Already a well-known sanctuary city for illegal immigrants, San Francisco soon may become a safe haven for prostitution rings.
If citizens approve Proposition K on city ballots Tuesday, San Francisco would become the first major U.S. city to decriminalize prostitution. If it passes, local police will be forbidden from investigating, arresting or prosecuting anyone for selling sex.
Technically, prostitution would not be legalized, because that’s against California state law. But local law enforcement would have no power to pursue sex workers or their business associates.
Proponents say the measure will free up $11 million the police spend each year arresting prostitutes and allow them to form collectives.
The city’s Democratic Party has endorsed the proposition, but San Francisco’s mayor, district attorney, and business leaders fear the new law would given pimps and hookers free run in any area of San Francisco, not just the traditional Red Light districts. The San Francisco Chronicle has editorialized against the ballot question.
“We wouldn't be able to investigate prostitution, and it's going to be pretty difficult for us to locate these folks who are victims of trafficking otherwise," Capt. Al Pardini, head of the city police department's vice unit, told the Associated Press. “It's pretty rare that we get a call that says: 'I'm a victim of human trafficking' or 'I suspect human trafficking in my neighborhood.'"
The law likely would also hamper any support local police could give to federal agents investigating drugs trafficking networks, burglary rings or other criminal networks if they overlap with prostitution rings, as they often do. Moreover, the law might even cripple any efforts that would involve racial profiling — a necessary tool in tracking rings run by Asian gangs, for instance.
“The crime of prostitution does not exist by itself," said San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris. “Along with it come pimps, johns and other crimes that really impact the safety of neighborhoods."
But supporters of the measure see it as freeing sex workers from stigma and having to depend on pimps. They point out that a form of prostitution is already legal in two states. Brothels are allowed in rural counties in Nevada. Rhode Island permits the sale of sex behind closed doors between consulting adults, but it prohibits street prostitution and brothels.
"We feel that repressive policies don't help trafficking victims, and that human rights-based approaches, including decriminalization, are actually more effective," said Carol Leigh, co-founder of the Bay Area Sex Workers Advocacy Network and a longtime advocate for prostitutes' rights.
The Rev. Lea Brown, a lesbian minister at Metropolitan Community Church of San Francisco, compared prostitutes to same-sex couples in the discrimination they must face. She supports Proposition K.
“Some of us like spanking. Some of us just want to be held. Some of us want to be told what to do,” Brown wrote in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, an alternative newspaper. “I want to live in a world where we all have opportunities to experience those transcendent places without shame, and where the sex workers who can help us access those places may do so without fear of arrest or stigmatization.”
But what about sex slaves? Under the new law authorities will be limited in their investigations of rings that kidnap or force women into the sex trade from Third World countries in Asia and elsewhere, experts say.
Jeanne Pirro, a former New York prosecutor and now a TV host, predicted to Fox News that prostitution rings will flock to San Francisco as a safe harbor from prosecution. She pointed out that the city already hosts international fairs for sadomasochists that are fully legal.
“The problem here is that victims of sex trafficking . . . if there is the passage of this ordinance, are going to suffer,” Pirro said. “The police, law enforcement, will not be able to investigate women who are trafficked into this country as prostitutes.”
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