By Traci Grant
updated 2:19 p.m. ET Feb. 8, 2010
In many cities, members of the community would take to the streets to call their police department to task for not addressing an increase in prostitutes walking the streets.
But in San Francisco, it was exactly the opposite.
Activists demanded that the San Francisco police department stop cracking down on prostitution and stop wasting city funds and resources to prosecute what they see as a victimless crime.
“These are Draconian laws for people basically engaging in a business transaction,” said Nell Myhand from the U.S. Prostitutes Collective. “We’re talking about grown ups here.”
A handful of members of the Collective gathered Thursday at the intersection of Polk and Sutter Streets. The same area was targeted last month during an SFPD sting that resulted in more than 50 arrests last month.
Police said they were reacting to residents’ complaints about an increase in prostitution and Police Chief George Gascon even suggested that the police department might start posting pictures of offenders arrested repeatedly for soliciting sex for money.
But sex workers’ advocates at Thursday’s protest chanted into a megaphone, “Safety should be the priority. Not arrests. Not arrests.”
Rachel West of the U.S. Prostitutes Collective said that the poor economy and lack of jobs have pushed more women onto the streets and into prostitution. West said the arrests hurt more than they help.
The public agrees with her, citing 2008’s Proposition K. Back then, 41-percent of San Francisco voters wanted to decriminalize prostitution, but the measure ultimately failed.
West also insists that crackdowns only make it worse for female sex workers because it forces them to work in more dangerous areas, away from the glare of sirens and badges, and it makes them less likely to report violence inflicted against them.
“Have you heard about the impact on women’s lives when you call for arrests?” West said. “Have you heard about what happens to children when their mothers are dragged off to jail. For what? What is essentially consensual sex between two people.”
But it’s not as simple as that, said Capt. Al Casciato, of the SFPD’s Vice Division.
Casciato said that prostitution isn’t just between the two people engaged in the sex act. It often involves pimps, drug dealers, human traffickers and it impacts the safety of entire neighborhods.
He said police are trying to break the cycle for prostitutes and for the “Johns” who seek them.
“What we’re trying to do is get them into services as opposed to getting them into jail,” Casciato said.