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Last Friday, the founder of the Erotic Service Providers Union marched down to the Cat Club, petition in hand, to catch revelers at the Mondo Porno Party. Maxine Doogan expected the sex 'n' rock party to be fertile ground for her political crusade. One year into her drive to organize sex workers, Doogan is already determined to take it to the next level, and is collecting 10,486 signatures to get an initiative on the November ballot to decriminalize prostitution in San Francisco. Doogan went through the law enforcement wringer herself in Seattle, where she was charged with running an escort service and eventually pled guilty to a misdemeanor. She says the current system in San Francisco hurts sex workers by making them unlikely to report violence and unsafe working conditions to the police.
But in the petition's fine print, there's a clause that feels less like a blow against exploitation and more like good intentions run amok. Not only would the ordinance end the arrest and prosecution of prostitutes and johns, it would also prevent the city from spending money on social services for both prostitutes and their clients.
"Why in the hell would they want to do that?" asked Linda Klee, an assistant district attorney who channels many arrested women into social service programs.
It's a natural question. The city funds a number of award-winning programs, most of which are administered in cooperation with the nonprofit Standing Against Global Exploitation. SAGE offers programs on life skills, therapy, drug counseling, and career training to women and girls who are directed to the organization by the courts, as an alternative to jail time; the group also runs a program commonly called the "Johns School."
All these programs are part of the D.A.'s focus on restorative justice, says Klee. "The idea is to get people out of the cycle. Rather than have them go through the jail process, they can go through these programs, if they choose, to get off the street."
To Doogan, however, the programs look like moral condemnation. "Those so-called rehabilitation programs are always exiting strategies," she says indignantly. "It's like being given a pink slip you're out of work. That's nothing to celebrate, that's nothing to be given an award for. That is despicable." Doogan says it all stems from the assumption that prostitutes are clamoring to leave their jobs and take up new lines of work, an assumption she heartily refutes.
"There's this whole cottage industry that has sprung up around prostitution programs," she continues. "Interrupting the market, targeting the clients, trying to suppress prostitution, and it never works. Prostitution is always gonna be here. All those programs do is profit from the criminalization of our occupation." Essentially, Doogan wants these programs to get out of the way of her own profit-making. She explains that she's a current worker in the sex industry; she gives no more details, but her phone sure rings a lot.
Doogan reserves a special ire for the SAGE project, and it seems likely that her personal vendetta played a role in the initiative's proposals. Although the initiative doesn't mention the group by name, SAGE is clearly in the crosshairs. In the budget for fiscal year 2005 to 2006, the nonprofit received about $734,000 through contracts with the District Attorney's Office, the Department of Public Health, and several other offices. If Doogan's initiative makes it to the ballot and San Francisco voters actually say aye, all that funding would disappear.
So it's no wonder that Norma Hotaling, founder and executive director of SAGE, gasps in shock when she hears the details of the petition going around. She quickly regroups, saying that sex worker activists have condemned her group many times in the past. But although the former sex worker clearly hates the dynamics of the sex industry, she says that doesn't bleed over into a judgmental attitude toward workers. "We do not in any circumstances require women to get out of prostitution as a condition of services," Hotaling says. "Most of the people that come to our program are women who walk or run through the door voluntarily, begging to have help to get off the streets and to stay alive. We save lives on a daily basis, and we give women real choices, and they ask for that."
While this scrap over sex worker services is relatively new, the Bay Area has been debating decriminalization for a decade now. In 1996, the San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution recommended the decriminalization of prostitution, but nothing more came of it than chatter and outrage. In 2004, several activists put a decriminalization initiative on the Berkeley ballot, but it was defeated. Doogan is not deterred by these previous failures, saying that the time is now right for a paradigm shift. "I think we have a great shot," she says. Should the initiative succeed, Doogan says sex workers can still get the kind of social services provided by SAGE simply from programs that cater to the general public.
Perhaps she's right: Maybe the neediest women would struggle through the bureaucracy to receive medical care, counseling, and drug treatment. But it seems more likely that while Doogan's decriminalization initiative might help them stand proud on the street corner, it would also leave them out in the cold.