SAN FRANCISCO — At age 22, Patricia West already has her small-business model fully launched. She's done her market research, knows how to advertise online and has a competitive rate structure.
There's just one problem: She works in the world's oldest profession, which is illegal.
In industry parlance, West is an in-call sex worker. Clients meet her in safe locations. Though this helps her avoid the violence and arrests that routinely come with working the streets, she's always on guard for police stings on the Internet.
West wants that to change. She believes all sex workers, including exotic dancers and porn stars, should be able to ply their trade free of the discrimination that comes with a criminal record.
She's one of a number of sex workers waging a campaign to decriminalize prostitution here. They're supporting Proposition K, which would shift the city's focus from prosecuting prostitution to pursuing those who prey on sex workers and increasing public health outreach. The goal, West says, is to reduce violence against women and improve the health of sex workers and their clients.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday, September 18, 2008 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 2 inches; 66 words Type of Material: Correction
Sex workers: An article in Monday's California section about sex workers in San Francisco waging a battle to decriminalize prostitution said that the measure, Proposition K, is supported by Jeffrey Klausner, director of STD control and prevention for the city's health department. The article should have noted that Klausner's opinions were his own and do not represent those of the San Francisco Department of Public Health.
"It's a morally based, antiquated law," she said. "Decriminalize prostitution and you bring it out of the underground and off the black market. That way you can start organizing, clean up the dangerous elements. Sex workers want safe streets like everyone else."
The battle over Proposition K is causing political rifts in this free-thinking city, which for years has wrestled with ways to effectively regulate its vibrant sex industry.
The measure is opposed by Mayor Gavin Newsom, Dist. Atty. Kamala Harris and much of the business community, who say it will attract unwanted criminal elements to the city and hamper efforts to fight human trafficking.
But it also has powerful backers. Placed on the Nov. 4 ballot after receiving 12,000 petition signatures, Proposition K was recently endorsed by the Democratic County Central Committee. The measure is also supported by Jeffrey Klausner, director of STD control and prevention for the city's health department.
"When a female sex worker talks to her doctor, she's often not forthcoming about her occupation for fear of arrest," he said. "Doctors can't give adequate care without knowing a patient's occupational risks."
Klausner said he hasn't discussed his support for Proposition K with his bosses at the health department and acknowledges there may be a political price for his activism. "But sometimes you just have to do the right thing," he said.
The prostitution issue makes for uncomfortable politics. At least three supervisors voted to endorse the measure in the Central Committee tally, including Supervisor Jake McGoldrick. But asked about his support this week, his office declined to comment.
Former supervisor and Central Committee member Leslie Katz, an attorney, said she also voted to endorse the measure.
"I walked into the meeting planning to vote no, but there was compelling testimony about STD statistics. A lot of people are engaged in prostitution without practicing safe sex," she said. "But listen, this measure isn't perfect. I'm still conflicted."
Proposition K would ban San Francisco police from using any public resources to investigate or prosecute sex workers on prostitution charges. Critics say the law would attract pimps, human smugglers and others who profit from the sex trade.
"Prostitution is not a victimless crime," said Harris, the district attorney. "It's a crime that victimizes neighborhoods and plagues communities and compromises the quality of life of the people who live in those neighborhoods. This measure would prohibit us from putting public resources into helping those residents. And that's not acceptable in this community."
Proposition K isn't the first attempt to decriminalize prostitution in the Bay Area. A similar effort by San Francisco sex workers two years ago failed to get enough signatures to be placed on the ballot. In 2004, Berkeley residents voted down a similar measure.
Terence Hallinan, San Francisco's district attorney from 1995 to 2003, has long supported decriminalizing prostitution. He thinks Proposition K is a step in the right direction.
"I support the concept that prostitution is something that should be legalized but controlled. But how far citizens can go in telling police how they can spend their money is legally at issue," Hallinan said.
If Proposition K were to pass, San Francisco would join 11 Nevada counties and the state of Rhode Island, which take a more liberal stance toward prostitution.
Hallinan calls that progress.
"What it says is that San Francisco is strong on personal liberties; it's not a kooky city at all," said Hallinan, who after leaving public office has represented Mitchell Brothers, which owns sex clubs and theaters here. "People here are willing to say they need a change. They take positions that may seem a little out there, but in the end so often have turned out to be right."