Amid the hubbub of the 22,000 academics, bureaucrats, and policy wonks attending last month's International AIDS Conference in Mexico City, one presentation suggested grave policy implications for San Francisco. It didn't promise exciting new directions in HIV research, education, or treatment, or the possibility of a cure. Rather, the taxpayer-funded UCSF study "Working Conditions, HIV, STIs, and Hepatitis C Among Female Sex Workers in San Francisco, California" suggested that S.F. police routinely extort hookers for free sex, implying that law enforcement officers should be prohibited from enforcing vice laws.
"I think there are a lot of really great cops in San Francisco, and some not-so-great cops," says Alexandra Lutnick, co-author of the paper. "And with sex work criminalized, if they see sex workers loitering in an area where they were busted before ... it only takes a few [bad cops] to take advantage of the situation. We have these women reporting that police officers threaten them with arrest if they don't have sex."
According to the study, one of seven San Francisco prostitutes interviewed said they were told they could avoid arrest if they had sex with a cop for free. One in five, meanwhile, said cops have paid them for sex, part of a supposed pattern of misconduct that makes hookers less likely to seek public assistance when they're victims of violence or disease.
"I think decriminalization would reduce their [cops'] motivation for arresting and incarcerating sex workers and reduce their ability to demand sex from prostitutes," says Jeffrey Klausner, head of the S.F. Department of Public Health's efforts against sexually transmitted disease. "This tells me that the current policy around the policing of prostitution is broken and needs to be fixed. And Proposition K is a rational step in that direction."
Has a strain of extortionist sex addiction infected our police? I'd like to think so, given that it's a fantastic story that would bolster the cause of legalizing the work of the apparent prostitutes who advertise in the back of SF Weekly. And the fact that one of the world's most prestigious medical institutions lent the study its imprimatur gives its "findings" the air of credibility.
But a closer look at the iffy methodology behind the UCSF study's claim of corrupt cops, and a glaring conflict of interest suffered by co-director Lutnick — she's a self-described sex worker who could benefit from the legalization of prostitution — suggest there's less here than meets the eye.
The study is Exhibit A in an SF Chronicle guest editorial Klausner penned Sept. 8 extolling the virtues of Proposition K, a measure backed by our local prostitute lobby — yes, San Francisco actually has one. It would prevent the city from spending money arresting whores.
Far be it from me to suggest that the government shouldn't sponsor hooker-led research that suggests the conclusion that a victimless crime like prostitution should be legalized. But when Proposition K supporters tell you — without offering anything close to proof — that the SFPD is populated with horny shakedown artists whose felonious habit is fed by antiprostitution laws, you should know this claim lacks substance.
The UCSF study, funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the San Francisco Department of Public Health, involved interviewing 250 prostitutes who received at least $40 each for their time. They were invited, Lutnick said, by word of mouth: Workers at the St. James Infirmary, a clinic run by and for prostitutes, helped recruit from their own social circle. "We would approach people that we know," she says. "It helps when people have a relationship with them."
Still, recruiting participants was hard, she noted, because many hookers make more money turning tricks than talking to researchers. So she ended up mostly with low-end prostitutes — the Hugh Grant variety rather than the Eliot Spitzer type. They were asked whether they had ever been threatened with arrest unless they had sex with a police officer: 14 percent said yes. They were also asked if they'd ever had a cop as a paying client: 21.5 percent said yes.
"In hindsight, we should have asked whether it had happened in the last three months," Lutnick notes. "The age range was the youngest was 18; the oldest was 69. So for the woman who was 69, it could have happened to her when she was 20." And during this half-century span, the supposed shakedown could have happened anywhere — even in cities that would be unaffected by the proposed legalization measure.
Lutnick, who says she worked as a high-end call girl until about two years ago, has worked at St. John's Infirmary and as a researcher interviewing and supervising prostitutes as part of the UCSF study. She says the last time she heard a specific anecdote about a hooker allegedly being shaken down for sex by a cop was several years ago in the Mission.
So does Lutnick have any idea whether S.F. cops shaking down prostitutes is an actual problem? "Not currently, no," she says. "The one statement we could say is that when something is criminalized, the possibility of people being taken advantage of increases."
But does it actually happen? "All I can go on is those four pie charts in front of you," she said, referring to the UCSF study. I faxed the study to an SFPD spokesman, who hadn't responded to questions by press time.
Desperate to verify the systematic blowjobs-for-badges story, I tracked down an S.F. assistant public defender who recalled a specific case where a client claimed to have been extorted for sex.
"I had a client who was getting arrested every other day, literally. Come to find out, you know, it was because she wouldn't play this game. She wouldn't give up any freebies," said the assistant public defender, who asked not to be named because she still works on cases involving police.
"I've talked to other, you know, prostitutes, other clients, who have told me the same thing," the assistant public defender said. "It's mostly hearsay about the scene. But this one person, her situation really stood out. She described being solicited for sex and refusing."
The extortion claim never became an issue at trial, however, so its veracity wasn't thoroughly parsed. The assistant public defender did not wish to give me the prostitute's name and contact information to confirm the story, out of concerns for her privacy. And this was at least four years ago, the attorney said.
So from where I sat, the story remained hearsay about a hooker impugning the police who arrested her.
The UCSF study does nothing to bolster the argument to legalize prostitution. Rather, it's another example that much academic social science is tendentious claptrap. In any other field, "research" conducted by outlaws, aimed at informing political debate about whether their chosen activity should be illegal, would be labeled conflict-of-interest–riddled propaganda. But the work of researchers in sociology, anthropology, political science, and related genres consists in large part of wedging technical-sounding terms into mischaracterized opinion essays, making it difficult to glean unbiased specks of truth.
The UCSF survey responses raise the question of whether San Francisco's finest are routinely wrangling freebies on the street. And the claim by the client of the assistant public defender I spoke to suggests this would be an interesting topic for investigation.
But hearsay and vague answers to survey questions aren't proof of anything.