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It's election season, and for sex workers across the nation, that can mean street sweeps with big arrests while tough-on-crime politicians pander for votes. Juliana Salamandra, media contact for the Sex Workers Outreach Project of Tucson, points to a Maricopa County bust of 50 Phoenix-area sex workers and their management that took place in early August as an example. In Tucson, sex workers are organized through the SWOP, which holds regular monthly meetings for sex workers and their supporters. The group is looking for volunteers to help plan an event for the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers on Dec. 17. Also on the horizon for 2009 is the return of the Tucson Sex Worker Arts Festival. For more information, go to swop-tucson.org.

How long has Tucson had a SWOP chapter?

This chapter is at least three or four years old. We were one of the earlier chapters. Tucson ended up being the home to many experienced sex workers who came here after the first Tucson Sex Worker Festival. That was an interesting experience. We got national coverage, like CNN, because of the right wing. They were upset because public funds were going to this festival. Really, we got a small Tucson Pima Arts Council grant. The speaker of the House in Phoenix decreed it an outrage, because the UA was hosting panels for the festival on trafficking.

You haven't had a festival since?

Well, it's been a couple of years. Since then, we've become a sex-worker mecca, with women coming from Chicago and San Francisco to live and work in Tucson. A lot of the national core of SWOP now lives in Tucson.

What ran through your mind when the bust in Phoenix happened?

I was very troubled by those arrests. But it is election time, and this is what happens when politicians have to prove to the public they are doing their jobs. In reality, these (arrests stem from) two people having consensual sex in a safe way. For that, this bust cost the public thousands of dollars. Four years ago, (Maricopa County Sheriff Joe) Arpaio made 80 arrests. None of them stuck. Adults have consensual sex for all kinds of reasons in this country. This happens to involve money, and for that, it is criminalized.

This is crazy.

We happen to think that it's crazy. We think it should be decriminalized. In many ways, it is a safety issue. Most of the women who are targeted are easy to arrest, because they are out on the streets. Many are homeless women; some are escaping domestic violence. Big street sweeps just push these women further into the shadows and the alleys, and there, they are less likely to use protection. That's not safe. They can get hurt, and they can't go to the police to say, "Hey, I just got beat up." Right now, a woman can get arrested just for carrying too many condoms. We want to see these women able to work safely. If it was decriminalized, the industry could be operated in zoned areas.

Does this industry feel the economic downturn?

We always say it's a recession-proof job. It's one of those things that fill a basic need for human contact, touch, affection, sex, love. For some, it is so important that they take a significant risk just to get that need met. ... What does happen when times are bad is that more people, like those who can't afford their mortgage payments, suddenly get in the business and flood the market. We're seeing that happen in Tucson, and it drives the prices down.

Why are sex workers easy political targets?

I think it's an easy hit. They can't go get a child rapist or a true threat to the public. And with this, they get on the TV and make the news, and everyone thinks they are doing their job. But this work is the most honest transaction. I give you access to my body, and you give me access to your high earnings. Right now, women still make 75 cents to every dollar a man earns. And that goes down even more after 10 years. The women in Tucson have to work in a right-to-work state; the wages are lower here, and there aren't a lot of jobs to put food on the table.

Do you think it will ever be decriminalized?

... Right now in San Francisco, they are going to vote on Proposition K to decriminalize prostitution. I'm really hoping to see that happen here. I think a majority of people in Pima County favor decriminalization.

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