San Francisco discusses making prostitution legal

January 02, 1994|By Jane Meredith Adams | Jane Meredith Adams,Contributing Writer

SAN FRANCISCO -- In a dreary neighborhood of residential hotels and check-cashing outlets, Jesilene Maya in orange short-shorts and Jollessa Johnson in skin-tight black pants worked their corner on a recent afternoon, waving coyly to men who slowed their cars to stare at the baby-faced prostitutes.

As the desperate, stubborn, reigning working girls of Leavenworth and O'Farrell streets, the pair have learned to dodge police, shrug off glares from residents and brazenly sweet-talk a merchant into keeping their flat shoes inside her shop so they can switch to rickety high heels as twilight descends.

This is their turf, a block of concrete in a neighborhood known as the Tenderloin, and despite years of police sweeps and bursts of anti-prostitute community activism, they and their sisters and brothers of the night are as persistent as poverty.

Now, surrendering to what some consider an intractable reality, a handful of city politicians and activists are taking a new stand: They are asking the city to consider advocating legalized prostitution, complete with a city-run love hotel.

"It is worth a try," said Supervisor Terence Hallinan, who led the effort to create a 21-member city task force that will begin exploring the issue in January and has a year to report. "It's clear that with the continuing recession, the shortage of law enforcement officers and overcrowded jails, we are not able to get a grip on this problem."

Modeled on a West German approach, a city-run brothel could rent rooms to prostitutes and "take the pimp out of the picture," he said.

For decades, some legal and feminist groups such as the National Organization for Women and the American Civil Liberties Union have argued unsuccessfully for decriminalizing prostitution, which would remove penalties. The idea of legalizing prostitution, which would involve government regulation of the practice, also has surfaced periodically, including in a bill proposed in the mid-1970s by Barney Frank, then a Massachusetts state legislator and now a member of Congress from that state, to zone legalized prostitution in Boston. The bill failed.

Even in San Francisco, a city known for its tolerance of liberal social policies, the idea of a city-run brothel has been met with incredulity by some. For one thing, legalizing prostitution would require a change in state law, and, even if San Francisco likes the idea, "that's not the way the rest of the state feels about it," said San Francisco Police Lt. Joe Dutto, who heads the vice squad, which logged more than 2,000 prostitution arrests for 1993.

Mayor Frank Jordan, the city's former police chief, is on record opposing legalization. Two prostitutes on the task force oppose the idea as well, including one woman who calls herself Laura and worked at the Mustang Ranch and other Nevada brothels, where she says she had to work 12- to 14-hour days, wasn't allowed to read during lulls and had to hand over 50 percent of her pay. She prefers working for herself out of her Haight area apartment.

But proponents of legalization say they sense a growing desire in the 1990s to look for unorthodox solutions to problems, such as the proposal by the U.S. surgeon general, Dr. M. Joycelyn Elders, to legalize drugs and San Francisco's own needle-exchange program, which has been shown to have successfully reduced the level of AIDS transmission.

The strongest support comes from neighborhoods where residents must walk over used condoms and step around streetwalkers baring their breasts into car windows.

On his lunch hour in San Francisco's Polk Gulch neighborhood, a center of male prostitution, Gary Zodrow, president of the California Lodging Industry Association, routinely passes young boys offering their wares on street corners.

"I'm a very conservative businessman, but I'm also realistic about the realities of the streets today," said Mr. Zodrow, a task force member. "I think there are some real pluses to legalization."

Ms. Maya and Ms. Johnson both said they'd welcome the chance to work in a city-run brothel with a security guard at the gate.

Ms. Johnson recalled being chased away by a shop owner who shouted, " 'You're ruining my business!' I told him, 'I'm in business, too!' " she said. "I'm trying to support my son."

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