Investigating the fine line of legality in the SF Bay Area

When Does the Sex Market Need New Legislation?

July 4, 2015

The fine line between what is considered legal and what is socially frowned upon is an extremely controversial issue, specifically in the realm of the seemingly desecrate sex trade industry. Current California law dictates that the act of prostitution is illegal. However, criminalizing the sale of sex perversely increases the prevalence of violence and sexually transmitted diseases within the market – the exact things they hope to lessen. Criminalizing this line of work does not achieve the government’s goal of ultimately eliminating violence and sexually transmitted diseases, because people continue to sell and buy sex regardless of the law, and outlawing it simply pushes the market underground. Legalization is the best proven path to attain the best conditions possible within the world of prostitution.

A primary reason for the laws against prostitution are the risk of violence towards sex workers, but as studies point out, making prostitution illegal fuels an even more dangerous black market and gives workers no chance to contact the police in threatening situations. Rhode Island accidentally legalized prostitution in 1980 when lawmakers removed the section of the legal statute which defined the act itself as a crime and it took until 2003 for lawmakers to realize this loophole. Over the next six years new cases of gonorrhea among women statewide declined by 39 percent. Interestingly, reported rapes also declined by 31 percent … should prostitution be legalized now?

I went to San Francisco to gage public opinion about laws regarding sex trade, and found that street interviews confirmed misconceptions about legalizing prostitution. Locals of different backgrounds and fields of knowledge felt that  prostitution should be illegal due to the violence of the market. Interestingly enough, when confronted with facts that countries and states that have legalized this profession saw rapid declines in violence within the client-worker relationship, incidents of rape, gonorrhea and chlamydia, each interviewee saw the situation with new eyes and a different opinion.

Only one interviewee, perhaps the one who most directly interacted with the realities of street prostitution, agreed that selling sex should be legal. East Oakland local Katie, who chose not to share her last name, expressed her fear of going out at night and inability to wear leather or fur around her neighborhood due to the continual string of comments she receives from men asking for sexual services. Upset and disturbed by this reality, Katie thought that the legalization of prostitution would allow her to escape having to deal with recruitment situations and make her neighborhood safer. “Criminalization is not the answer to any behavior,” she said.

After Katie, my endeavor to Dolores Park unearthed an interesting consensus about public opinion on prostitution: many have no idea as to what happens when prostitution is allowed as a legal practice. On the top of my list was a genius-looking San Franciscan with curly grey hair down to his shoulders and a pair of ostentatious glasses, whom I assumed would have a relatively liberal opinion on this issue. What I found with the curly haired genius, Alejandro (who preferred not to give his last name), said he thought prostitution should stay illegal due to health concerns. A few minutes later I confronted him with the fact that after Germany and New Zealand legalized work within the sex market, brutality against sex workers decreased, while workers’ quality of life improved. Regarding Alejandro’s concern on disease, these countries occupational health and safety laws protect sex workers and therefore obtain the ability to screen clients for STD’s and utilize credit cards as a form of payment to further lessen incidents of violence. “It’s been just fantastic, really,” Catherine Healey, national coordinator for the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective, said. After a while I began to realize a common theme: once people are informed about the effects of legalizing the sex market, their stance on current legislation criminalizing the line of work changes. Peter Espenson who works in South Chicago and actively witnesses prostitution on his way back from work had no idea as to the effects of illigalization on the sex market and initially thought that it should be illegal because it is a “violent market.” He argued that if it’s consensual and financially fair it could be legal but he doesn’t see that as the truth of things. After absorbing my statistics as to what happens after prostitution is legalized, Peter agreed that there needs to be a change in legislation. Next I interviewed a Berkley local on the complete opposite spectrum of social class, the fluorescent red haired Meya Berg. She began in agreement with current legislation due to the violence of the market and shifted her stance toward the legalization of sex work.

Ignorance toward this social issue is wrecking the lives of  men and women in this line of work. Change in legislation would ultimately improve pay, boost quality of life and lessen brutality and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Like the solution to most global issues, education and awareness is an essential aspect toward achieving better working conditions. Just like me and you, “workers in the sex industry deserve the same rights as workers in any other trade, including the right to legal protection from crimes such as sexual harassment, sexual abuse and rape…”.

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