By Miyoko Ohtake
July 24, 2008
It's after 11 a.m. when Emmanuelle, an attractive 41-year-old former prostitute dressed in a red-and-black V-neck dress, takes the podium at San Francisco's Hall of Justice. She's clearly very nervous, but that's not surprising. In another time and place, the 40 or so men sitting in rows of plastic upholstered chairs might have been her customers. In fact they're here on a warm Saturday in May because they've been arrested for trying to buy sex.
The men, who are diverse in age and ethnicity, are voluntarily taking part in something called the First Offender Prostitution Program (FOPP). It's a bit like traffic school for drivers with too many speeding tickets. But the day's lineup at what is sometimes called "johns school" has a unique curriculum—a series of "scared straight" talks about the ills of prostitution mixed with some seriously graphic sexual-health education. By attending the eight-hour session, and paying a $1,000 fee, these "johns" can avoid being prosecuted for solicitation. More than 5,700 men have gone through the program since its inception in March 1995. Over the last decade, the number of arrests annually in San Francisco for soliciting sex has varied widely, ranging from 140 to 1,200.
San Francisco's johns school is part of a renewed nationwide push by law enforcement to focus more on the buyers of sex than the sellers—a method that, if initial studies are to be believed, seems to be more effective than the cops' periodic roundups of prostitutes. Thirty-nine other U.S. cities have similar education programs in place, most based on San Francisco's school, which got government support after a city task force on prostitution created in 1994 recommended that officials focus on the social issues fueling prostitution instead of prosecution.
Now, the future of the johns school is in question. Earlier this month, supporters of a measure to decriminalize prostitution announced that they had enough signatures to get the initiative on the ballot this fall. The bill, backed by the Erotic Service Providers Union, a San Francisco-based labor group, would not only end arrests for solicitation and prostitution, but also contains a specific provision that would prevent the city from funding the First Offenders program.
"Criminalizing sex workers has been putting workers at risk of violence and discrimination for far too long," said Maxine Doogan of the ESPU, in a statement July 18. The group believes that city resources are being wasted in they call "a futile effort to police consensual sex between adults."
But San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and the city's district attorney, Kamala D. Harris, strongly disagree. "To suggest that this is somehow an issue that only involves consensual adults, that's just not true. No matter how these girls and women are packaged for sale, the reality is that for many of them, their life experience is often wrought with abuse and exploitation," says Harris. The proposed measure would hamper efforts to crack down on human trafficking, she says, because it prevents police resources from being used to locate and help immigrant women and children in particular who have been forced into sex work by traffickers who lure them to the United States with promises of other kinds of employment.
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