Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Prop K: let's find a better solution

By Christina DiGasbarro

For a whole host of reasons, I’m truly glad that San Francisco’s Proposition K didn’t pass; one of the most important of these reasons is that prostitution hurts women, and taking steps towards institutionalizing the practice would allow it to hurt even more women.

That’s not to say that Prop K was a terrible idea through and through. Prop K’s Section 2 would have “requir[ed] the San Francisco Police Department and San Francisco County Office of the District Attorney to enforce existing laws regardless of the victim’s sex worker status.” If the police and DA truly are ignoring sex workers who face rape or extortion or other abuse, I’m not sure how they get away with that; and if they are getting away with not doing their jobs, then San Francisco needs some new policemen and lawyers. Normally, I’d say something like Prop K’s Section 2 is redundant; the law is supposed to protect all victims of crime, regardless of anything. But if that is not happening, then more specific (if redundant) language is indeed necessary.

However, the rest of Proposition K would have removed funding for investigating prostitution and would have decriminalized prostitution. A major problem with defunding such investigations is that lack of funding would seriously cripple efforts to help victims of human trafficking. I was actually surprised that Prop K only referred to human trafficking when casting aspersions on police motives for investigating prostitutes, “under the guise of rescuing trafficked victims.” This seems like disregard for the “alleged trafficked victims.” But make no mistake: human trafficking is still a problem, so much a problem that just this past September California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger signed two bills to further help these victims. Obviously, people who are tricked or forced to come to this country to be “sex workers” have been deprived of almost every human right and dignity we enjoy daily. Removing funding for investigations would be tantamount to letting the victims of human trafficking rot; it would be a severe miscarriage of justice, which is not something we want to encourage.

As for decriminalizing prostitution: why is this practice something we want to legitimize and institutionalize? Do the women who are prostitutes really want to be prostitutes? I honestly don’t think so. I certainly can’t think of any reason why a woman would aspire to be a prostitute. So why does a woman who’s not a victim of trafficking become a prostitute? Most often, because she feels she has no other choice, no other option for making a living. Prostitution is the complete objectification of women; it turns women into mere bodies and denies them human dignity. A woman who is a prostitute is little more than a piece of meat to her customers; how then can we expect those men to view other women as more than meat? Even if the decriminalization of prostitution removed the cultural stigma surrounding prostitutes, it would not change the fact that prostitution is objectification. As far as I can tell, the point of going to a prostitute is to have meaningless sex for one’s own physical pleasure—essentially, to use the woman’s body for one’s own ends and then move on. If that is not degrading to women, I’m not sure what is.

The proper solution to prostitution is not to institutionalize it so that it’s easier for women to turn to a last resort, to objectify themselves and sell their bodies. Unfortunately, we, as humans, have a tendency to fixate solely on symptoms, to try to fix only the visible results of a deeper problem. Decriminalizing prostitution is like putting a Band-Aid over a gunshot wound: it doesn’t address the deeper problem of which prostitution is a symptom, namely, the lack of opportunity or education or whatever else that makes women think they have to prostitute themselves to earn a living.

This is what we should be expending our effort on: making sure women get the education they need, making sure opportunities for employment are open to them, making sure they have what they need so that they are not forced into prostitution. Decriminalizing prostitution would legitimize the objectification of women; it would make it that much harder to address the root causes of prostitution and help women find better opportunities. In the meantime, of course anyone who is the victim of a crime should be treated equally by the police and the DA, regardless of what she does for a living; and if equal protection under the law is lacking, something bigger than Prop K needs to be done to solve that problem. Just as importantly, encouraging prostitution is no way to help women because it only addresses symptoms; we owe it to these women to find a real, better solution.

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