Yielding to traffic

Prostitutes speak out against Proposition 35

Proposition 35 is a ballot initiative aimed at getting tough on human trafficking. But some California sex workers say it actually commodifies their industry.

Proposition 35 is a ballot initiative aimed at getting tough on human trafficking. But some California sex workers say it actually commodifies their industry.

Few people are publicly lining up against a ballot initiative that purports to get tougher on human traffickers—even though it may end up being a well-intentioned boondoggle.

Supporters of Proposition 35 (known as the Californians Against Sexual Exploitation, or CASE, Act) say their measure will provide greater voice to people like Leah Albright-Byrd, a victim of coerced prostitution when she was a teenager on the streets of Sacramento. Last month, the 28-year-old told the state Legislature’s joint committee on public safety that a drug dealer manipulated her into the illicit sex game shortly after she ran away from a physically abusive household at the age of 14.

“I was punched, I was slapped, I was kicked, I was dragged from cars, spit in my face and told that I would ‘always be a ho,’” she recalled through tears. “That’s what I was told. Law enforcement was not an ally.”

Architects of the initiative, including former Facebook privacy chief Chris Kelly, say CASE would change this paradigm by requiring new training for police officers and preventing victims’ illicit sex work from being used against them in court proceedings. The proposition would also increase prison sentences and fines for human trafficking, require traffickers to register as sex offenders, and direct sex offenders to disclose all Internet identities, including username and password information for a wide array of websites, including social media, news outlets and online shopping.

Critics, like the American Civil Liberties Union, contend the latter requirement is both untenable and a violation of protected free-speech rights. Others say the measure’s definition of “human trafficking” is so broad, that it would require sex-offender registry by people whose crimes aren’t remotely sexual in nature.

State Sen. Mark Leno noted this possibility during his pointed questioning of a Legislative Analyst’s Office representative at the August 14 informational hearing.

He said there would now be “the opportunity to further frighten the public” when they go to a sex-offender registry and see someone living near them, even though that person was possibly convicted of, say, extortion and not a sex offense.

Such issues could have been avoided if proponents of tougher human-trafficking laws went through the legislative process, Leno and other legislators added. “But when you just go to the ballot because you’ve got a deep pocket and you put all these things in it, there are certain to be unintended consequences,” Leno said.

Kelly, a 2010 candidate for California attorney general who donated $1.86 million to the Prop. 35 ballot drive, argued that he and others repeatedly sought remedies from the Legislature, “and it failed to act.”

Despite mixed feelings about how to deal with the crime of forcing people into prostitution or labor, few of them interviewed by SN&R deny it’s a serious problem. According to the FBI’s Innocence Lost National Initiative task force, Sacramento is among 18 medium-sized U.S. cities identified as a hub for human trafficking. In the Sacramento region, more than 150 children have been rescued from trafficking in recent years, the task force states.

In June, for instance, a domestic sex-trafficking operation resulted in the recovery of six children who were being prostituted in Sacramento, the FBI’s local field office announced. Six pimps were also arrested during the three-day operation.

Since most of these cases end up being prosecuted in federal courts, only a few people are sent to state prisons each year for human-trafficking offenses. As of March, there were 18 such offenders in state prisons, according to Lia Moore of the Legislative Analyst’s Office. The LAO was unable to estimate how California prison populations would be affected.

While members of the Legislature’s public-safety committee expressed grave concerns about the measure’s “overbroad” definition of human trafficking and its indifference to current legislative proposals—as many as eight bills were considered this year—the only organized opposition thus far comes from a loose conglomeration of sex workers known as the Erotic Service Providers Legal Education and Research Project.

It’s a small outfit with an even smaller board of directors. Members of this group are said to include prostitutes, exotic dancers, webcam and adult-film performers, phone-sex operators, dominatrixes, submissives and the “support staff” that goes along with such professions.

President Maxine Doogan, a working adult escort herself, said less than a hundred members belong to the union arm of her organization.

Even with a small cadre of unapologetic “sex workers,” Doogan and her colleagues have made it their mission to decriminalize prostitution altogether. Without equal protections, they say, illicit sex workers become victims on and off the job, unable to turn to the police when they’re raped, robbed or kidnapped, and are constantly in danger of being used as a commodity by money-chasing law-enforcement agencies and beggarly nonprofits. This dynamic would only grow worse under Prop. 35, Doogan and others told SN&R.

They “continue to rely on the criminalization of our labor as a means to identify and rescue trafficking victims,” said Doogan. “The public may think that’s a good thing to do,” she added, but Prop. 35 amounts to legalized entrapment, Doogan said, where the courts will be forced to prosecute anyone who accepts money from a prostitute, including landlords, spouses and even children.

“Under their definition, they would all be considered traffickers and have to register as sex offenders,” Doogan claimed.

It’s “a scenario which may sound outlandish,” the Prop. 35 opponent acknowledged, but she said the proposition provides cash-strapped public agencies, nonprofits and law enforcement an economic incentive to widen the human-trafficking net beyond reason.

Under the ballot initiative, convicted traffickers could be forced to pay as much as $1.5 million in new fines, 70 percent of which would go to public agencies and nonprofits, with the remainder going to the law-enforcement agencies in that investigated the crimes.

On the other end of the fiscal spectrum, the Legislative Analyst’s Office has been unable to provide an estimate for how much the measure would cost the state’s general fund, guessing “a couple million dollars annually” for an increased number of prosecutions and incarcerations, and “a few million dollars” for the required training.

“It isn’t often that the Legislative Analyst’s Office says a ballot measure is so ambiguously written that you can’t even put an estimate on the general fund,” Sen. Leno noted sharply.

Problematic or not, what scant polling data is available suggests overwhelming support for the ballot initiative. According to a joint survey conducted last month by Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy and California Business Roundtable, 86.6 percent of those surveyed are in favor of Prop. 35. Only 6 percent said they were opposed.

Opponents acknowledge their uphill battle convincing the public to vote against something that bills itself as a “Ban on Human Trafficking and Sex Slavery.”

“I think they’re going to end up voting yes on this, and they’re not going to know what they’re voting on,” said Veronica Monet, a certified sexologist and anger-management specialist who counsels couples.

Monet, a former adult escort, drew comparisons to a 2003 Supreme Court case in which a Texas gay couple was selectively prosecuted for violating the state’s archaic antisodomy laws.

“If nobody has it in for you—if you’re white, Christian and heterosexual—then you may have nothing to worry about,” she said pointedly.