Stay with the surface: lipstick and skin, a push-up bra, a g-string. The woman wants you, doesn't she? Forget about Portland's prostitution-free zones, that burdensome legal bureaucracy of exclusion that keeps sex workers hustled out of one neighborhood and into another. You've come for fun.
But the thing about fantasy sex is that both cash and fantasy lose when genuine bodily fluids--spit, sweat, blood, cum, and pre-cum--ease their way from one well-traveled, eager man-pole to a hired vaginal cave, an anus, an open mouth. Any sliver of worn skin, a festering sore, an unhealed herpe, razor burn, paper cuts, and heavy flossing at the gum line--it's all about sharing.
Just ask those nude dancers, the women wiping down the communal chrome pole before their set, who don't share razors in the dressing room for fear of hep-C, who wouldn't even use a boyfriend's toothbrush without first thinking twice.
Ask South Africa.
With a reported 20 percent of the population HIV-positive, South Africa is taking a direct look at the physical reality of unprotected sex. The Ministry of Health is worried enough that it's willing to re-evaluate its approach. Prostitution has always been illegal, and it's never gone away. Maybe there's another way to handle the question of sex as business, rather than criminalizing the sex workers and shoving an already under-served population further underground. This involves recognizing sex workers as real people, not in the broad and oversimplified categories of fantasy or criminal element.
This involves considering the prostitute's emotional and physical health needs.
A QUICK TRIP TO SOUTH AFRICA
According to South African President Thabo Mbeki, the HIV situation isn't officially an emergency--it's only a contagious, incurable, and deadly disease, spreading through the nation's populace--but it's worthy of address. With this in mind, South Africa recently held a conference of health care providers, government officials, and sex workers, in hope of starting a conversation that would help the country move toward creating a more successful and respectful environment. The core question of the conference had to do with the possibility of legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution in an effort to improve health, safety, and human rights.
And you can't talk human rights, labor laws, health care, and sex work anymore without inviting Portland's own well-spoken sex-working luminary, Teresa Dulce, co-founder of Danzine (an internationally distributed magazine by and for sex workers). Dulce was flown to South Africa on an emergency passport and a last-minute plane ticket, along with porn veteran Sharon Mitchell, founder of Los Angeles-based AIM (Adult Industries Medical/ Health Care), and Carol Leigh, aka Scarlot Harlot, of COYOTE, from San Francisco. (Leigh coined the term "sex worker" about 25 years ago.)
Dulce was contacted through a South African health advocate named Dr. Elna. "It was kind of ambiguous about who was sending us out there," Dulce said. "It wasn't until I got there that I found out that Dr. Elna has a working relationship with a brothel owner in Johannesburg, and this dude, he had like one of the cleaner, more legitimate, higher grade brothels and she'd been working with him for like, five years."
By "more legitimate," in a country where owning a brothel is illegal, Dulce clarified, "He wasn't trafficking in women. Women were there of their own will. He wasn't some sleezeball monster. And my thing is that whenever adult business owners do not want the health department in, that's a red flag. Like, what the fuck? What are you trying to hide? But [this brothel owner] threw his doors open and Dr. Elna has been in his brothel talking to women, applying services right there for the last five years."
TAKING BACK THE NIGHT
Shortly beforethe conference, the well-respected brothel owner--friend of cops and bartenders alike--was busted. Shut down and jailed. His mansion was raided, stripped of artwork and fineries. During the conference, he was awaiting his trial. Somewhere in between, with encouragement from Dr. Elna, he saw reason to spend his cash to fly in the most organized, high profile, and articulate sex workers' rights activists he could find as a complement to the swarm of healthcare providers, academics, and law makers attending the South African convention.
"The three of us were able to apply technical assistance to local sex workers," Dulce said. "Like the gals, and a few guys, they had a lot to say. But because we've been organizing and going to meetings there's a lot of things we didn't even realize we knew about how to organize, like how to make a list, how to make sure everyone's needs are heard. You need a mission statement. You need a catchy phrase. You need to make yourself organized so you can provide input to the local policy making. Carol Leigh had a laptop. With that technology alone, she could plug into the bar and facilitate a meeting."
The first day of the conference was full of official research and health statistics. Later that night, Dulce, Leigh, and Mitchell met with a group of sex workers for a less formal round table. Dulce said, "The local sex workers were pissed because they were like, 'We thought this conference was about sex work. It's all about HIV and AIDS. We know about HIV and AIDS. What we need is the police off our back because the police are robbing us and raping us.'"
Carol Leigh added, "The sex workers' agenda centered around police corruption and violence. Not because there's more violence from police than from others, but because the police are supposed to uphold the law. I've seen it myself, in [the U.S.], doing street outreach." Surprisingly, South Africa is willing to look at the problem. "In South Africa, their constitution is definitely more progressive and leans more toward human rights than ours in the U.S.," Leigh said.
This is the same country that, only a handful of years ago, was known for practicing apartheid. Change is possible, and in South Africa, it's been coming quickly.
With a single laptop and translators for the many non-English speaking workers who were present, at a late night pow-wow in a local bar, they put together a list of workers' needs: housing, care for dependent children, an end to police harassment, customer responsibility, labor law education, and much more. The situation--real humans trying to make a safe living in an impoverished country--was more complicated than the bold, polarized images of rampant sexuality vs. AIDS awareness. Dulce said, "We closed the bar at 2:30. At that point, Carol emails this document to the conference so they could photocopy it. By nine AM there's like 100 copies waiting on everybody's table. And then one of the escorts, she's like, 'I have an announcement to make,' and she rattles off this list. And it changed the tone. Basically, she's like, this is our conference these people can not be talking about us unless we're doing the work.
"And the document was used the entire second day. And this doctor from India is like, 'History is being made!' and everyone's applauding. It was very exciting. It was definitely about taking back the conference."
All of this was supported by the South African government. As Carol Leigh said, "I was surprised to find that the South African health department was involved. We have such a moralistic and repressive attitude in [the U.S.] that various health departments would be very hard-pressed to recommend changing the laws around prostitution."
Dulce said, "What I really appreciate about South Africa is that they were talking about human rights, community health, and law reform. They were like, 'How can we do this in a way that's keeping the health and safety of the sex worker in mind and not the convenience of bureaucracy?' [They're trying to come up with] a reality based document."
LEGALIZE OR DECRIMINALIZE?
There's a big difference between legalizing and decriminalizing prostitution, and both options are being considered in South Africa. To legalize sex work would mean the government defines the terms under which sex work could occur. Sex work would remain illegal in any but the prescribed situations and conditions. This plan is similar to the legal status of prostitution in Nevada, which allows prostitutes to work as long as they pay half their daily wages to a brothel owner, meet health testing requirements, and obey other rules. It keeps the ability to work limited, and allows a single business person with enough investment capital and clout to get through the licensing process and to make handsome profits off the sex acts of those employed--government-sanctioned pimping. Prostitutes and other sex workers unwilling to accept the terms of employment would still be criminalized. This route has the potential to give workers few options, and opens doors for legalized capitalistic exploitation under bureaucratic guidelines.
To decriminalize sex work would do away with all laws that make it illegal to negotiate adult sexual activities in exchange for money or other rewards. Prostitution would no longer be a crime. The power base would be more diffuse, with responsibility given to individuals rather than concentrated in the hands of a licensed brothel owner. As Carol Leigh said, "A lot of time in our country, they blame the victim. Sex workers are criminalized for so many aspects of their lives, and then expected to take care of themselves and be healthy. Obviously we have to support sex workers if we want them to be healthy. The best kind of decriminalization offers the most varieties of ways to work." Decriminalization is about granting sex workers the freedom to make individual choices without having to go underground.
But decriminalizing prostitution would lead to new questions: Would there be mandatory testing for sexually transmitted diseases, including incurable diseases such as AIDS? Dulce said, "In Nevada, in order to work in a brothel you have to get tested, and they'll stop HIV at the door. So in the one instance where we have legal prostitution in the U.S. HIV-positives can't work. When you're talking about South Africa, as one escort tells me, if we tested all the doctors in the room, they'd have a pretty high percentage of HIV-positive too. So, what do you do if your population is already walking around HIV-positive?"
The new South African constitution says mandatory HIV testing is unconstitutional. But, if sex work is considered work, that could raise the possibility of a labor code that would require testing. And how would this be enforced? Would sex workers be expected to register, and carry ID cards? The idea of carrying ID cards is similar to one proposed by Mayor Vera Katz last year. The difference, of course, is that in South Africa, the sex workers would also actually be granted basic rights and legal status. Under Katz' plan, most sex work would remain criminalized, making the card-carrying dancers suspects. Even with decriminalization, requiring registration and health checks could serve as a barrier, further alienating and disenfranchising those who most need community services, such as the poor, the homeless, and survival sex workers.
WHAT PORTLAND CAN LEARN FROM SOUTH AFRICA
Portland's main line of controlling prostitution, moving it from one area to another, has been through establishing four "prostitution-free zones." If a person is excluded from one zone, that person is simultaneously excluded from the other three zones as well. There are two ways to be excluded; one is by being arrested and charged with prostitution. Exclusion for up to one year may be part of sentencing. A less formal way of being excluded from the zones is much more of a shoulder tap from a cop: If a man or woman, in one of the four zones is suspected of having even the intent to solicit, that person can be issued a citation on the spot which is good for 90 days. "The small, small print on this is that you've got five days to call a judge and to make an appeal, but I do not believe this is articulated to the working girl or the pedestrian in question," Dulce says.
In her opinion, "The prostitution-free zones aren't helping the people who need services. It may look great for business owners, or neighborhoods that don't want people walking around, but I think in the true interest of community, the whole idea of the prostitution-free zones is cruel. They're rude, and they smell fishy in terms of civil rights."
When I asked Dulce what she thought Portland could most learn from the conference, she said, "That it's possible to incorporate human rights, public health, and law reform. It's big of a community, much less a country, to stop in its tracks and say we need to re-evaluate this because it's not working. Portland has the same capability to take a closer look at the situation and to really think hard about it."