The city's Erotic Service Provider's Union, which spearheaded the initiative, argues that in countries such as the Netherlands, New Zealand and Thailand, where payment for sex is allowed, sex workers are more likely to use condoms and have lower rates of sexually transmitted infections.
But in San Francisco, prophylactics are often seized, backers of the measure say. "Condoms are used by police and prosecutors as evidence of illegal activity, so sex workers are less likely to carry or use them," Klausner said.
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.
Critics say that argument is simply false.
"Condoms are evidence that prostitution is going on, but it's not evidence against the sex worker themselves but the location of where the crime is committed," said Tim Hettrich, who retired this year as a captain in the Police Department's vice and narcotics unit. "There's no law against carrying a condom, or we'd be arresting 16-year-old boys."
Proposition K would force police to target people who prey physically on prostitutes -- including thieves and johns.
Hettrich, the retired policeman, said those risks are overstated.
"Obviously, these people are victimized," he said. "Customers say, 'I'm not going to pay this prostitute, I'm going to smack her.' But I don't think the magnitude of that violence is that high. And this new law would not stop the brothel owners and pimps from getting violent, it would help them. It'll make it harder for police to zero in on their work."
No proposal along the lines of Proposition K is on the horizon for Los Angeles.
"I think L.A. is many years behind San Francisco in terms of sexual politics, sexual rights," said Mariko Passion, founder of the Sex Workers Outreach Project Los Angeles. "To have an opinion about what sex worker rights really mean, the awareness is not there at all."
Patricia West says she moved to San Francisco from Texas last year because of the Bay Area's reputation for activism. If sex workers are going to earn equal rights through the polls, she thinks this city is where it's going to happen.
"This work has afforded me so much -- a six-figure income and the ability to travel the world," she said. "This is my profession. And I'll keep doing it, as long as I'm comfortable, happy and safe."