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Redefining Sex Work

The East Bay is home to a new — and growing — group of sex workers who are educated, empowered, and open about what they do for a living. But Prop 35 would force them back underground.



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But talk to advocates of the law and they'll argue that Parton's not the one who needs protecting. It's people like Leah Albright-Byrd, a native San Franciscan who became a prostitute at fourteen after running away from home. Fifteen years later, she's a strong advocate for victims' rights, and a big supporter of Prop 35. A few weeks ago, she ran into the man who trafficked her on the street, with a different young girl — and that, to her, is reason enough to pass the law. "It's absolutely ludicrous that this can happen," she said. "And it's exactly why we need Prop 35."

As far as Brantley's concerned, sex workers who are opposing Prop 35 are in a uniquely privileged position, and the fact that they're leveraging their own political power to fight something that's intended to help the powerless is reprehensible. "They're so worried about the potential harm to them that they're not stopping to think about the harm that's happening to children every single day. This is children we're talking about," she said, eyes widening. "And those women who are over eighteen and who have had all these options and who have freely chosen to be sex workers? That's the minority, not the majority."

At its crux, the Prop 35 argument seems ultimately to slide into the same philosophical trap so many other public-policy debates do: "This is about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good," Brantley said. A former child sex worker herself, she's been in the industry long enough to know that no law is a panacea, but she believes this is a start. "There's no harm in doing what we can to protect these children."

But Lutnick thinks there is. "What I don't see in Prop 35 is anything that's addressing the structural factors. And if we're not addressing those structural factors — poverty, racism, homophobia, transphobia — it doesn't matter how high we increase the penalties."

She's spent significant time working with young people involved in the sex trade, she said, "and what we hear from them is they need employment opportunities, they need housing opportunities." She points to the drug war as an example of criminalization gone wrong — of a Band-Aid solution to a societal problem, a feel-good ballot measure that will fail to do any real good. "Ultimately," Lutnick said, "Prop 35 is not going to facilitate any changes in the lived experiences of the young people we are trying to protect."

MISSSEY's offices are located in downtown Oakland — on the very same block, coincidentally, that SWOP holds its monthly meetings, though the two buildings are separated by a Rite Aid and a lot of ideology. It's a powerful metaphor for the debate writ large. In reality, both sides of the Prop 35 debate aren't that far away from each other: Both the Lutnicks and the Brantleys of the world agree that child sex trafficking is a problem when and where it does happen. Both agree, by and large, that there is no such thing as an average sex work experience. Both sides even agree that Prop 35, as it's currently written, isn't a perfect law. But the opponents of Prop 35 argue that the numbers are inflated and the average experience is closer to Bottoms' than it is to Albright-Byrd's, while Prop 35's advocates argue the exact opposite. And there are no numbers to prove either side right or wrong.

The most commonly cited estimate places the number of children at risk of sexual exploitation at somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000. That statistic has been cited by The New York Times and Salon as well as many proponents of Prop 35. But according to Lutnick, it's been widely discredited among academics and social workers in the field. Last year, the Village Voice and its sister papers ran an assiduously researched dissection of the statistic, ultimately finding that the estimate assumes "at risk" an illogically broad swath of demographics and behaviors — for example, it presumes that all American runaways are at risk of child trafficking, despite the fact that the vast majority of runaways return home far too quickly to truly be at risk of sexual exploitation. In the end, reporters Martin Cizmar, Ellis Conklin, and Kristen Hinman found that "law enforcement records show ... that there were only 827 arrests per year" for child prostitution over the past decade in the United States. Not all child prostitutes are arrested, of course, so that number is surely an underestimate, but it's also much, much lower than 100,000 to 300,000.

(Now is probably as good a time as any to note that, like the Village Voice, the thirteen other papers its parent company owns throughout the US, and the vast majority of alternative weeklies, the Express carries escort ads. We consider this part of our identity as a sex-positive paper.)

And that — the sheer uncertainty, the bald fact that nobody on either side fully understands the shape and scope of the sex industry — is hugely problematic, especially in a political fight that's colored by morals and shot through with emotion. "What we have right now is absolutely no verifiable statistics as to trafficking," said Monet. "And getting lost in this hysteria is the truth."

Because if we know anything about sex work, it's that it's home to a sometimes unbelievably wide range of experiences, and that no legislation is or will be one-size-fits-all. What might have helped Albright-Byrd will likely hurt Golden, and vice-versa. That's a problem for people on both sides of the debate: This is an industry fraught with nuance, but for the sake of argument, everyone has to be a hardliner.