Decriminalization of sex work a step in the right direction

As leading healthcare providers working for the safety and well-being of sex workers in San Francisco, we were appalled by Mary Jung’s crude and inaccurate politicization of human trafficking and sex-worker rights in her June 2 op-ed, “Not in our city.”

The criminalization of prostitution has been widely recognized as one of the greatest harms facing those in the sex industry, directly contributing to higher rates of violence, exploitation, HIV and STIs, stigma, isolation and, of course, incarceration. Just last week, Freedom Network USA, the country’s largest network of service providers to victims of human trafficking, released a statement supporting the decriminalization of sex work, joining Amnesty International and the World Health Organization in this opinion.

“It is critical that we bring consensual sex workers out of the margins, providing the services, support, options and protection needed by all workers,” said Freedom Network USA’s executive director Jean Bruggeman. “It is only when consensual sex work is safe that victims of sex trafficking can be more quickly identified and supported.”

When the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club asked candidates the question, “Do you support the decriminalization of sex work?” they were getting at the crucial question of whether individuals who trade sex for money, goods or survival needs should be treated as criminals deserving punishment or individuals deserving of equal protection under the law.

Jung’s assertion that candidates who would support the decriminalization of prostitution — candidates including Arlo Hale Smith, Zoe Dunning, Joshua Arce, Alix Rosenthal, Keith Baraka, Joel Engardio, Trevor McNeil and Marjan Philhour (all of whom Jung is supporting) — are in favor of creating a “safe haven for pimps and johns” could not be further from the truth.

The decriminalization of consensual sex work would allow abuse within the sex industry to be brought to light, shifting law enforcement resources away from harassing and arresting sex workers, and focusing instead on those who perpetrate violence against them. The Freedom Network recognized this last week, calling the decriminalization of consensual sex work “the most effective approach to protecting the human rights of both sex workers and victims of human trafficking.”

As people who provide healthcare and social services to current and former sex workers every week, we see the very real human impact of policies surrounding individuals in the sex trades. We have fought tirelessly to shift San Francisco away from harmful practices such as arresting women on suspicion of prostitution for carrying “too many” condoms, and toward greater resources for victims of violence and exploitation.

We have sat on the Mayor’s Anti Human-Trafficking Task Force, provided consultation to the WHO on reducing violence against sex workers in the context of HIV, and spent years in direct service to and with those individuals most impacted by these policies. Politicians all too often exploit marginalized people as political pawns, and Mary Jung is no different. Perhaps she and the Association of Realtors could speak instead to the housing crisis and economic disparity they helped create that has put the most vulnerable San Franciscans, sex workers among them, at risk.

Dr. Pratima Gupta is a candidate for the Democratic County Central Committee and medical director of the St. James Infirmary. Stephany Ashley is executive director of the St. James Infirmary, former president of the Harvey Milk LGBT Democratic Club and a former sex worker.

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