Sex Workers to Protest Anti-Trafficking Panel, Say 'John' Label Is Offensive

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Tomorrow, Bay Area sex workers will protest a San Francisco anti-trafficking panel discussion that critics argue is part of a misguided agenda to further criminalize adults in the sex industry. The San Francisco Collaborative Against Human Trafficking, a coalition of government agencies and private organizations, is organizing the panel presentation on prostitution as part of a closing event for Human Trafficking Awareness Month.

According to the event description (listed at the bottom of the group's homepage), the panel is about "Discouraging Demand" and will "cover new research on demand for prostitution." Participating is the San Francisco First Offender Prostitution Program, also known as the "John School," which is an anti-prostitution court diversion program. Based on these factors, sex worker rights activists said the panel is clearly about further pushing prostitution underground, which only serves to make working conditions for adult sex workers more dangerous.

"Their goal is to disappear the whole sex industry by criminalizing the people that participate in it," said Maxine Doogan, an organizer with the Erotic Service Providers Union. "Targeting our customers is a flawed approach."

In a press release announcing the protest, Doogan also criticized the "john" label with this bold statement: “Using the term ‘john’ to describe our clients is like using the N-word. It’s a type of epithet, it's disrespectful and the city should stop using it immediately."

She added by phone, "It's a derogatory means of dehumanizing the customers."

Law enforcement efforts that go after clients ultimately increase risks for sex workers, she continued. "Any criminalization of our customers is going to bring us more violence. ... It further criminalizes the transaction." For example, when customers are concerned about being associated with sex workers, negotiations may end up being rushed, which makes it harder for sex workers to protect themselves, she said.

Doogan also cited the Supreme Court of Canada's landmark decision last year striking down three anti-prostitution laws that the justices unanimously agreed were potentially dangerous to sex workers. (Prostitution is legal in Canada). One of the laws made it illegal to communicate about prostitution in public, which advocates said pushed workers into unsafe environments.

The panel tomorrow is tied to an agenda that supports these kinds of problematic policies, Doogan argued. "We don't find this approach credible. It disappears us. It doesn't include us. It affects our working conditions."

Groups like the Erotic Service Providers Union have repeatedly criticized anti-trafficking efforts that they say incorrectly treat clients of adult sex workers as traffickers — with campaigns that don't address child trafficking, but rather criminalize working adults. For an in-depth look at the efforts of local sex worker advocates, check out Ellen Cushing's 2012 feature on the controversial Prop 35.

The collaborative organizing tomorrow's panel describes itself as a coalition "committed to ending human trafficking through collaboration, education, outreach, advocacy, and supporting survivors of human trafficking by taking a zero tolerance stance on exploitation, violence, and human trafficking and building a strong group of anti-trafficking advocates and experts in San Francisco."

The panel will also include a discussion on "Alameda County’s successful efforts to reduce demand," according to the short description of the event. (The Alameda County District Attorney's office last month launched a large public campaign against "human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children").

Messages left with a San Francisco Collaborative Against Human Trafficking representative and the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women (an affiliated agency) were not immediately returned. The panel and protest are tomorrow at 10 a.m. at the Koret Auditorium, Main Library at 100 Larkin Street in San Francisco.

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