By Claire Walla
If you’ve never seen a prostitute in Santa Cruz, chances are you’ve never been to Lower Ocean.
The neighborhood, defined by the limits of Bixby and Barson streets, is a grid of cracked pavement that runs along the weathered frames of low-income housing complexes and the meager remains of once-grand Victorian-style homes. It rests just below the luxurious gaze of Ocean View Street—one of the priciest blocks of real estate in Santa Cruz County—and beside the muddy basin known as the San Lorenzo River.
It is the hub of prostitution in Santa Cruz. And while it is common to see prostitutes, pimps and Johns strolling through the streets, it is easy to forget that Lower Ocean is also a community of concerned residents, like JD Sotelo.
Sotelo has watched his neighborhood regress for over two decades. It has survived dangerous periods of violence and gang activity, but now, according to Sotelo, it faces a strain caused by uncontrolled prostitution.
“It creates an atmosphere where my neighbors, my daughter, my wife and my mother can’t walk down the street in peace,” Sotelo said. “Do we really want to be in a place where men are harassing girls?”
Sotelo often finds used condoms and syringes laying in the streets, and he once looked out the window of his home to find a group of men huddled around a prostitute who had passed out in the lot next to his house.
Unfortunately there is little law enforcement can do to help.
The police cars that routinely travel through Lower Ocean are vastly ineffective, according to Sotelo. Because the sex business is so covert, prostitution flourishes under the radar, which makes it very hard to track.
There are no official records on the number of prostitutes in California, but according to the North American Task Force on Prostitution, it’s possible that up to one percent of American women have worked as prostitutes.
Zach Friend, spokesperson for the Santa Cruz Police Department, said that the SCPD sometimes uses a task force to crack down on local sex work—whereby plain-clothes officers will arrest women who unknowingly solicit them sex—but limiting prostitution is not a priority at the department. Police involvement is “complaint-based,” so officers very seldomly initiate sex work cases.
“It’s rare with something like prostitution that it’s only prostitution; there are gang operations, which it can have close ties to,” Friend said. “And we would rather focus on the gang than the symptom.”
Prostitution is considered a misdemeanor by California law, which makes it a lesser offence than, say, gang violence or manslaughter. Convicted prostitutes are usually sentenced to community service or house arrest, and cannot face more than 12 months of jail time.
“That’s what irks me about this cycle,” Sotelo said. “There’s just a revolving door on the other side of the court system.”
Like Sotelo, Jenna Jasmine is fed-up with the law.
But Jasmine does not take issue with prostitutes; she is a sex worker herself.
Jasmine began work as a prostitute seven years ago, when she was in her final semester as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley.
“I was a starving student, it helped out a lot,” she said. She is still working in the industry, but now lives in Los Angeles.
Jasmine rejects the notion that she became a prostitute out of desperation, and insists that she has not been forced into sex work any more so than those who are forced into more conventional jobs.
“We can be forced into any job that we do,” she said. “If you’re a person working minimum wage at McDonald’s, at times you feel forced.”
Jasmine does, however, regret that her job is so dangerously linked to crime. She was recently robbed, and said that one of her fellow sex workers was recently robbed at gunpoint.
But reporting a crime is hard when the law is not on your side.
“When I go to report a crime, I’m trying to figure out what I should say and how I should say it so that I don’t get in troubleâ€¦ there’s a lot of paranoia [for sex workers],” Jasmine said. “But the line of work that I’m in does not have to be violent.”
Jasmine does not think that legalization is the answer, for she said that this would only lead to government control, and “the government doesn’t understand our work.”
Jasmine would rather see prostitution decriminalized, an act that would lift some of the burden off sex workers without imposing government regulation.
“Decriminalization would mean that we would continue to do what we’ve been doing, but without fear,” Jasmine said.
Robin Few knows what it’s like to suffer as a prostitute under the weight of the law.
In 2002, Few was arrested by the federal government, which, under the guidelines of the Patriot Act, convicted her of conspiracy to promote prostitution. Even though prostitution laws are enforced at the state level, then-U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft legitimized her arrest on the grounds that prostitution is a form of domestic sex trafficking, which the government links to terrorism.
After serving a sentence of six months house arrest in 2003, Few co-founded the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), which fights to ensure sex workers basic human rights. Jenna Jasmine currently heads the UCLA chapter.
In 2004, SWOP drafted Measure Q, a ballot measure that would have decriminalized prostitution in Berkeley, had it not been voted down. But, for its first attempt, Few believes that 37 percent of the vote was a good start, and she insists that the fight has only just begun.
Sex, according to Few, is “a service that we all desire as a society—it’s a part of our well-being.
“We advertise sex in every magazine,” she said, and yet it is still illegal to sell: “This is a complete hypocrisy.”
Few partially blames the media for perpetuating sullied views on prostitution. She points to songs like Jay-Z’s “99 Problems [but a bitch ain’t one]”—which won a Grammy Award—and last year’s Academy Award nominee “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp.”
“Young girls are taught that it’s cool to sell their bodies on the street,” Few said. “These kids are making money [through prostitution] and then we want to stop them and tell them that what they’re doing is wrong?”
Pop culture is not the only factor preventing prostitution from gaining legal status: economics also plays a significant role.
UC Santa Cruz Literature Professor Jody Greene has researched prostitution as an institution that perpetuates the buying and selling of “human property.”
Prostitution, she explained, is the result of one of the most basic laws of economics: supply and demand—though many in society tend to view it differently.
“We think that sex is supposed to go with love in this country, not the marketplace,” Greene said. “So we’re as horrified by people who marry for money as we are by those who prostitute themselves.”
While society has sanctified the body and made sex synonymous with romance, Greene questions the legitimacy of this notion by posing this question: “Why should factory-workers be allowed to break down their bodies day after day, when being self-employed and deciding what one’s body can and can’t withstand is illegal?”
Greene continued, “You can pay an NFL player to get 13 concussions a year and then to keep going back in and playing, and there’s nothing wrong with that—that is not violating that person’s personhood. But allowing a woman to choose to make a living through sex, that’s violating personhood. That’s an arbitrary distinction.”
Legalized prostitution is not completely absent in the United States, however.
According to Nevada state law, brothels can be legally licensed in counties with populations under 400,000. Clark County is thus exempt from legalization, which means that prostitution is considered illegal in Las Vegas.
According to Geoff Arnold, president of the Nevada Brothel Association, prostitution has always found a place in Nevada because the state has always had a “live and let live” attitude.
“I believe in the law of the West,” he said. “If your neighbor isn’t bothering you, then leave ’em alone.”
Arnold said that Nevada primarily supports legalization for medical reasons.
“There is a sterling record of medical safety in Nevada because the girls in the legal industry have to get checked every week,” Arnold said.
According to the Nevada Department of Health, no legal sex worker has tested positive during an HIV test since 1986, the year that monthly testing was first required by law. Arnold went so far as to suggest that Nevada’s legal industry—which includes approximately 28 brothels and 1,000 legal prostitutes—is the only arena of sexual activity in the world that is HIV-free.
“When prostitution is in the illegal arena, that’s when you get the drugs and pimps,” Arnold said.
The brothels are safe, he continued, because they are like a sorority: “The girls are part of a sisterhood—if they hear someone scream, the girls will be on the guy in no time flat with their seven-inch heels.”
But in addition to providing a safe environment for sex workers, Arnold argues that brothels provide an important service for society.
In Wells County, for example—where Arnold has run a brothel of his own for the past 10 years—he said that there has been a sharp decline in “street walkers,” “lot lizards” and “hookers in the bars.”
“It’s because the guys have an outlet,” he said. “We’re dealing with guys that have sexual problems.”
When asked whether or not men inherently have more of a need for sex than women, Arnold said, “That’s absolutely one of the dumbest questions I’ve ever heard:Absolutely.”
Arnold believes that brothels provide a service for men who are sexually frustrated who would otherwise take this frustration out through potentially dangerous actions. “Women are always complaining that guys are superficial and just interested in sex,” he continued, “and I think that’s probably true.”
He shunned the prospect of all-male brothels to provide services for women, because women can go to any bar and pick up a guy in no time, he said. Arnold did, however, acknowledge the fact that bars typically lack the safety regulations imposed in licensed brothels.
But, as Prof. Greene explained, even though brothels are an old tradition, this doesn’t mean that their legitimacy can be defined by state law.
“I’m not advocating brothels under state control by any stretch of the imagination, because I think it still shows that people think that they can have this control over women’s bodies,” Greene said.
Robin Few agrees.
“We are very controlling in this country,” Few said, and sometimes this control comes across through manipulation.
Few explained that the United States seems to stand on moral ground because it promotes ideas like “my body, my choice”; but the government simultaneously supports restrictions to the body like anti-abortion and birth-control legislation, and sex regulation.
Few recently traveled to New Zealand—where sex work is legal—and met with the Prime Minister and members of Parliament to discuss issues surrounding legalized prostitution. “In my own country I’m a convicted felon, but there I was treated like a queen!” she said.
Few attributed the difference in attitude between the United States and New Zealand to the fact that New Zealand has a female Prime Minister.
“She believes in human rights first and foremost,” she continued. “In our country, we don’t even know what human rights are. I really think that, I really do. We get our rights trampled over everyday.”
Few believes that in America, men are still not willing to give up their seats in power; but that doesn’t mean that women who choose sex work should be shunned in society.
“I deserve to be safe,” she said, “and I deserve to have labor laws enforced in my workplace, too.”