise from prostitution arrests during raids on brothels that often masquerade as Asian massage parlors.

Backers contend that Prop. K will actually spur trafficking investigations by freeing prostitutes, their co-workers and customers to go to police without retribution if they suspect wrongdoing.

“The likelihood people are going to come forward and do that would be pretty low,” argued police Capt. Al Pardini, who heads the vice unit. “Most of the people we encounter engaging in a business transaction with a prostitute generally like to maintain their anonymity.”

Proposition K
What it does: Would decriminalize prostitution in San Francisco, deny funds for the First Offender Prostitution Program commonly known as “john school,” and forbid the city from using state or federal funds that involve racial profiling to identify human trafficking victims.

Supporters: Erotic Service Providers Union, San Francisco Democratic Party, Harvey Milk Democratic Club, La Raza Centro Legal.

Argument in support: Will improve safety for sex workers, reduce sexually transmitted diseases and save the city millions of dollars spent annually on prosecuting prostitution while still requiring enforcement of laws against sexual assault, coercion and other crimes.

Opponents: Mayor Gavin Newsom, District Attorney Kamala Harris, Alice B. Toklas LGBT Democratic Club

Argument against: Will turn San Francisco into a safe haven for sex traffickers and pimps, creating more violence and other crimes, hampering trafficking investigations and damaging quality of life in neighborhoods.


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