Older Stories: Hookers unite!

San Francisco sex workers are on a mission to decriminalize prostitution here and across the country.

By Ann Harrison 1/28/2004

IT SEEMED TO be the seedy underbelly of paid sex in the city. On Jan. 14, federal agents raided four suspected brothels in San Francisco’s Sunset District. Investigators say they busted a sophisticated international prostitution ring in which Asian women were allegedly smuggled into the United States and forced to pay off a $40,000 debt to their traffickers by selling their bodies.

The Standing Against Global Exploitation Project (SAGE), which works closely with local police departments, immediately condemned an underground industry that promises foreigners better lives with good jobs but instead forces them into sex work.

“Human trafficking is a form of modern-day slavery,” SAGE’s Linnette Peralta Haynes told the Bay Guardian.

Mark Wollman, special agent in charge of the Northern California Office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement, which raided the brothels, was quoted in the San Francisco Chronicle as saying the six women detained in the raid are being treated as victims rather than criminals. Yet some say that’s a strange distinction in a country that uniformly deems prostitutes – regardless of how they got into the business – criminals.

In fact, a new Bay Area coalition is arguing that the best way to stop the horrifying exploitation of forced prostitution is to make the world’s oldest profession legal.

For the past month the Sex Workers Outreach Project has been aggressively and creatively lobbying across the Bay Area to repeal laws that criminalize sex work. Its members want to bring the entire industry out from the underground so sex workers can report abuse without fear of arrest and customers won’t support criminal syndicates.

“Prohibition breeds this kind of activity,” SWOP director Robyn Few told us. “If this is about the poor women who are victims, what about the victims? They are likely in jail now and will be deported. We could have helped protect these women, but instead we fed them to the wolves.”

Target-rich environment

While the San Francisco political community gathered Jan. 8 to witness the inaugurations of Mayor Gavin Newsom and District Attorney Kamala Harris, SWOP members were busy making their own debut.

They donned dark business suits and carpooled from Oakland with a list of targeted politicians. Arriving at City Hall, they smoothed down their hair and formed a rapid deployment squad with spotters and spokespeople. They collared Newsom as he descended a staircase surrounded by well-wishers.

“Will you help decriminalize prostitution?” Few asked as she handed Newsom’s wife, Kimberly Guilfoyle-Newsom, her business card. Newsom shook Few’s hand and then just looked at her, with an open-mouthed expression of astonishment, apparently unsure how he should respond to this unconventional question, before simply saying nothing and allowing himself to be swept along by the crowd.

The SWOP posse regrouped, searched for another target, and soon surrounded Oakland mayor Jerry Brown on the second floor. Few zeroed in, pouring on the Southern charm. She told Brown they’re concerned about reports of a man in Oakland who is allegedly assaulting prostitutes.

“We’re on it!” said Brown, ever the experienced politician. “You know I’m running for attorney general.”

“Are you going to help us decriminalize prostitution?” Few followed up.

“We are moving in that direction a little bit at a time,” Brown said, before giving them the thumbs-up sign and sprinting off.

Outside the building, she encountered San Francisco Board of Supervisors president Matt Gonzalez, who looked positively frightened as she approached. Few and the SWOP team campaigned for Gonzalez as the “sex worker cheerleaders” and were transported around the city in the back of a pickup truck.

“I’ve been trying to call your office,” Few said, smiling broadly. “I didn’t know you were trying to reach them,” said Gonzalez, who turned and briskly walked away.

Few was disappointed, but she squared her shoulders and kept moving, undeterred. This is a woman who, together with her lieutenant, Stacey Swimme, marched topless around the San Francisco Federal Building last year to protest Attorney General John Ashcroft’s prudish policies. Few’s partner, SWOP cofounder Michael Foley, wore a towel.

After a flurry of strategizing cell phone calls, the SWOP team headed across the street to Kamala Harris’s swearing-in ceremony.

It was Harris they came for, so when Few saw her at the reception after the ceremony, she darted over to introduce herself.

“I know who you are,” Harris to her. “Please call my office.” Later, the new district attorney would agree to meet with SWOP members Feb. 17.

Near the buffet Few found assemblymember Mark Leno and called downstairs for backup. Leno was soon explaining to the SWOP team that he doesn’t think the government should invest time and resources in regulating consensual sexual activity.

“We are talking about consensual adults, engaged in consensual acts between private individuals,” Leno said.

Finally, a sympathetic audience. The SWOP women plucked pink roses from the centerpiece, smiled, and posed with Leno for pictures. Leno said he would consider supporting a bill that provides immunity for sex workers who report crimes. But he added that SWOP needs to build grassroots support, which is exactly what it’s trying to do: build a political base in the progressive Bay Area that they hope to turn into a nationwide movement.

Safety for women

SWOP wants to repeal the laws criminalizing prostitution. Rather than the regulated brothels of Nevada, they instead favor the Australian decriminalization model, which allows sex workers to go into business for themselves.

SWOP member Veronica Monet, a former call girl, told us decriminalization can help ease the culture of fear she says discourages sex workers from seeking help from the police. Decriminalization, she said, would help women feel safer to come forward if they have been abused and discourage predators who count on them not reporting crimes.

“It is about the safety of all women, because all women are implicated if any women are unsafe,” Monet said. “All women would want sex workers to be safe because ultimately anyone who perpetrates against a sex worker will eventually start perpetrating against any available women.”

Ginger Verago, who works in phone sex and erotic massage, is SWOP’s resident researcher, the one who puts race and class issues into perspective. Citing figures developed by city officials several years ago, she said 57 percent of the sex workers in San Francisco are African Americans and about a third are Asian and Pacific Islander. As a black woman, she says shame is a form of mind control for sex workers that needs to be thrown off just as African Americans threw off their mental shackles during the civil rights movement.

It was these concerns about safety and liberation that led SWOP to introduce Dec. 17 ballot initiatives calling for the cities of San Francisco and Oakland to condemn the laws governing prostitution. Later, a Berkeley initiative was added, and at the suggestion of Sup. Chris Daly, Few modified the San Francisco measure to strike down specific local laws that criminalize prostitution.

In the evening after the measure was delivered to San Francisco City Hall, sex workers gathered in the park across the street for a remembrance of the 48 women killed by Gary Leon Ridgway, the Green River murderer, who was due to be sentenced the next day. He targeted mostly street prostitutes because he thought he could get away with it.

Monet read the names of each of the women Ridgway killed, when they disappeared, and where their bodies were found. As she read, about 75 people quietly emerged from darkness, many of them local sex workers. They lit candles and wept. Then they came forward to remember friends in the sex trade who had suffered violence.

One man spoke of a friend who was assaulted by Jack Bokin, who was sentenced in 2000 for attacking and attempting to murder San Francisco prostitutes. Bokin stuffed one of the women he attacked into a garbage bag and tossed her in the bay.

“We are human beings, we are your neighbors and your kids and the people that you love,” Few told the gathering. “Ridgway says he targeted prostitutes because he thought he could get away with it. But we are going to fight back and stand up. We aren’t going to take this any more.”

Pushing the issue

On Jan. 26 SWOP held a press conference in front of one of the alleged brothels that were raided Jan. 14 and passed out flyers in Chinese and Vietnamese arguing that the decriminalization of prostitution will decrease trafficking.

“Prohibition gives cover to traffickers,” Dr. Rita Brock, a theologian, author, educator, and former Harvard University fellow, said at the press conference. “It allows them to use the laws against prostitution to intimidate, especially when it comes to children.”

SAGE’s Norma Hotaling doesn’t see it the same way as SWOP. She told us she would like to believe decriminalization is the answer but hasn’t yet seen any data showing that brothels, trafficking, or prostitution can be contained through decriminalization.

“I think it is very much selling a dream if you say let’s decriminalize and voilà, everything is fixed,” Hotaling said. “People want to believe that, but I think further study needs to be done as to whether or not that is true, what are the unintended consequences.”

District Attorney Harris says she also wants to see more studies on the effects of decriminalization before she decides whether it will hurt or help women.

Carol Leigh, SWOP’s roving ambassador and a legendary prostitution activist of 25 years, argued that decriminalization is just a first step, not the solution to all the ills of the sex industry. “You don’t need a huge study to give people their rights and to and stop putting people in jail for receiving money for sexual services,” she said.

SWOP’s latest push is only the most recent of several efforts to repeal prostitution laws in San Francisco. In 1996 the city’s Task Force on Prostitution recommended San Francisco stop enforcing state laws against prostitution and repeal city laws that criminalize sex work. But the initiative it drafted went nowhere.

SWOP’s current strategy is based on the logic of Lawrence v. Texas, last year’s Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutional right of adults to engage in consensual sex in private. But only the minority opinion in this case filed by two gay men mentions the right to have sex for money.

SWOP is offering its initiative not just as a local remedy but also as a model for the nation. Leigh is on the road introducing audiences to the proposal. She is currently on a 30-city tour with the Sex Worker Art Show ensemble promoting her new book, Unrepentant Whore: Collected Works of Scarlot Harlot.

During her presentation, Leigh projects the text of the Berkeley initiative on a screen and encourages local audiences to present it to their city counsels and then ask someone on the counsel to send a representative to the state legislature to lobby for decriminalization. Then she straps on an electric guitar and sings about safe sex.

Because prostitution is regulated by state penal codes, SWOP’s ballot initiative is largely symbolic. But San Francisco public defender Jeff Adachi told us that getting the city to repeal local solicitation- and prostitution-related laws would be helpful.

He said police use misdemeanors and infractions such as blocking the sidewalk or loitering as a pretext for arresting alleged sex workers who are targeted for arrest. He says these laws also target the poor and the streetwalkers as opposed to those who work out of the house.

“What we see here are folks who are arrested time and time again by the police, and they are facing a six-month sentence for even a second, third, or fourth offense,” Adachi said. “There are severe consequences, and people do go to jail for prostitution; unfortunately it is usually the sex worker, not the sex seeking.”

Dueling groups

The Green River memorial, the SWOP initiatives, and the recent brothel raids have highlighted SWOP’s and SAGE’s different approaches to the issue.

“I’m really glad that my sisters that are dead are of some use to the women who are promoting this,” Hotaling said. “It is important to have a voice for women who are dead and disappeared and damaged, but now to say that women are not coming forward because they are afraid of being arrested amounts to promoting that fear in San Francisco, where you really can come forward.”

SWOP members say San Francisco police are more sensitive than cops in other cities to abused sex workers. But they say officers use discretion, and sex workers without a relationship to law enforcement are sometimes ignored.

While police might not arrest a woman on the spot, they could harass her later or use the information in a subsequent investigation. Sex workers, such as Virago, who have cops for clients say they feel particularly vulnerable. While SWOP members support the efforts by SAGE to help people who want to leave the sex trade, they point out that many sex workers still distrust organizations that are closely aligned with the police.

“There are so many women who say they can’t come forward, and for someone who is working in tandem with the police to discount that seems insulting,” Leigh said.

Adachi told SWOP during the visit to his office that he once saw many more prostitution cases. But he said those arrested, whether prostitutes or customers, are often told by police that their case won’t be filed if they pay a $500 fee and attend SAGE’s First Offender Prostitution Program or another diversion service.

Adachi told us he’s concerned about the inherent conflict for both the police and service providers because they get a percentage of the money collected.

“My concern has always been that there is a risk of a dragnet,” Adachi said, adding that there is no review of the evidence in these cases. “You have cases that would otherwise not be filed for lack of evidence that are being referred to these types of programs, and people who attend these programs often don’t have the assistance of counsel.”

Adachi told SWOP that people arrested in these cases should know their alternatives. SWOP began to design a know-your-rights flyer. At the Jan. 21 San Francisco Police Commission hearing, new police chief Heather Fong agreed to meet with SWOP to discuss its initiative. Outgoing chief Alex Fagan gave Few a spontaneous kiss on the cheek.

Few was amused by the gesture from a former top cop. She’s attempting to launch a political movement while under house arrest. In 2002, Few was arrested in a nationwide sting operation involving a group of madams.

One of the prostitutes associated with the ring called the Federal Bureau of Investigation after a customer started to rant about al-Qaeda. Few is still angry about seeing her name linked with Osama bin Laden in court documents. She said she was long out of the business by the time the FBI interviewed her and said they asked no questions about prostitution.

“They wanted to know about Terence Hallinan and about the medical marijuana club I used to run,” Few said. She gave the FBI no information, she said, but is using the skills she learned as a medical marijuana activist. Though she’s been invited to talk to decriminalization activists in Taiwan, she can’t travel. Her home-confinement supervisor isn’t happy with her activism. Few said he wants her to ask women to stop being sex workers.

“I am not trying to talk anybody out of anything,” she said. “I am just trying to win them equal rights and make women safer. In reality there are sex workers who like their jobs, who like the money or who do it because it is the most money they can make to feed their families. I believe they should have that choice.”

What happened to the women?

Federal investigators have released little information about the six women detained in the brothel raids. Department of Homeland Security spokesperson Sharon Rummery told us that she couldn’t say where the six women (who are being held on “immigration violations”) and one man (a customer) were being held, “for security and safety reasons.”

SWOP member Elizabeth Sy, the woman’s health educator at the Asian and Pacific Islander Wellness Center in San Francisco, told us she was told by the San Francisco Police Department’s vice unit that women detained in the federal brothel raid are now sitting in the Santa Rita Jail. Sy said police told her that if they’d handled the raid, the women would have only received a slap on the wrist. The SFPD would not confirm this statement or say where the women are being held.

Sy, who says she speaks for herself and not her agency, said that she supports efforts by the federal government to stop trafficking but that the women should be asked what they want instead of being sent to jail, fingerprinted, and deported. Sy, who conducts outreach at massage parlors in the Tenderloin, said that from the public health angle, the raid was a disaster.

“The fact that they raided a brothel makes it virtually impossible to do outreach to sex workers in the massage parlor industry who are immigrants and don’t have citizen status,” she said. “There is a mistrust; I’m sure they think I am going to turn them over to police.”

Sy said some women may have been willing to be trafficked and remain prostitutes because they could make good money and send it home to their families. She explained that one month of pay from her nonprofit is about what she once made in one night as a stripper in San Francisco.

If the intentions of law enforcement are so noble and everyone is concerned about the welfare of the women, Sy said, they shouldn’t be sent back to the country they came from.

Adachi noted that the federal government has recently focused much attention on the topic of international trafficking, most recently in the USA PATRIOT Act, which sets new penalties for those convicted of engaging in international sex trafficking.

SAGE’s Hotaling acknowledged that some women come freely to brothels, choose to work there, pay their smugglers, and remain working as prostitutes to support themselves. Others are coerced, have their money and passports taken from them, and are told to lie about their circumstances under threat of being punished or harmed.

She said SAGE is working with the women detained in the raid to get them refugee status under the federal Trafficking Protection Act of 2000. The act makes people who are trafficked eligible for U.S. visas if they cooperate with the investigation and identify and possibly testify against their traffickers.

Hotaling said the San Francisco Lawyers Committee for Civil Rights is representing the women. But women are often afraid to come forward and testify against traffickers because the traffickers know where their families are, and there’s no place to go back to: once they turn in a trafficker, they can’t return home.

“There is no guarantee that you are going to get a visa and be certified as a trafficked victim, and there is no reason for women to believe that they are going to be protected,” Hotaling said. “It is like stepping off into a very big void.”



1 Comment

  1. The insensitivity breaks my heart.

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