When former Berkeley high-school teacher Shannon Williams was arrested for prostitution earlier this year, no one would have imagined that her case would become a real-world civics lesson. She was busted in August after allegedly arranging to have sex with an undercover Oakland police officer, and was reportedly arrested at her home soon after she was handed $250 in marked bills.
Williams' arrest made plenty of news in its own right, but it also convinced a recently convicted San Francisco prostitute named Robyn Few that it was time to start a crusade of her own. Williams' case was what Few had been waiting for: the perfect vehicle to galvanize a long-dormant movement to make prostitution legal.
Few believes that a recent Supreme Court decision opens the door to legalizing prostitution, and she wants to lead the charge. Lawrence v. Texas was brought by two gay Houston men who were prosecuted for having sex in their home. Texas was one of a handful of states that applied its criminal sodomy law exclusively to same-sex partners. In June, justices overturned the law and determined that the men deserved "respect for their private lives" and that homosexuals were entitled to engage in private, sexual conduct "without intervention of the government." They ruled that for homosexuals to be singled out for prosecution violated the plaintiffs' constitutional rights. In a scathing dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia wrote that homosexual sodomy was not a fundamental right and that overturning the Texas law would call into question state laws that prohibited bigamy, bestiality, incest, same-sex marriage and, yes, prostitution. To throw out the Texas law, he argued, could lead to a "massive disruption of the current social order." Few, the San Francisco prostitution activist, soon set out to engineer some of the disruption that Scalia envisioned.
In early September, the articulate, petite Few summoned a handful of women to protest outside the Oakland Superior Court, where Williams was entering her not-guilty plea to the prostitution charge. Few, 45, who has an uncanny command of the worlds of spin and public relations given her professional background, encouraged her female cohorts to wear leopard-skin-patterned clothing and lingerie to show their support for the movement and for Williams, who was reportedly outfitted in leopard-print lingerie at the time of her arrest.
Few herself came outfitted in a leopard-print thong and bra covered by a kimono. Her army of hookers and hooker sympathizers showed up in leopard-print teddies, dresses, and bustiers, accented by stilettos and feather boas. They marched outside the courthouse and carried placards that read "Prostitutes Are Teachers Too!" and "No Justice, No Piece." One protester, who chanted "More boobs in public, less boobs in public office," took off her shirt and bared her breasts, for which she was arrested.
Although "the girls," as they call themselves, got some media attention, they backed off the Williams case after Williams' attorney said she did not want her client to become the public face of prostitution. (The attorney, Katya Komisaruk, declined a request for an interview.) Although Williams, a field studies coordinator for a Berkeley alternative school who was on a year's leave from the district, would have helped the group garner media attention, Few was happy with the publicity she'd received from the appearance and eager to move on. Around the same time, she joined forces with the Australia-based Sex Workers Outreach Project, a nonprofit organization that helps prostitutes with health, financial, and legal matters. As part of her pact with the group from Australia (where prostitution has been decriminalized since 1995), Few got a nicely designed Web site, an e-mail address, and an Internet forum to push her agenda. She dubbed herself the "patriotic prostitute," and fashioned a campaign platform centered on the idea that prostitution should be decriminalized and then taxed for the benefit of cities and state governments.
A native of Kentucky, Few ran away from home at age thirteen and later became an exotic dancer. She never finished high school but, after marrying and having a daughter in her twenties, she began to take college courses in the hopes of earning a degree. Although she remains seventeen credits shy of that goal, Few is determined to make something of herself -- especially since two years ago she was convicted on one federal count of conspiracy to promote or commit prostitution and received six months' house arrest, which she is now serving. Judge Marilyn Hall Patel allowed Few to continue her activism and volunteer efforts while under house arrest.
Few views her efforts in suffrage-like terms, and hopes to convince Californians and then other Americans that real equality for women lies in allowing them to prostitute themselves, if that is the way they choose to use their bodies. "Sex between consenting adults in privacy is not a crime," she says in an interview, alluding to the Supreme Court's ruling in Lawrence v. Texas. "That's what they said. It is legal and not a crime. I do not believe the people of California think I should be excluded from that because I am not a gay man. ... I believe the ruling pertains to me, and so did the Supreme Court. They said it themselves."
Actually, only the dissenting Judge Scalia said it, as part of his argument for why the ruling was a mistake. The majority argued just the opposite point, explicitly stating their belief that the right claimed by the gay men who filed the lawsuit did not involve other kinds of illegal behavior, including, specifically, prostitution. Nonetheless, Few is convinced that Scalia's dissent opens up some very interesting legal wiggle room in the ruling, and she has jumped inside -- leopard-print thong and all.
"I am standing up for my rights, your rights, and everybody else's rights," she says. "That's what John Ashcroft did for me. He brought me out of the closet. He's given me an opportunity to make something out of my life that I feel is worthwhile."
Regardless of her prospects of success, Few definitely makes a good spokeswoman. She is quite well-spoken and looks nothing like the stereotypical streetwalker. She's a pretty, smartly dressed blonde who could easily pass for a Blackhawk trophy wife.
Few will kick off her proposed initiative campaign at a December 17 rally at the Berkeley Fellowship Unitarian Universalist Church, which is a memorial to the slain prostitute victims of Gary Ridgway, the recently convicted Green River Killer. Later that same day, she and her supporters will go to the Berkeley City Council and San Francisco Board of Supervisors to ask for a November 2004 ballot measure seeking voter support for repealing state prostitution laws. It's a purely symbolic initiative, but one that she and others believe will let legislators know that Bay Area voters, at least, don't want these laws on the books.
"There's public interest in decriminalizing prostitution," says Few cohort Carol Leigh, a prostitute and author whose book of essays, Unrepentant Whore: The Collected Works of Scarlot Harlot, is due out in January. "Judge Scalia's dissent was an invitation to challenge state laws on prostitution."
Despite the chatty hookers' enthusiasm, Boalt Hall Law Professor Jesse Choper thinks they have it all wrong. The Lawrence case "does everything it can to keep the door very tight around sodomy, and is not going to jump eighteen lengths to get to prostitution." Anyone who believes otherwise, Choper adds, "is just hoping."
Robyn Few makes no apologies for hoping. That is precisely what she is doing, and she intends to see just how far it can take her.
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