Risky Business

Arizona stiffens prostitution penalties as the debate over the world's oldest profession continues

Breeze this paper's back pages, and the sex lands right in your lap. But cruise Miracle Mile hunting for fun, and your ass might land in jail.

Paradoxical? You bet. It's also emblematic of a society where Britney Spears bounces her golden navel into a zillion homes--but one private, purchased sex act is worthy of the Big House.

That paradox is reflected in the debate over prostitution. On one side, activists in the sex-workers' rights movement see prostitutes merely as working people. They are only victims, goes this argument, because society deems them criminals. That means they can't negotiate for more money or safer conditions. It leaves them vulnerable to rip-offs, beatings and rape.

Others believe that prostitution, at its core, is pure exploitation; women (and men) are forced into immoral employ because they're poor, because they are junkies or because some pimp is breathing down their commodified backs.

So the battle rages. Meanwhile, the law is the law. And in Arizona, it just got tougher. In May, Gov. Janet Napolitano signed a statute mandating jail time for prostitutes and their johns, up to a felony for the fourth offense.

Sen. Chuck Gray sponsored the bill. The Mesa Republican and former cop says he was approached by homeowners, concerned that prostitution was ruining their neighborhood. "They had kids finding condoms, and even sometimes finding people in sex acts."

That prodded the crackdown measure, which many fear will flood the courts with small-time hookers. But Gray says it won't drain public coffers, because Catholic Charities Community Services in Phoenix runs a highly effective diversion program. If all goes to plan, this diversion program--with its 74 percent success rate--will pull more women off the streets, and out of the legal system. Tucson has a similar, more limited program.

If women can't go straight after three arrests, he says, "then maybe they should move to Las Vegas where prostitution is legal. They are not the kind of person we want in this state." (It should be noted that prostitution is not actually legal in Las Vegas, although it is in some rural areas of Nevada.)

On the other hand, Sen. Paula Aboud tried--and failed--to soften Gray's measure. Slapping women with felonies just shrinks their alternatives, says the Tucson Democrat. "People in those situations have so many strikes against them. You add a felony on top of it, and it just keeps pushing them back to the same business we're trying to help them get out of. It just diminishes the opportunity for rehab."

That sentiment is echoed on the front lines. Kathleen Mitchell was a prostitute for 21 years, before starting the Phoenix rehabilitation and diversion program from jail in 1989. Today, her Catholic Charities DIGNITY operation annually reaches about 800 women. "We go to the jails twice a week," Mitchell says, "and we try to go on stings when cops are doing arrests. We tell (prostitutes), 'If you're serious about wanting to get out of this life, take the diversion program. If you're not serious, then go do your time.'"

She believes mandatory sentencing--coupled with diversion--is a powerful stick, prodding women to change. But she says the felony law goes too far. "That's where Sen. Gray and I don't see eye to eye. When we give a women a felony charge on the fourth offense, it's really pretty early. If she has a pimp, he doesn't care how many felony convictions she gets. If she has a drug addiction, she's going to be driven by that. And they can rack up four offenses very quickly."

It's conceivable (albeit unlikely) that a woman could harvest four convictions in a single bust, Mitchell says. "Then when they leave this life, all that wreckage follows them."

Such felony debris includes an extensive string of "collateral consequences." Felons are unable to get professional licenses for everything from social work to sorting pharmacy pills. They're often ineligible for educational scholarships. And many times, chances for any housing assistance are nil. "One woman who had gone through our program went on to get a master's degree," Mitchell says. "But she still can't get any good housing, because she has a felony."

Housing, employment, education--they all hinge upon a single, hotly contested charge. Yet this begs two questions: Should the world's oldest profession still be a crime at all? And should women be legally coerced into leaving it?

Many progressives say no. Instead, they view prostitution as a labor, class and women's rights issue. Conservatives, however, consider it a law-enforcement topic. And to religious right-wingers, it's pure, adulterated sin.

To Mitchell, it's not debatable. "Prostitution is the worst form of violence against women that there is," she says. "Not only is it physical, emotional and spiritual, but it's also sexual."

Still, others blame criminalization for spawning that violent context. Among them is Carol Leigh, aka Scarlot Harlot. Longtime Tucsonans may recall Leigh from her appearances on the Access Tucson cable channel in the 1980s. Today, she's a San Francisco author, prostitute and director of Bayswan, an Internet-based group advocating sex workers' rights.

Leigh blames harsh laws on "a strain of Puritanism in our government and politics." And she says America is out of step. "Internationally, people see prostitution as a human-rights issue. The idea that people are being helped by criminalizing prostitution--that it is getting prostitutes out of difficult lives--can be interpreted as a progressivist solution. But internationally, it's not seen that way."

Surprisingly, the Old Pueblo also figures prominently in the debate. Sex workers' rights "actually cropped up there early," Leigh says. "There's quite a movement toward decriminalization in Tucson."

Stacey Swimme is part of that movement. As a volunteer with the Sex Workers Outreach Project Arizona, she's seen countless crackdowns--such as Sen. Gray's law--targeting the "most vulnerable people. And that is most often people who work on the street, and the people who are advertising in the back of your newspaper."

Stern laws only put women at greater risk, she says. "Victimization happens because (prostitutes') criminal status prevents them from being able to negotiate their own working conditions. If women are raped or battered, they can't go to the police, because police view them as criminals. A common police attitude, if a sex worker is raped, is that it's not sexual assault, but theft."

And that exacts an economic toll, she says. "I think most people who are working (as prostitutes) just view it as work. More than anything, that's what they want people to recognize: 'This is my job, and I want to be safe and secure in my job.'"

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