“Worker Safety is Public Safety!”

Proposition K, San Francisco, November 2008:

Prop K To Suppress Trafficking and Prevent Child Prostitution

Utrecht, 17 August 2008

Re: San Francisco Proposition K, "Enforcement of Laws Related to Prostitution and Sex Workers"

From: Marjan Wijers (LL.M, MA) Independent researcher on human rights and human trafficking, former policy officer and project leader of the Dutch Foundation Against Trafficking in Women, former president of the Experts Group on Trafficking in Human Beings, established by the European Commission.

Having worked for more than 20 years in the field of anti-trafficking, I would like to share with you my analysis of the Initiative Measure Entitled "Enforcement of Laws Related to Prostitution and Sex Workers."

The proposition would require the Police Department to rigorously enforce existing laws against coercion, extortion, rape and other violent crimes, regardless of the victim's status as sex worker; to not use public resources for the investigation and prosecution of sex workers for prostitution related offences, nor for racial profiling as a means of targeting alleged trafficking victims and to decriminalise prostitution. 

According to my opinion, the proposition would substantially contribute to the effective combat of trafficking in persons and to a better protection of sex workers against violence and abuse for a number of reasons.

In the first place, a persistent problem in combating trafficking is the lack of willingness of victims to report the crime. One of the reasons is the fear to be prosecuted themselves for prostitution. The criminalisation and prosecution of prostitutes feeds into this fear, and in doing so benefits the traffickers while deterring the victims to report the crime. In fact, one should be aware that any measure that further stigmatises and marginalises prostitutes adds to their vulnerability to trafficking and other forms of violence and abuse.

Secondly, because of their status of prostitutes most victims of trafficking do not trust the police and have no confidence that their complaint will be taken seriously and their violators will be prosecuted, no matter if they were coerced into prostitution or knew on forehand they would work as prostitutes. To my experience people can enter prostitution for very different reasons, varying from their own decision to being forced by others. In all cases, no matter how they entered prostitution, they should be entitled to protection against violence and abuse. However, even when one assumes that women cannot choose to engage in sex work and, consequently, that all prostitutes are victims, it makes no sense to prosecute the very victims. Rather it would make sense to redirect funds to instead prosecute trafficking and other crimes against sex workers. This would help to increase the confidence of victims in the police and encourage them to denounce their traffickers.  

Thirdly, research shows that victims of trafficking come from all parts of the world, including the country itself. Racial profiling will therefore not add to the effective prevention or prosecution of trafficking. On the contrary, it might divert attention from certain groups of trafficking victims who do not fit the presumptions underlying the concept of racial profiling.

Fourthly, decriminalising prostitution creates the conditions for regulating the industry and the application of health and safety standards. It opens the way to use a whole new array of instruments to suppress trafficking and prevent child prostitution other than the criminal law, which - though necessary - has proven to have only very limited preventive effect.

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