Two views of sex work

As panel explores ways to "discourage demand" for prostitution, sex workers call for a more nuanced understanding of their profession

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news@sfbg.com

There are two starkly different ways to look at prostitution in the Bay Area. One view sees sex workers as victims, not just those exploited by the horrible practices of human trafficking and child prostitution, but all sex workers. The other view accepts that sex work can be a legitimate choice made by consenting adults, a job less demeaning and more empowering than many low-wage service jobs.

Those divergent perspectives clashed on the streets of San Francisco on Feb. 11 when the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women hosted a panel discussion in the Main Public Library on "discouraging demand" for prostitution, a goal that prostitutes trying to cover their rising rents don't share, as they said outside while protesting the event.

In the spotlight at the forum was San Francisco's First Offender Prostitution Program, also known as "John School," which was first implemented in 1995 to curb the commercial sex trade and provide an alternative to criminal charges for those caught soliciting prostitution, much like traffic school for bad drivers.

A March 2008 study, "Final Report on the Evaluation of the First Offender Program," by researcher Michael Shively, hailed the program as a success, with claims of vastly reduced rearrest rates and high attendance numbers. In 1999, 822 people qualified to enter the program, and that had dropped to 333 participants in 2007.

Fees generated by the program totaled $3.1 million from 1999 through 2007, which was split among the District Attorney's Office, San Francisco Police Department, and the anti-prostitution group Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE).

But human trafficking and sex work have shown few signs of abating in the Bay Area, where law enforcement sources say Alameda County is one of the state's biggest prostitution hot spots. And groups like SAGE say all sex work abuses women, whereas rival groups like the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) say it is the criminalization of prostitution that drives it underground and allows heinous practices like child prostitution to flourish.

Christina Deangelo says she's been a sex worker since the late 1970s, and she showed up at the event to criticize its judgmental and one-sided program. "Without having even one of us on the panel, who can actually tell you [what is going on], you are killing us," she said.

The sex workers who showed up were particularly critical of panelist Melissa Farley, a controversial psychologist and researcher who spent years studying prostitution and sex trafficking. As an advocate of abolishing prostitution and a proponent of the "Discouraging Demand" strategy, Farley has been met with much criticism in the past.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Susan Himel disqualified Farley as a witness in 2010, ruling that "Dr. Farley's unqualified assertion in her affidavit that prostitution is inherently violent appears to contradict her own findings that prostitutes who work from indoor locations generally experience less violence."

Sex worker advocates have also slammed Farley, such as blogger and activist Jessica Nicole, who says Farley "makes further manipulative and disturbing language decisions in her research of clients of sex workers," saying that Farley doesn't "understand the complexities of the industries she is researching."

Farley has argued that prostitution is "inherently violent," and harmful both physically and mentally to the women involved. She says that her research shows that "89% [of sex workers] I spoke to want to get out of prostitution. Most see it as a last ditch effort for survival."

But many sex workers disagree, and they have grown more vocal about their stance on the business.