Proposition K - Decriminalizing Prostitution

Voter Guide
This measure appeared on the November 2008 San Francisco ballot.


What it does

Proposition K is an initiative ordinance that would decriminalize prostitution by preventing the San Francisco Police Department and District Attorney's Office from enforcing the state's prostitution laws. This measure would also prevent the San Francisco Police Department from engaging in targeted investigations of undocumented sex workers employed in massage parlors.

If passed, the measure would eliminate funding for the investigation and prosecution of illegal sex workers. In addition, the measure would bar the Police Department and District Attorney's Office from applying for or receiving federal and state funding for prosecuting prostitution and the trafficking of sex workers. Funds currently expended on prosecuting prostitution laws would be spent investigating crimes committed against sex workers, such as extortion, battery and rape.

In addition, the measure would eliminate funding for programs that provide services to prostitutes. The Early Intervention Prostitution Program offers treatment services for trauma and substance abuse, housing assistance, and vocational training to sex workers arrested for prostitution, to assist them in exiting the illegal sex industry, if they so desire. The Early Intervention Prostitution Program also provides peer counseling to women arrested on prostitution charges and works with them to develop a treatment plan. The program is funded through fines that are levied on people arrested for purchasing illegal sex.

A program for first-time offenders convicted of purchasing sex also would be eliminated if the measure were to pass. The First Offender Prostitution Program — also known as Johns school — is a diversion program that offers clients arrested for illegally purchasing sex the option of attending a one-day Saturday seminar and paying a $1,000 fee. The program has been shown to be effective in reducing recidivism and is operated at no cost to the taxpayer because it is funded through the fines levied on convicted purchasers. The program also is available for people arrested for solicitation. The prostitutes are directed into diversion programs through a local nonprofit organization called the Standing Against Global Exploitation Project. If this measure were to pass, it would eliminate the practice of directing to this organization the $1,000 fee paid by "johns."

Why it is on the ballot

This measure was placed on the ballot through the collection of voter signatures. The measure was drafted by the Erotic Service Providers Union, which led the signature campaign to place the measure on the ballot.

In 1994, the San Francisco Board of Supervisors established a Task Force on Prostitution, which recommended in a 1996 report that the City decriminalize prostitution. Proposition K seeks to achieve the decriminalization of prostitution through the ballot, since the task force's recommendation was never implemented.

Other recommendations in the 1996 report have been implemented. In 2003. San Francisco adopted an ordinance that transferred the regulation of massage parlors and their employees from the Police Department to the Department of Public Health. The 1996 report also recommended creating an anonymous hotline for sex workers, a recommendation implemented in 2006 by the Department of Public Health.

In 2004, a measure proposing the decriminalization of prostitution in the city of Berkeley was placed on the ballot there, but it was rejected by 64 percent of the vote. The Berkeley measure would have made illegal sex work the low priority of Berkeley city police and would have required the Berkeley City Council to lobby the state to overturn laws prohibiting prostitution.

This measure is designed to achieve not only the decriminalization of prostitution, but also to address several perceived disparities in the prosecution of illegal sex work. A series of raids conducted by the San Francisco Police Department this year resulted in the closure of 17 massage parlors for health and safety violations. These massage parlors are suspected of employing unauthorized immigrants who were forced into illegal sex work by traffickers. The measure is designed to prohibit the targeting of massage parlors, which proponents argue have been the focus of excessive scrutiny.

The measure also is designed to address what proponents claim is a disparity in the prosecution of illegal sex workers operating out of their homes, on the streets and through escort services. The measure claims that the Police Department and District Attorney's Office have been unwilling to pursue the prosecution of prostitution in dance clubs.


Arguments in favor of Prop. K:

  • While those in prostitution can report battery, assault and rape as the law stands now, by decriminalizing prostitution, victimized prostitutes would no longer fear the risk of facing criminal charges for reporting battery and rape. Decriminalization could create greater cooperation between the police and prostitutes when attempting to prosecute crimes related to prostitution, such as robbery and assault, as well as the sale of illegal substances.
  • Prostitutes who operate out of their homes would no longer face eviction as a result of being prosecuted. As a result, these prostitutes no longer would be forced to operate on the streets. However some landlords might still require that tenants abide by state law, or might begin putting non-prostitution clauses into their lease agreements. In Nevada, even legal prostitutes have a very hard time finding housing or other jobs, based on the stigma that goes along with their work.
  • Eliminating the prosecution of sex workers would save the expenditure of funds to investigate and prosecute illegal sex work. In 2007, this expenditure came to more than $11.4 million. Prop. K would enable the City to spend those funds prosecuting other crimes.
  • Decriminalizing prostitution could result in the police expending more effort to prosecute crimes committed against all sex workers, not the crime of being a sex worker. Some sex workers in nightclubs allegedly are being forced to work without pay or to have sex with owners and managers.
  • Decriminalization would increase the economic security for some sex workers, as they no longer would fear arrest for continuing their work.


Arguments against Prop. K:

  • By decriminalizing all sex workers, as well as pimps and clients, this measure would make it more difficult for the Police Department and the District Attorney's Office to prosecute coercive pimps who would be decriminalized under this measure. A large percentage of women who seek to leave prostitution report having been forced into prostitution or controlled by their pimps, who threaten them and withhold their earnings.
  • Prohibiting the Police Department and the District Attorney's Office from funding the investigation and prosecution of illegal sex work is likely to make it much more difficult for both departments to pursue charges against human traffickers and pimps who put minors and children into prostitution.
  • By removing the funding for the Early Intervention Prostitution Program would make it more difficult for prostitutes to exit the sex industry. A significant number of women who work in the illegal sex industry were forced into prostitution in their teens. These services are important to efforts to help prostitutes who have chosen to leave the sex industry to address the traumatic experiences they have endured as well as other barriers they may face, such as substance abuse and a lack of education.
  • Any measure that decriminalizes both the sex workers and their customers does nothing to protect the sex workers from abuse by the customers. As a result, this measure could lead to an increase in the abuse of some sex workers but would diminish the ability of the City to prosecute such crimes.
  • Prop. K could result in San Francisco becoming a destination for prostitutes, clients and pimps. Oakland is operating a pilot program that carries much harsher penalties for pimps and johns. If prostitution were decriminalized in San Francisco, there could be an influx of johns and pimps from the Bay Area into San Francisco, a possibility made more likely by San Francisco's status as an international tourist destination and its existing reputation for libertinism.

SPUR’s analysis

Arresting and prosecuting prostitutes is expensive, and provides no support to those individuals who are working in the illegal sex industry against their will. However, by decriminalizing not only prostitutes, but also pimps and johns, this measure would provide the Police Department and the District Attorney's Office with very limited means of prosecuting abusive pimps. Further, by removing funding for the investigation and prosecution of prostitution, this measure likely would make it much more difficult to pursue traffickers and pimps of child prostitutes. While not all prostitutes are working in the illegal sex industry against their will, by removing funding for services to help prostitutes get out of the business, this measure would make it much more difficult to provide services and support to those women who have been coerced into prostitution. We see the initial appeal of liberalizing laws that are not working effectively, and understand that many sex workers are in their business by their own choice. But we think the unintended consequences of this measure would outweigh any potential benefits.

SPUR recommends a "No" vote on Prop. K.