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The Case for Legalization

By Greg Cahill

MY GENERAL STANCE, and I think it's consistent with the harm-reduction model, is that legalization [of prostitution] is the way to go," says Steve Campbell, a community health outreach worker at the Santa Rosa-based Drug Abuse Alternatives Center. "That way there can be actual expectations put on workers in the sex industry. I believe that the johns will be more inclined to go places where those expectations can be met, rather than on the streets, if it is more comfortable.

"The illegality of prostitution, as well as the stigma of it, only serves to spread HIV. And I don't see any good coming out of the current process. Victimless crimes shouldn't create victims."

For the past two months, in a fledgling joint program with Face to Face: Sonoma County AIDS Network, Campbell and DAAC co-worker Renee Vereotere have been trying to educate sex industry workers on the streets and in local massage parlors, as well as employees at the Santa Rosa Adult Book and Video Store, Everybody's Talking topless bar, and local card rooms, by handing out condoms and talking about the dangers of HIV infection.

"This is one of the highest at-risk populations in the world," says Campbell of the threat sex workers face from AIDS, "because there is a strong correlation between drug use and prostitution. There's a myth that women become prostitutes because they want to do it. The reality is that women enter that trade because of drug abuse or other financial needs.

"The bottom line in that regard is that they are into basic survival."

Under the harm-reduction model used at DAAC, nobody makes a moral judgment about clients for their activities in the sex trade. "We don't try to persuade them to stop what they are doing [in the sex trade]," says Campbell. "We just try to get them involved in thinking about their own health and doing things more safely."

On Santa Rosa Avenue, he adds, AIDS advocates encounter "a lot of desperation and a lot of homeless women."

He and Vereotere have been highly successful at contacting prostitutes through local homeless shelters and needle exchange programs. In Santa Rosa, homeless women can receive free, anonymous HIV-testing through the Sonoma County Homeless Service Center, a non-profit program funded by the Sonoma County Public Health Department.

The program may already be having an impact. Sheriff's detectives in the field report that many of the suspected prostitutes arrested on Santa Rosa Avenue have condoms in their possession at the time of their bust and often claim to use them religiously. But it is not uncommon for prostitutes soliciting undercover vice officers to indicate that condoms are not required.

"I know that there is some anger towards men because some of the HIV-positive prostitutes blame men for their infection and would be honored if men caught it from them. But they're few and far between," says Campbell, adding that two out of 30 women tested at the Santa Rosa National Guard armory homeless shelter this year were HIV-positive. "Most of the women I know are very health-conscious with their customers."

How successful can law enforcement be in the long term in eradicating the problems prostitution brings to the neighborhoods along the avenue? "Prostitution has been here forever and it probably is going to remain here forever," Campbell says. "But the fact that the process is criminalized is the only reason those dynamics are happening in the neighborhood. As it is, nobody can control prostitution--it's illegal! If this activity were taking place in a state-sanctioned house in a controlled area under review by public health officials on an ongoing basis, then I don't think these problems would be here.

"Prostitution is always going to be here. Now what?"

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From the May 23-29, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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