By Jessica Christensen, Legal Satyricon Employment Law Correspondent
“The Barbary Coast is the haunt of the low and the vile of every kind. The petty thief, the house burglar, the tramp, the whoremonger, lewd women, cutthroats, murderers, all are found here. Dance-halls and concert-saloons, where blear-eyed men and faded women drink vile liquor, smoke offensive tobacco, engage in vulgar conduct, sing obscene songs and say and do everything to heap upon themselves more degradation, are numerous. Low gambling houses, thronged with riot-loving rowdies, in all stages of intoxication, are there. Opium dens, where heathen Chinese and God-forsaken men and women are sprawled in miscellaneous confusion, disgustingly drowsy or completely overcome, are there. Licentiousness, debauchery, pollution, loathsome disease, insanity from dissipation, misery, poverty, wealth, profanity, blasphemy, and death, are there. And Hell, yawning to receive the putrid mass, is there also.” (Lloyd, Benjamin Estelle (1876), Lights and Shades of San Francisco)
The Barbary Coast neighborhood Lloyd describes was all but obliterated in the earthquake of 1906 – but, depending on who you ask, many would say this picture of San Francisco holds true even today. We’ve got gay marriage and public bathhouses, the Hustler Club, nearly unionized panhandlers, and dirty hippies. Anarchists roam freely (how else would they roam?) and medical marijuana shops are nearly as prevalent as liquor stores. The only thing missing? Legalized prostitution. But not for long, fingers crossed.
This November San Franciscans will be voting on Proposition K, a local ordinance that would, essentially, decriminalize prostitution within city limits. Now, it wouldn’t actually make prostitution legal. Rather it simply prohibits police from enforcing laws against prostitution, for sellers and buyers. It also mandates that laws against battery and rape will be enforced without regard to the victim’s status as a sex worker, and permit full public disclosure of investigations and prosecutions of violent crimes against sex workers (i.e., create a publicly available dangerous customer list). If it passes, San Francisco will become the first major city in the country to permit legalized prostitution (only heavily regulated brothels are legal in some Nevada counties, but anti-prostitution laws are still enforced).
The debate about whether or not to allow legalized prostitution is as old as, well, the oldest profession. I myself have already voted in favor of Prop K (vote early, vote often!), and if I’m being totally honest, my reasons are two-fold. First, I think it just plain makes good sense. You don’t need scientific data to figure out that people who are engaged in illegal prostitution are less likely to report violent crimes against them and seek health care, and are vulnerable to exploitation at the hands of those in authority (read: pimps and the po-po). And while feminists and the Christian right will both cry that legalized prostitution degrades women and our collective moral values, I say nothing is more demoralizing than being forced into the shadows in order to protect how “decent society” would prefer to see itself. Also, valuable tax dollars that are currently being spent on catching johns and imprisoning prostitutes could instead be redirected to preventative health and safety programs and catching violent sex offenders.
Second, I’m just really, really curious to see what happens. As the oldest profession, it is, really, just a job. It’s business. Will there be hooker unions? Will they form firms and get employer-sponsored group medical benefits? Will there be a pension fund? Will they work in teams, like roller-derby, with matching jackets? Will there be brands? Will pimps be the new CEOs? A reality TV show? Or… sexual harassment lawsuits? Culturally and legally, like San Francisco was in the Barbary Coast days, modern-day legalized prostitution is a New Frontier (although, admittedly, not one where no man has gone before). Will storefront signs reading “Blow-Jobs, 2-for-1 Lunch Special” be regulable as commercial speech or will it be obscenity? If this ordinance is like most legislation, those who authored it may well not have thought of all of these possibilities right up front. Which is what makes it so much fun for us lawyers in the courts down the road.
Since the intersection of sex, commerce and the Constitution is of particular interest to LS readers, we’re interested in what you think. Should the ordinance pass, or are the potential pitfalls to great to risk? Will there simply be more stilettos and spandex on every street corner, or is this an untapped market sector? Job growth, or just more hand-jobs?
(NOTE: although I use both “decriminalization” and “legalization” somewhat interchangeably, they’re not the same thing. “Decriminalization,” as would be the case with Prop K, means that it’s not a crime, but does not impose any new regulation. Legalization, on the other hand, most often means that the activity is affirmatively regulated).