Oakland City Council Takes Stand Against Sex Workers 

In the name of stopping child trafficking, Oakland has endorsed an initiative that further criminalizes adult prostitution — even though San Francisco rejected the same program over fears it would endanger sex workers.

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San Francisco's Department on the Status of Women does not take a position on prostitution, but works to ensure that women's involvement in sex work does not prevent them from getting the help they need when they become victims of violence, Kandel explained. Activists argued that when police go after people buying sex from adults, it doesn't eliminate prostitution, but rather forces workers to conduct their business in more covert and dangerous ways.

For example, when sex workers meet clients online, sex workers can share information with each other about violent men or offer reference checks for specific clients. But if police use these websites to target "demand" and arrest "johns," workers can't use the sites and lose the opportunity to vet clients. They may instead be forced to work on the streets, which is more dangerous. And when cops go after adult sex work on the streets, it can make it harder for workers to meet clients out in the open, which can lead to rushed transactions and increased safety risks.

"It doesn't matter if it's both parties criminalized or just one part of that equation ... it pushes it further underground," said Alexandra Lutnick, a senior research scientist with RTI International, a nonprofit research institute. "It makes clients leery. There's not enough time to negotiate with clients or screen them for safety issues." She noted that increased enforcement also makes it much harder for women to seek help from police when they actually need it — if a client assaults or rapes them, for example.

What's more, adult sex workers also collect a lot of valuable information about predators, traffickers, and child victims — but they can't share those tips with police if law enforcement is targeting them or their clients. "None of us want to see kids abused," said Kristen DiAngelo, executive director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project Sacramento, who helped pressure San Francisco to decline the Demand Abolition grant. "These women want to help. But they can't talk to police."

click to enlarge Sex worker advocate Rachel West says that police target adult prostitutes in the name of rescuing kids. - BERT JOHNSON/FILE PHOTO
  • Bert Johnson/File photo
  • Sex worker advocate Rachel West says that police target adult prostitutes in the name of rescuing kids.

While some policymakers contend that their focus is on rescuing children, the reality of increased criminalization is that it can push both adult workers and minors into a criminal justice system that is more interested in prosecutions than providing services to these marginalized groups, activists said. Lutnick, who is based in San Francisco and has researched human trafficking and sex work, recently testified in Sacramento about alarming trends in arrests in Alameda County, which joined CEASE last year after San Francisco cut ties with Demand Abolition. Alameda County receives roughly $40,000 annually from Demand Abolition.

Using California Department of Justice data, Lutnick analyzed prostitution arrests by county and found that while the state on the whole is arresting fewer adults for prostitution, Alameda County's numbers have climbed substantially. From 2006 to 2014, there was a 28 percent drop in prostitution arrests statewide, while in Alameda County, there was a 46 percent increase.

More troubling, while California overall is arresting significantly fewer minors for prostitution, Alameda County's rates are the same as they were eight years ago, despite a 2006 California law that stated that all minors involved in the sex trade are considered trafficking victims — regardless of whether someone had coerced or forced them. Since the law was passed, California law enforcement agencies have arrested 67 percent fewer minors for prostitution. But Alameda County's rates only dropped 5 percent. San Francisco, by contrast, has slashed its adult prostitution arrest numbers by 85 percent — and arrested only one minor for prostitution in 2013 and did not arrest any minors last year.

The data, critics say, highlights how Alameda County remains focused on criminalization — a practice that the Oakland resolution, which is a largely symbolic show of support for CEASE, only serves to reinforce. Spokespeople for Schaaf, Campbell Washington, and Guillén did not respond to multiple requests for comment for this report. Casey Farmer, spokesperson for council President Gibson McElhaney, told me that her office has not heard from any sex worker advocates. "These councilmembers have been very much focused on the impacts ... on minors who are coerced," Farmer added.

In a lengthy phone interview, Casey Bates, head of the Alameda County District Attorney's human exploitation and trafficking unit, expressed anger at sex worker advocates' opposition to Demand Abolition, calling the activists a "very well-organized vocal minority." Targeting demand in the commercial sex industry is the best way to protect children from horrific abuses, he argued. "For years, we've only addressed the supply side. We've focused solely on arresting women and trying to capture the pimps. ... It's been terribly lopsided and actually really ineffective." He argued that men who buy sex end up purchasing both adults and minors, so that when agencies arrest and prosecute all "johns," it disrupts child trafficking.

Bates claimed that sex worker rights' groups were essentially asking law enforcement to abandon child victims so that prostitutes could continue their business — which, he emphasized, is illegal. "To give johns a pass, which they have historically received, is not acceptable," he said. Regarding the arrests of minors, Bates argued that in some cases, an arrest is the only way to get a child victim the help she needs to get off the street. "What's the alternative? To leave the kid on the street to be further traumatized and raped?" he said.

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