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In California, a bid to decriminalize prostitution

Advocates say effort protects women; foes fear its effect on city

BERKELEY, Calif. -- This hub of activism has long championed liberal causes, but a ballot measure asking whether the city should become a safe haven for sex workers has sparked a debate about prostitution.

Leading the charge is a former prostitute who hopes an initiative she placed on the city's November ballot by gathering more than 2,000 signatures will advance an emerging movement to decriminalize prostitution across California.

The measure would direct Berkeley police to give prostitution enforcement "lowest priority" and the city to lobby state lawmakers to repeal sex-for-hire statutes.

"Prostitution is a choice, and it's a choice that many people make for a lot of varying reasons," said Robyn Few, a 45-year-old former call girl who was spurred into activism after her arrest two years ago in a federal interstate prostitution sweep. "Consensual sex is a choice. I don't interfere with what other people choose to do. I believe in liberty. The choices we make in private is nobody's business."

While a live-and-let-live attitude often prevails through town, many Berkeley residents worry that their city could become a magnet for prostitutes, pimps, and johns.

"I think it's well-intended, but it misses the mark. We'd become an open house for prostitutes," said Mayor Tom Bates of Berkeley. He says the state Legislature is the more appropriate venue for the debate taking place in the city of 103,000 people.

Proponents of the measure, known as Angel's Initiative in honor of a San Francisco prostitute murdered a decade ago, settled on Berkeley after being rebuffed by civic leaders in San Francisco and Oakland.

"They figured Berkeley is a very liberal city that might be willing to decriminalize prostitution. We have an easy way to qualify things for the ballot," Bates said, sounding frustration over an upcoming election that, he said, may only reinforce the city's reputation as "Berzerkeley."

Also on the ballot is an initiative that would allow medicinal marijuana outlets to set up shop virtually anywhere, without consent from the city. Another would establish a strict tree-protection ordinance that proponents advertise as "acting locally to stop warming globally."

Come November, "you'll be able to smoke pot with a prostitute under a tree," Bates joked.

Residents along Berkeley's 3-mile stretch of San Pablo Avenue, where the city's prostitution problems are most visible, complain about discarded condoms, syringes, and having to shield children from sex acts in parked cars and alleys.

"I've tried soul searching, and asked myself if legalization or decriminalization of prostitution is the way to go," said Robin Wright, a founding member of the South Berkeley Crime Prevention Council. "The minute the word gets out, we'll have lots of pimps flocking here with women they want to exploit. We've already got drug wars and gun wars; I don't think we need pimp wars added to the mix."

But Few, who serves as executive director of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, says opponents are using scare tactics. "People are depicting their own city in such a terrible way. It's looking to the rest of the world that we've got prostitutes and pimps at every corner, when in fact the prostitution problem in Berkeley is not that big."

Indeed, Berkeley's prostitution problem appears relatively small compared with that of Oakland and San Francisco, where a thriving sex industry resulted in more than 1,500 prostitution-related arrests last year, according to San Francisco police. In Berkeley, police have made 70 similar arrests this year.

No one knows how many sex workers there are, but most agree that street prostitution is just a small fraction of the illicit sex that occurs. And there is considerable disagreement over whether most prostitutes enter the profession willingly.

Sex-industry advocates say prostitutes are often raped and beaten but seldom go to police because of fear of being arrested. Decriminalizing prostitution, they argue, would help liberate them from pimps and empower them to stand up for themselves.

"I agree that people in prostitution shouldn't be arrested," said Melissa Farley, a research and clinical psychologist with Prostitution Research and Education, a group based in San Francisco. "I see them as people in dire economic straits who have taken a last-ditch survival option. We think women should have other survival options."

Farley, who is among the most vocal opponents of the Berkeley initiative, said the system needs to work harder to get women off the streets and into other forms of work. Condoning prostitution, she said, could invite even more problems, particularly in the city's poorest neighborhoods.

Jim Smith, vice president of the Berkeley Property Owners Organization and an opponent of the initiative, said more needs to be done "to create things in our society that will help these young girls get out of prostitution. Not enough of us are looking at prostitutes as victims."

Until now, much of the discussion on decriminalization occurred in San Francisco, where a task force concluded eight years ago that prostitution laws were failing, and recommended that the city stop enforcing them. But the city declined to adopt the panel's key recommendations.

"San Francisco dropped the ball, and we need to restart the dialogue," said Carol Leigh, another former prostitute who is campaigning for the initiative. "Sure, it's wishful thinking that we'll change things overnight. But we have to start somewhere."

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