Most people who know me will be very surprised that I don’t support SF’s Prop K. This is the bill that many claim will decriminalize prostitution in San Francisco and anyone who knows me knows that I’m a fairly strong proponent of that. So why do I believe Prop K is short-sighted?
Prop K doesn’t actually decriminalize prostitution. It will be a city law and laws against prostitution are state laws. What Prop K does is say that the City cannot spend any money enforcing the state prostitution laws. It prevents city police from arresting anyone for prostitution. It does not, in any way, limit the city from investigating, arresting, and prosecuting people for crimes such as human trafficking or underage prostitution. So far, so good.
With Prop K someone can establish a brothel anywhere in the city they want. They can put up any signage they want. Streetwalkers will be able to ply their wares on any corner or in front of any store.
I’m all for ending our wars on prostitution. SF spent between $2.8 and $11 million last year enforcing prostitution laws and yet they have just as much prostitution as any other city. Civil prohibitions against personal vice are simply not realistically enforceable, no matter how much money we spend. As Steven Levitt noted in his 2007 draft paper on prostitution – “A prostitute is more likely to have sex with a police officer than to get officially arrested by one.” Our laws don’t reduce activity, they only drive it underground which makes life that much easier for human traffickers to enslave women of all ages and makes things that much more dangerous for the prostitutes and their clients. And the list goes on and on.
Our war on prostitution causes far more problems than the original problem it was intended to solve.
However, I’m also a proponent of limited (VERY LIMITED) regulation. I have no problem with sex workers who provide outcall services going anywhere in the city to meet a client. A brothel next to a school or streetwalkers on any corner is another matter. Not just for me, but for most people in San Francisco. With legal prostitution cities need to be able to, within reason, regulate where businesses are located. They need to be able to establish zones where indoor brothels or red light windows can be located and what kind of advertising they may post on the outside of their buildings. They need to be able to limit where streetwalkers may ply their trade.
Prop K may not allow this. Depending on one’s reading of the laws it may be impossible to establish any zoning under Prop K.
Here’s what I fear will happen. The average San Francisco sexworker is not a wallflower. Just watch many of the annual parades with Scarlet Harlot and her entourage if you don’t believe me. With no boundaries they will go wherever they want and do whatever they want to get attention and make money. If I were them I’d do the same. That’s the point. Find as many potential customers as possible so you have the greatest choice of who you service and can make the most money with the fewest hassles.
Many people who support decriminalization will find a brothel across from their favorite kids store or streetwalkers in front of their favorite café. “This isn’t what I signed up for.” They’ll say. The political types in city hall will start getting engulfed in complaints.
Now, the average politicians way of dealing with things is brash and trash. Nuance is not their strong suit. While a good option at this point would be very moderate regulation, they’ll instead pontificate on the need to reverse Prop K. Instead of finding a way to establish some reasonable zones for brothels, windows, and streetworkers, they’ll go full throttle back to the current failed attempts at civil enforcement of prostitution laws. Instead of a proposition on the 2011 ballot to allow the moderate regulation that Prop K doesn’t allow, expect a proposition to abolish Prop K. And it will likely pass with a large margin.
And you know what, prostitution won’t go down any, but complaints will. The bulk of prostitution will go back underground and streetworkers will re-congregate to ‘safer’ areas. People will be less likely to complain about it, even when they see it near their favorite café, if they just think the cops are doing something about it, than if not.
After this it could be 50 years before anyone can even think of decriminalizing prostitution again in San Francisco. And worse, anytime decrim is brought up anywhere else, all the opponents will need to do is point to the failed decriminalization in San Francisco of 2008 and the battle will be done.