Comes Naturally #49 (August 23, 1996):
Of City Commissions, Prostitution, and One Knight Errant's Continuing Quest for the Holy Grail of Sexual Sanity

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Spectator Magazine - August 23, 1996
(c) David Steinberg

Of City Commissions, Prostitution, and One Knight Errant's Continuing Quest for the Holy Grail of Sexual Sanity

"We hope that by going slow and being methodical we will be able to bring some sanity to this process."

"The truth never hurt a cause that was just." -- Mahatma Gandhi

One More Plea for Sexual Sanity

I guess I'm and old-fashioned sort of guy. What I mean by that is that my notions of political discussion were formed before 1980 -- before Ronald Reagan and the continued influence of television succeeded in reducing American political attention span to the level of the sound bite and the one-liner.

My old-fashioned notion, perhaps ridiculously naive as well, is that complex social issues can only be dealt with effectively if they are addressed in thoughtful, complex ways. As far as I'm concerned, trying to do anything quicker and flashier only adds to the septic tank of confusion and misunderstanding in which we are already immersed up to our chins. I also believe that complicated social issues need to be approached with a spirit of mind that understands that most aspects of human behavior -- whether personal or societal -- are, by their very nature, infused with a good measure of irony and paradox, whether we like it or not. (I happen to be one person who likes it a lot.)

As anybody who makes a habit of reading this column knows, I am a passionate advocate of passionate life. But I am also a strong advocate of reason and reasonableness (I was a math major in college, with a specialty in logic theory). I see nothing contradictory about championing both passion and reason -- each in its time and place, sometimes both at once -- although this certainly becomes a fertile field to harvest irony and paradox.

Learning how to effectively embrace both passion and reason, and how to weave the two together into the fabric of a rich and satisfying life, would be a pretty good way of summing up what much of my life has been about, what I do to bring some semblance of meaning and purpose to this ultimately fragile journey from the womb to the grave. Hard work and meaty, to be sure, but it suits me, or so I think on my more optimistic days.

Of course the world out there doesn't relate to passion and reason in quite this way, preferring the simpler, if ultimately futile and crazymaking, path of setting up passion and reason as enemies and forcing people to swear allegiance to one or the other, generally meaning reason. As a result, signing up for a life of passion and reason, with all the consequent emphasis on irony and paradox, means choosing to be at odds with most of the world most of the time -- a real pain in the ass, but not without the bitter satisfaction of getting to play the role of Heretical Exception to All Rules.

While being Outlaw and Proud offers one way of keeping afloat in a hostile and disapproving world, there are times when the distance from Here Where I Am to There Where the World Goes On Its Way Devouring All the Good Things in Life is enough to make even the most confirmed heretic outlaw want to cry. Which is how I felt watching the packdog media wolves, propriety mavens, political slobberers, and preservers of hypocritical upstandingness howl at the moon over the "launching" of the ground-breaking final report of the San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution, which took place at an August 1 press conference in the high-ceilinged chambers of the War Memorial Building, City Hall ExConstructis.

Some Background

By the time these words hit the streets some of this will be old news, but just for the record (or in case you've been off back-packing), let me fill in the picture. In November 1993, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors, on the initiative of then-Supervisor (now District Attorney) Terence Hallinan, established a Task Force on Prostitution "to make recommendations... on legislation and policy reform as related to the city's prostitution laws and policies." What was radical -- indeed unprecedented, in the U.S. -- about this task force is that it was specifically directed to include prostitutes and prostitute rights advocates along with more habitual representatives of neighborhood groups, the Mayor's office, the District Attorney's office, the police, the Public Defender, the Chamber of Commerce, the Department of Public Health, and other interested parties.

The Task Force met for a year and a half, and through a long and tumultuous process wended its way to a stunning final report. Supervisor Tom Ammiano referred to the work of the Task Force as a "Bosnia-type process," and quite a war it seems to have been. Apparently the representatives of neighborhood business groups had a hard time dealing with the simple fact that they were sitting in a room with actual, you know, prostitutes, who expected and demanded to be taken seriously and to be treated with respect -- and who, together with their supporters, significantly outnumbered them.

The group agreed at the start to avoid using inflammatory language, says Task Force member and prostitute rights advocate Margo St. James but, she says, this did not stop Phil Faight, representing Concerned Business Persons of the Tenderloin, from speaking of the "drug-crazed whores on the corner," or Jeanne Powell of Nob Hill Safe from calling Carol Stuart, representing the office of Senator Milton Marks, a "kike." Faight, according to St. James, compared having prostitutes on the Task Force to asking death-row inmates do a book on the death penalty, to which she replied that not having prostitutes on the group would be like having a convention on racism that excluded people of color.

In January 1995, the six neighborhood group representatives -- Ron Norlin (Mission District Residents for Safer Streets), Patricia Walkup (Hayes Valley Neighborhood Association), Gary Zodrow (Polk Street District Merchant's Association), Art Conger (Save Our Streets), Powell, and Faight -- resigned from the Task Force because they were unhappy with the general direction the report was taking. Specifically they were unhappy with the group's general support of decriminalization of prostitution.

Sex Workers as People, not Criminals

The Task Force final report recommends that the City of San Francisco:

In other words, the report takes what Supervisor Tom Ammiano called "an extremely humane and compassionate" approach by addressing sex workers primarily as people rather than as criminals, and by encouraging the normalization of sex-oriented workers and businesses instead of marginalizing and stigmatizing them because of the sexual nature of their work.

The report acknowledges the problems and what it calls the "legitimate concerns" of neighborhood and business groups, but it places these concerns in a larger social context by addressing problems associated with sex work as the result of stigmatization, physical danger, and police harassment rather than as inherent characteristics of the work itself. Most significantly it documents how the prosecutorial approach to dealing with sex work consumes tremendous financial resources while failing to effectively reduce or control the work itself. (For example, the report details how a minimum of $7.6 million annually is spent by the City of San Francisco alone on police, incarceration, court costs, attorney costs, and mandated forensic health programs related to prostitution. "Despite the heavy emphasis on enforcement as a solution," the report notes, "the incidence of prostitution does not decrease over time." According to the report there were 2,518 prostitution-related arrests in 1991; 4,785 in 1992; 3,218 in 1993, and 5,269 in 1994.)

Two Views

How sane, you might say. How reasonable. How well-researched. How fiscally responsible.

How outrageous, say the critics. How ludicrous. How ridiculous. How foolish.

It all depends on how you look at it. Those who say that prostitution is going to be around no matter what, and who want to see sex work normalized as an on-going facet of urban life, address the issue pragmatically and sociologically. Those who continue to be outraged by the notion of sexual commerce address the issue moralistically and punitively. Is it possible for reasonable people to disagree intelligently about something that goes to the heart of how we feel about sex, property, gender, and the core mechanisms of social control and maintenance of public order? Hardly. That would require acknowledging sex as an ongoing aspect of being alive (just like everything else), and sex workers as regular human beings (just like everyone else). Which is exactly what the whore stigma insists is entirely out of the question.

Let the Media Circus Begin

While there was some journalistically responsible reporting by Chronicle Staff Writer Glen Martin and by Examiner correspondents Ray Delgado and Greg Lewis, when it came time for editorializing, the full force of the Pillars of the Community attempting to discredit and ridicule an unwanted point of view came to the fore, and all pretense of rational discourse went straight out the window. Under the misleading headline, "A Foolish Proposal To Legalize Hookers" (the City of San Francisco cannot legalize prostitution since sexual commerce is regulated by state -- not city -- laws), the lead editorial in the August 2 edition of the Chronicle slams "pro-hooker advocates" for "hijacking the process" of the Task Force, and notes with unembarrassed elitist arch that of course "the people with the greatest stake in a healthy city" (that's neighborhood business groups, don't you know, not the likes of you and me) "refused to participate" in Task Force deliberations. The editorial ridicules the "predictably fatuous findings" and "faux-scholarly verbiage" of the "stacked task force," and then slides into the most ludicrously florid prose and hysterical rant to raise the specter of a city slathering in salaciously commercial sex. All the better to whip the self-righteousness of a populace supposedly offended by the cheek of uppity whores into a froth of dismissive outrage.

Sounding for all the world like a turn-of-the-Century diatribe against Demon Rum, the editorial treats readers to a rundown of the most stereotypical of classic sex work images -- the "footloose hustler or pimp who would like to move to San Francisco, bringing with them [sic] all the attendant drugs, disease, crimes and perversions that accompany their demeaning and violent occupation;" "pathetic, drug-ravaged wraiths trying to peddle their curbside services;" "diseased 12- and 13-year-old girls and boys, runaways from abusive homes, who become sex slaves and drug addicts in the thrall of vicious pimps." All the better to frighten people away from any kind of calm consideration of Task Force recommendations.

Meanwhile UPI and Reuters respectfully put news of the Task Force recommendations onto their wire services. The word is out: San Francisco, that kooky town we've all heard so much about, is considering decriminalizing prostitution. Whores and needles and children, oh my!

Looking Toward the Future

Although Task Force members note that essentially all members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors supported decriminalization during their campaigns, none except Supervisor Ammiano seem to be willing to stand up and defend the report in public. St. James, herself a candidate for Supervisor in November, describes both Mayor Willie Brown and District Attorney Terry Hallinan as "hunkered down, trying to let it blow over." This despite the fact that 85% of callers supported legalization of prostitution in a December 1993 Examiner telephone survey, and 66% of 2,581 callers favored legalization in a similar tabulation during the generally critical media blitz that followed release of the Task Force report. (Even 90% of police officers support legalization, claims St. James -- citing Joseph McNamara, the former San Jose Chief of Police who is now a fellow at the Hoover Institution.)

Will the Task Force report simply blow over? St. James vows not. Using her Supervisorial campaign as a lever, she is determined to demonstrate and mobilize public support for less punitive approaches to prostitution. She is convinced that people can be brought around on this issue, noting for example that, despite initial hesitancy from the feminist community, the Women's Fund, Women's Building, and the National Organization for Women now all support her campaign.

While decriminalization of prostitution -- or even de facto nonenforcement of existing statutes -- may be a long way off (Task Force member Carol Leigh speaks of changing attitudes about prostitution as a "50-year process"), some of the report's other recommendations may be more immediately implemented. Leigh notes, for example, one change that has already occurred as a result of Task Force encouragement, namely that police are no longer using possession of condoms as evidence of intent to commit prostitution -- meaning that prostitutes have one less thing to worry about when they want to protect themselves and their clients from disease.

In any case, a significant milestone has been passed when the voices of sex workers and their advocates become part of the respected public discourse that accompanies the release of findings of an official city commission. Rachel West, who represented the U.S. Prostitutes Collective on the Task Force, pointed out at the August 1 press conference that "this is the first time, as far as we know in the U.S., that women representing sex workers were on a city task force. This is an historic occasion -- that the input and thought of women and men who are never heard from, whose voice is usually hidden and invisible, actually had a say in recommendations to the city. This is the first time that a report has ever been presented to a local government in the U.S. [raising] the issues we are presenting. It is a breakthrough."


[The complete report of the San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution is available at two websites: <> and <>]

[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]

David Steinberg
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