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San Francisco Sex Workers Battle For Rights, Legitimacy

SAN FRANCISCO (CBS SF) -- "Did you f*** her first or did you pay her first?" a man nonchalantly asked his friend outside a cluster of massage parlors on Kearny Street in downtown San Francisco on a Friday night in late 2016. 

In San Francisco and across the country prostitution remains illegal, with the exception of some rural Nevada counties. But that doesn't stop it from happening.

The Polaris Project, an anti-human trafficking organization, found that as many as a third of all massage businesses in San Francisco are advertising erotic services online.

Read also: Third Of San Francisco Massage Parlors Advertise Erotic Services

Sex workers - those who choose to have sex in exchange for money and who are not forced to do so - and their advocates say the time is long overdue for legislators to consider new policies that legitimize the industry and prioritize the rights of those working within it.

One of the massage businesses that the men were standing outside of in late 2016 was Queens Health Center. Months earlier, the business had received a citation from San Francisco's Department of Public Health for conducting lewd acts with clients, but it remained open.

Then, on Valentine's Day of 2017, San Francisco City Attorney Dennis Herrera sued the owner of Queens Health Center, claiming the massage business was a front for a brothel and that the business had violated city code.

In 2016, the San Francisco Department of Public Health cited almost a dozen massage businesses in the city for lewd conduct following unannounced health inspections.

Queens Health Center is just one of hundreds of massage businesses statewide suspected of offering clients everything from happy endings to full-on sex.

Protecting Sex Workers
Carol Leigh is a San Francisco-based sex worker and filmmaker, and a strong advocate for the legitimization and legalization of sex work. Leigh argues that criminalization of sex work makes the job more dangerous; assailants know that they can get away with violence when they enter an illegal, underground establishment.

Sex workers across the country maintain that the criminalization of sex work emboldens assailants and silences victims, and say this needs to change.

If her work had been legal, Leigh argues that she wouldn't have been raped while working at a massage parlor on San Francisco's O'Farrell Street in the 1970s. She said she never reported the incident to police, largely because she feared the business she was working at would be shut down and she would lose her job.

Bay Area Sex Scandal
The world of sex work - and its interaction with the law - is largely invisible. It's taken dozens of Bay Area law enforcement officials to be accused of having sex with an underage girl to bring this underground scene to light.

Jasmine Abuslin, who used the alias Celeste Guap while working as a prostitute, claims to have had sexual relations with as many as 30 officers from six Bay Area law enforcement agencies, including San Francisco and Oakland.

In 2016, the sexual misconduct allegations came to light and Abuslin, now 19, described being exploited by law enforcement officers for years, beginning when she was a minor. The City of Oakland has recently agreed to pay Abuslin a nearly $1 million settlement and some officers have been criminally charged following her allegations.

A report by a court-appointed California investigator blames Oakland's mayor and the city's former police chief with downplaying this sexual misconduct scandal and carrying out a criminal and internal affairs investigation that was "seriously deficient."

The investigator noted that the Oakland Police Department failed to thoroughly investigate the exploitation of Abuslin "in part because of an implicit but evident bias against the victim, based on the type of victim she was." This had much to do with the fact that she was involved in prostitution.

In exchange for sex, law enforcement officers allegedly provided Abuslin with protection, and gave her a heads up to prostitution sweeps along Oakland's International Boulevard and elsewhere.

Abuslin's arrangements with police officers is hardly unique.

Former Oakland prostitute Rory Keller received a $350,000 settlement from the city of Oakland 16 years ago, after being sexually exploited by officers. More recently, police officers in St. Louis, Missouri have been accused of similar allegations and an internal affairs investigation has been launched into that alleged misconduct.

Rachel West, with the US PROStitutes Collective, claims that sex workers tend to distrust and fear law enforcement officials. Her group hopes to change the law and ensure that sex workers can report police misconduct without negative repercussions.

According to research conducted by University of California at San Francisco and St. James Infirmary, of 247 female sex workers interviewed in San Francisco, 21 percent reported having police officers as paying customers while 14 percent reported being threatened with arrest unless they have sex with a police officer. Five percent reported being arrested for not having sex with a police officer while eight percent reported being arrested after having sex with a police officer.

"That's just the tip of the iceberg," said West, who believes those numbers could be much higher.

Creating an environment where sex workers in peril can turn to law enforcement will likely become more important as websites such as Sugar Daddie and SeekingArrangements continue to increase in popularity. Neither site markets itself as escort businesses, but Seeking Arrangements charges a fee to introduce "generous men & attractive women" while Sugar Daddie states on its site, "we pride ourselves on helping you find the ultimate generous Sugar Daddy. Bills paid, gifts galore, and top-shelf fun."

West and her organization claim sex workers don't typically report sexual and physical assault. More often than not, she said, law enforcement officials do not sufficiently respond to reports of assault made by sex workers and allow perpetrators to remain free.

Changing Landscape
Sex workers in San Francisco are not new to advocating for their rights.

On January 25, 1917, a couple of hundred sex workers marched and rallied outside a church in San Francisco's Tenderloin district, protesting an impending crackdown on the city's brothels.

The sex workers of 1917 argued that it was their body and their choice, and that lawmakers and those who looked down on sex work should instead focus their energies on improving the economic and societal situations that lead women into the profession.

On January 25, 2017, a full century later, a group once again marched and rallied in San Francisco's Tenderloin neighborhood to mark 100 years of struggle for sex workers' rights in the city. A liquor store now dominates the intersection.

Banner at the Tenderloin Museum on January 25, 2017. (Photo: Hannah Albarazi)

As much as the neighborhood has changed drastically in 100 years, so have many aspects of the sex work industry.

Today, some sex workers tout their services online. They work in hotels and massage parlors rather than the brothels of yore. Others work under pimps and still take to the streets.

Despite the changes in scenery and marketing, the fact remains that there are few, if any, rights for sex workers, even 100 years after that historic march.

Many sex workers believe that the decriminalization of sex work would lead to a better relationship with law enforcement.

Sex workers attending the 2017 rally in the city's Tenderloin neighborhood repeatedly said their clients are not exploiting them. Instead, they carried signs that read, "We Demand Rights, Not Rescue" and "Criminalizing Undermines Safety."

Some sex workers told CBS San Francisco that they love their jobs and consider the sex and companionship they offer as a form of healing and therapy for their clients. Some are happily married and see themselves as erotic therapists.

Leigh said criminalization means sex workers have a tough time planning for retirement. She said while it is not impossible, it is very difficult to pay into Social Security when you work at an underground establishment.

Sex workers demand law enforcement focus their efforts on sex crimes and human trafficking.

Sex Trafficking v. Sex Work
At the rally, as if on cue, a car full of men approached the intersection, rolled down the car window and asked the group what their cause was.

"Sex workers' rights," they said.

The driver honked to show his support, but then stopped, adding, "But not children, right?" The protesters assured the driver that nobody present wanted children to be exploited. One sex work advocate rolled her eyes and said it is a common response from people who confuse sex work with sex trafficking.

Sex workers say lawmakers and the public do not always differentiate between sex trafficking (which is forced) and sex work (which is chosen). That's a big PR problem for their industry.

In San Francisco, illicit massage businesses are considered a hotbed for sex trafficking.

But in the last two years, no sex trafficking victims were identified during inspections by police and health inspectors at massage businesses in San Francisco, according to the city's 2016 human trafficking report, the first of its kind.

The Mayor's Task Force on Anti-Human Trafficking has been considering implementing an immunity rule, the Prioritizing Safety for Sex Workers Policy, in the city for sex workers reporting violence. The task force states that the policy would be groundbreaking and they hope to finalize it soon.

"The overall goal is cultural change: violently targeting sex workers is not acceptable. This policy would also protect sex workers who are trafficked," according to the task force's 2014 meeting minutes.

In 2017, no such policy yet exists.

Shrouded In Taboo
Almost a decade ago, a San Francisco initiative to decriminalize sex work failed at the ballot. Kamala Harris - then the San Francisco District Attorney and now a U.S. Senator - opposed the initiative in 2008. Harris argued that it "conceals the inhumane nature of prostitution" and that it could put trafficked victims at greater risk by placing them "outside the protection of the city's law enforcement system."

Since then, few legislators have advocated for any change to the existing law.

But sex workers who choose to work in the industry say criminalization is inhumane.

"Current lawmakers won't come out publicly and say they support decriminalization," Rachel West with US PROStitutes Collective told CBS San Francisco.

California legislators are indeed reluctant to express their policy views surrounding sex work. In fact, given weeks to respond, no members of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors were willing to comment on the issue.

However, the San Francisco's Department on the Status of Women did weigh in. Director Emily Murase and Women's Policy Director Minouche Kandal explained that their department does not see all forms of sex work as sex trafficking. They've created the Sex Work and Trafficking Policy Impact Committee, which includes sex workers, and focuses on identifying ways the city can address violence against sex workers.

"Sex workers are disproportionately victimized," said Kandal, adding that city policy needs to ensure that anyone reporting violence is able to do so without fear of retribution.

Murase said the Bay Area law enforcement sex scandal "shows why it would be important to have a policy like this in place." She said city policy must reflect that everyone, regardless of their profession, is entitled to protection from violence.

Her department continues to work with the San Francisco Police Department to craft the language of the policy to prioritize sex workers' safety.

"We're looking forward to seeing it in writing," said Kandal.

San Francisco police spokesman Sgt. Michael Andraychak told CBS San Francisco the police department is reviewing the Prioritizing Safety for Sex Workers Policy to ensure that it conforms with department's policies.

Andraychak said that while sex in exchange for money is a crime in San Francisco, the department believes the policy will stress the referral of all victims of crimes, including sex workers, to victim advocates and community organizations.

"Big picture is that this policy will serve to educate and remind both Department members and sex workers alike that this Department will investigate any case involving the victimization of a sex worker," Andraychak said.

Andraychak said the police department and the district attorney's office plan to "work collaboratively on a training program in sex work and crimes against sex workers to ensure the policy is implemented in a manner that furthers the goals of reporting of crimes and building trust and rapport with the community. The policy emphasizes the elimination of violence regardless of one's occupation."

But a group of sex work advocates helping to get the policy passed claim San Francisco police Chief William Scott "refuses to include a clause which would also prevent law enforcement from committing violence and other abuses against sex workers."

They say under Chief Scott, who was appointed in January 2017, the San Francisco Police Department wants this section of the policy omitted:

"Violence, harassment, coercion or retaliation committed by any law enforcement officer against sex workers is not tolerated and will be investigated, which may result in disciplinary or criminal action. During the course of an investigation or potential arrest, law enforcement may not engage in any type of sexual act with a sex worker."

Sex work advocates say the SFPD will not agree to the policy unless that section is removed.

The policy discussion has come to a standstill.

While sex workers in San Francisco wait for an amnesty policy to be established, in other countries and in other states legislators have charted a path forward.

Nevada allows prostitution in government-regulated brothels in sparsely-populated counties; in Hawaii a bill to decriminalize prostitution was introduced earlier this year.

New Zealand decriminalized sex work back in 2003 and requires members of the sex work industry be part of the oversight committee that creates and amends the laws governing their profession.

Some European countries have fully decriminalized the industry while other European countries have implemented the Nordic model, in which selling sex is decriminalized but buying sex remains criminalized.

The results, like the policies, are varied.

A new study found that rape has decreased in Dutch cities where it is legal to sell sex. Another recent study found that, on average, countries where prostitution is legal have an expanded prostitution market and thus an increase in reported human trafficking.

Amnesty International, the World Health Organization and Human Rights Watch are among a host of international groups advocating for full decriminalization, arguing that it prioritizes sex workers' human rights.

On the other hand, celebrated feminist writers including Gloria Steinem and Lena Dunham are among the most vocal critics of Amnesty International's call for global decriminalization of sex work.

Sex workers in the Bay Area and across the country are trying to get their legislators to comprehend the high demand for prostitution and recognize it as the result of a society with an enduring desire to pay for sex.

Sex workers say legislators need to grant rights to those who choose to be in the sex work industry, while creating better safeguards for women who don't want to be in it.

Safety First
A century ago, the American Medical Association supported full criminalization of sex work as a way to mitigate the spread of venereal diseases. Today, the association appears to be rethinking its stance.

Essays published in the January 2017 edition of the American Medical Association's Journal of Ethics show the association's changing outlook with essays titled "Should US Physicians Support the Decriminalization of Commercial Sex?" and "Decreasing Human Trafficking through Sex Work Decriminalization."

The essays dive deep into the ethical debate in the 21st century, arguing that victims of exploitation or abuse must be able to turn to law enforcement without fear of retribution or arrest.

But in San Francisco, the Department of Public Health continues to do inspections of massage businesses in hopes of finding sex trafficking victims. But they haven't been finding trafficked victims there, just people having sex in exchange for money, according to city departments.

Sex workers and their advocates argue that decriminalization would encourage sex trafficked victims to come forward and report bad actors, similar to the way San Francisco's controversial sanctuary city policies encourage undocumented immigrants to report crime without fear of deportation.

It remains to be seen whether the City Attorney's Office plans to sue the dozens of massage businesses that operate as brothels in the city and whether that's the best use of taxpayer money and city resources.

Many of the citations issued for lewd acts have resulted in San Francisco massage businesses being given suspensions and then reopening under a new name, in the same location.

Perfect Health Center Practitioner in the city's Marina District, for example, received a lewd act citation in 2015, but despite an inspector's eyewitness report, a violation hearing found that no lewd acts had occurred. The business was fined $250 for improper attire.

Allen Pera, the DPH environmental health inspector said at the hearing, that during that massage business inspection he saw an Asian woman who was "completely nude without undergarments -- jumping from crouching down to cover herself behind the door, and a Caucasian male rolling off the massage table, falling on the floor, grabbing a pillow to cover his genitals."

That massage business is now operating as Perfect Asian Massage and both on its website and on it continues to advertise sensual massages. You can visit it at the same address.

Editor's Note: If you or someone you know is a victim of trafficking, California counties -- including San Francisco -- offer various services, which can be found here. Those wishing to report trafficking can contact the National Human Trafficking Hotline.

By Hannah Albarazi - Follow her on Twitter: @hannahalbarazi.

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