Prostitution bill gains support

A bill to legalize some prostitution in the islands has the backing of at least 14 state lawmakers and many women’s rights advocates.

Supporters say they mainly want to start debate of the sensitive topic and explore alternatives to decades of selling sex on Honolulu streets. They include 13 co-sponsors in the House, one sponsor in the Senate and the Hawaii Women’s Coalition, whose members represent more than 200 organizations.

But House Bill 982 (and companion Senate Bill 706) might not pass this year. It appears unlikely the bill will get a hearing this session.

The decriminalization bill would permit sexual favors done in private, and it would designate areas where prostitution is allowed.

“In general, talking about sex is scary for people,” said the Rev. Pam Vessels, of the United Church of Christ in Kalaupapa on Molokai. “Do we really care if consenting adults are engaging in sexual acts for money?”

The bill’s advocates hope more lawmakers will support it as time passes. A resolution could be introduced asking the Legislative Reference Bureau to study the proposal.

Soliciting prostitution carries a $500 fine and up to 30 days’ jail time.

“It’s one of those bills you do it for public dialogue instead of trying to get it passed,” said Rep. Bob Herkes (D, Volcano-Kainaliu), one of the bill’s co-sponsors.

Prostitutes have a hard time getting help if they are hounded by the police in addition to facing the dangers of their profession, said Tracy Ryan, head of the Hawaii Libertarian Party.

Extensive arrest records make it difficult for them to find legitimate jobs when they want to get out of prostitution, she said.

“By criminalizing them, you’re only adding to their problems,” Ryan said.

Honolulu police made 339 prostitution arrests in 2005 and 255 in 2004, accounting for less than 1 percent of total arrests, according to annual crime reports.

Maj. Kevin Lima, commander of the Narcotics and Vice Division, said he opposes the bill because it would be more difficult for police to investigate child prostitution if paying for sex between adults were legal.

“There are some unintended consequences of that bill,” Lima said.

Honolulu has a long history of prostitution, from the red-light districts of Chinatown during World War II to streetwalkers in Waikiki.

Prostitution remains a problem today in part because Hawaii is such a popular tourist destination, Lima said.

These women should be helped out of their situation, but legitimizing them is not the answer, said Kelly Rosati, a spokeswoman for the Hawaii Catholic Church and executive director for the Hawaii Family Forum.

“Oftentimes, the point at which a woman is arrested is where help begins,” Rosati said. “This is exploitation, and the woman deserves to be helped out of this industry.”

But others argue that the real issue is that home and business owners do not want prostitutes in their communities, and they do not get much help in jail, said Meda Chesney-Lind, a University of Hawaii criminologist and author of “The Female Offender.”

“We don’t criminalize other forms of victimization, so I don’t think we should do that for prostitution,” she said.