Call to legalize SF sex work going nowhere fast

Photo by Sheila Fitzgerald via Shutterstock

It’s been three months since San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen urged state lawmakers in a proposed resolution to legalize sex work in California.

The impetus, according to a previous statement from Ronan, is what’s happening on Capp Street. She pointed to an “out of control” situation in the Mission, with dozens of sex workers between 17th and 24th streets soliciting sex work. Physical barriers on the street and ticketing people for traffic violations wasn’t solving the underlying issue – that sex work is happening in San Francisco.

“It is time to recognize this and move towards decriminalization and ultimately legalization and regulation of sex work,” Ronen states.

While Ronen’s resolution led to a media spotlight, the resolution itself hasn’t budged. In subsequent supervisor meetings, the issue got punted. Ronen’s office now says it’s planning to hold a hearing on it, but as of May 1 hasn’t requested one. Ronen, through one of her staff, declined comment.

Maxine Doogan – president of the Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational and Research Project – said Ronen has been supportive of her group’s efforts in the past. However, Doogan said it was “shocking” to see Ronen use the word “legalization” and not connect with the sex worker community first.

“It’s a big community,” Doogan said. “There’s a lot of parts to it.”

The difference between “legalization” and “decriminalization” is a sticking point for many in the sex worker community. According to Doogan, legalization would restrict sex work. There would be hours of operation imposed and prerequisites for licensing, among other issues.

Ronen could have reached out to her sex worker connections for discussion before issuing the resolution, Doogan said.

“The community it affects is wondering, what does it all mean?” Doogan said.

What Doogan wants first is the repeal of the law prohibiting prostitution. That’s decriminalization, not legalization.

Kristen DiAngelo, executive director of the Sacramento Sex Workers Outreach Project, agreed. She said sex workers don’t want legalization.

“You legalize substances like marijuana or alcohol,” she said. “You decriminalize people.”

DiAngelo drew a comparison between the legalization of marijuana and sex work. She said cannabis legalization was followed by barriers for mom-and-pop operators to enter the marketplace. Smaller operators can’t compete with large farms.

It’s a similar situation with legal brothels in Nevada, DiAngelo said. The brothels come with heavy restrictions on their workers while law enforcement acts as a gatekeeper.

“There’s just all these problems,” DiAngelo said.

DiAngelo points to the decriminalization of sex work in New Zealand as a model. The Prostitution Reform Act in 2003 decriminalized sex work in that country, enabling contracts and better labor conditions for workers.

According to DiAngelo, New Zealand isn’t making it difficult for sex workers to work. Instead, it’s making it safe for them.

“It makes sense,” she said.

Enacting change like that in California is a different story.

The difference between “legalization” and “decriminalization” is a sticking point for many in the sex worker community.

State Sen. Scott Wiener (D), who is named in Ronen’s resolution, has sponsored a number of bills over the years that help sex workers. In 2019, he ushered through a bill that prohibits the arrest of someone for certain crimes related to sex work. It also prohibits the arrest of someone when they make a sexual assault accusation, as well as some other accusations. Additionally, condoms cannot be used as evidence when prosecuting someone for prostitution.

Last year, one of Wiener’s bills removed the crime of loitering in a public place with the intent to commit prostitution from the law books.

Wiener’s name, as well as the names of fellow Democrats and Assemblymembers Matt Haney and Phil Ting, are listed in Ronen’s resolution calling on state legislators to legalize sex work. The districts of all three include portions or all of San Francisco.

Wiener declined to comment on Ronen’s resolution. However, he’s previously said that he supports decriminalization but had no immediate plans to introduce legislation on it. He called it “a very hard bill, politically.”

Haney in an email statement said, “I have no plans to carry a bill that would create a ‘red light district’ in San Francisco nor have I heard from Supervisor Ronen on that issue.”

Ting couldn’t be reached for comment.

Ronen in an earlier statement said she “never suggested setting up a red light district,” though people may have seen those claims in media reports.

“Without seeking my comment, many journalists reported that we were considering a red light district, which is not the case,” she states.

The San Francisco Police Department issued an email statement when asked for comment on Ronen’s resolution.

“The SFPD and Mission Station Personnel has been hearing the concerns of the neighborhood and has partnered with residents to solve the ongoing problem on Capp (Street),” Public Information Officer Robert Rueca states. “With the current statute changes, it poses a challenge to ongoing efforts. However, the department will continue with strategies to mitigate sex trafficking in San Francisco. We recognize that these acts can easily escalate to violence. We want to ensure the community that our officers will hold those responsible and make arrests.

“The department is aware of the issues of sex workers and the potential of human trafficking on Capp Street,” Rueca says. “The department is utilizing strategies to stop and disrupt the criminal activity, while being compassionate to those forced into the sex trafficking trade.”

Doogan isn’t optimistic about positive change occurring for sex workers.

“I don’t think anything is going to happen,” she said. “Just more people are going to be arrested. That’s what’s going to happen.”

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