Commentary: Enforcement Change Would Protect Sex Workers: By JANE FREEMAN

Friday November 26, 2004

Although the election is over, people still have Query stickers on their cars and signs endorsing or opposing the different measures. The most popular sign in my area, West Berkeley, seems to be the red and white “Vote No on Q.” Measure Q was the Berkeley ballot initiative that would have made prostitution a low priority for local police. The plethora of red and white signs down San Pablo Avenue promised that voting no on Q would protect women and protect neighborhoods. The defeat of Measure Q was a lost opportunity for this historically progressive city and guarantees that the current system will continue to persecute sex workers and fail to make our community safe. 

Sex workers encounter many types of violence. They often report that the greatest violence that is committed against them is by police officers. Many sex workers report being sexually assaulted, harassed and raped by the police, and that the threat of criminal prosecution is used to coerce them into not reporting these acts of violence. This also includes customers, pimps, or strangers who are protected by the criminalization of sex work. Reporting acts of violence that occurred while on the job, they risk criminalizing themselves. 

In this climate of increasing criminalization, there is no immunity for those engaging in sex work, even when they are the victims of violence. Measure Q would have promoted safety of sex workers by reducing their fear of criminal prosecution. 

For the past few months, I have been working as a legal advocate at Justice Now, a local human rights organization that works with women in prison. During the course of my employment, I have learned that many of the roughly 11,000 women imprisoned in California report that one of their first contacts with the criminal justice system was through sex work. 

Once women enter this system, they face a litany of human rights abuses including sexual harassment and abuse, brutality, extreme medical neglect and loss of their parental rights. Significantly, jails and prisons are designed in a manner that creates a climate of sexual violence against women. Such violence is systemic, occurs daily, and is experienced by all women even if they are only held for the few hours of booking. 

For example, women are guarded primarily by male guards who watch them change, shower and use the toilet; there is no privacy. Such an experience can be particularly traumatic for women with histories of sexual violence at the hands of men, as is the case for many women in the sex industry. Measure Q could have helped to reduce the number of women jailed in these conditions by paving the way for communities across California to remove prostitution from the focus of the police. 

Measure Q had the potential to reduce the stigma surrounding sex work, which would have eased the transition for sex workers out of the industry. Once a person is targeted by the criminal justice system, the system itself functions to keep the person trapped within it. People with a criminal record or who are thought to be sex workers face heightened surveillance, prosecution, and harassment by police. People with criminal records find it virtually impossible to legally earn a living wage for themselves and their families; most employers, including those paying only minimum wage such as Jack in the Box and IKEA, screen job applicants based on criminal records. By reducing enforcement of anti-prostitution laws in Berkeley, Measure Q could have relieved these women of the stigma associated with criminal prosecution and thus would have facilitated their exit from sex work if that is what they wished to do. 

Opponents of Measure Q argued that passing it would have led to deterioration of our neighborhoods. Berkeley is not a safer place because we target sex 

workers for punishment and confinement. Instead, the current system perpetuates the cycle of violence against women in our neighborhoods by assuring that sex workers will continue to be victims of both interpersonal and state violence. And as long as they are experiencing violence, how can we be safe? 


Jane Ashley Freeman, a Berkeley resident, recently graduated from Mills College with a degree in political, legal, and economic analysis.