By Claire Walla
JD Sotelo moved to Lower Ocean in 1980.
Back then, Sotelo said, the Santa Cruz neighborhood was just like 1950s sitcom “Ozzie and Harriet”: “Two-story homes, people never locked their doors, the sun was always out, and you’d see families outside.”
But all of that changed in 1989.
This was the year the Loma Prieta Earthquake shook Santa Cruz and damaged many of the city’s buildings and bridges. Before the quake, Sotelo said, prostitution flourished in the Beach Flats. The neighborhood, which lies adjacent to the boardwalk, in the shadow of the Giant Dipper roller coaster, is only separated from Lower Ocean by the San Lorenzo River. But Sotelo said that when the bridges collapsed, access to the Flats was severely limited, so prostitution filtered into Lower Ocean, where it has remained.
“I was oblivious to what was going on in the Beach Flats before the earthquake,” Sotelo said. “[This is what happens] when you’re not involved with a neighborhood that’s going through a certain crisis.”
But for Sotelo the crisis eventually crossed the river and hit home, and he is now at the forefront of trying to stop it.
One sunny afternoon last month, Sotelo stood in the middle of his neighborhood and knocked on a red door—the only splash of color in a scene washed over with a tinge of dusty tan. He was at the home of his neighbor, Adam Neiblum, and he was there to discuss prostitution.
Sotelo and Neiblum fell effortlessly into discussion, as if continuing a long-running dialogue.
“Prostitution is not our agenda, it’s just the current manifestation that’s imposing itself on us in this poor part of town, in the slums of Santa Cruz,” Neiblum said.
Not too long ago, Neiblum’s eldest daughter—who is still in high school—was verbally harassed by a man who drove behind her in his pick-up truck. She was on her way to the corner store, a block away from her house.
“He came here because he knew that there were street-walkers here,” Neiblum said of the man. “I tend to have liberal, left-leaning views, but that put me in a different position.”
Neiblum believes that the problem is not the institution of prostitution. “It’s possible, theoretically, to be a woman who is in control of her life and be a prostitute, I just don’t think it happens that way all the time,” he said.
And Neiblum said it certainly doesn’t happen that way in Lower Ocean: “I look at [prostitutes in Lower Ocean] and I think, these women are victims, they’re not leading rewarding lives.”
According to the Factbook on Global Sexual Exploitation (FGSE), which works to broaden awareness to the dangers of prostitution, 92 percent of female prostitutes in the United States are unhappy doing sex work, but find it hard to leave because they often lack basic human services like job training and health care.
Sandra Cate, an anthropology lecturer at UC Santa Cruz and San Jose State University who has done extensive research in South East Asia, draws the comparison even further.
“I loath to make a distinction between prostitution [in the United States] and [in Thailand],” she said. “The forces behind prostitution are similar: it’s an economic strategy.”
While it is hard to pin down the exact number of prostitutes in Thailand, some estimates claim that as many as 1.3 percent of the population is involved in the sex industry.
FGSE estimates that prostitution in Thailand is more lucrative than the drug trade, and is equivalent to half the national budget.
Cate said that prostitution only differs from country to country because the cultural demand for prostitution is different.
“[Traditionally in Thailand], to be male was to have lots of women,” she said. This notion has seeped into modern Thai culture where, for many Thai men, prostitution has become a bonding ritual. “If you get a job promotion, or some kind of honor, you go to the brothels,” she said.
Since the 1980s, she said, the country has experienced great economic growth, but this prosperity was almost exclusively tied to larger, industrialized cities.
And because of traditional Thai Buddhist culture, families tend to rely on the daughter for financial support. “There is tremendous pressure put on the daughter to fulfill her debt to her parents,” Cate said. “As rural villages lose to a growing urban elite, sex work has become one source of income.”
Though history and ideology may explain why prostitution is somewhat tolerated in Thailand—even though it is technically illegal—Cate explained that prostitution has boomed because of economic disparity.
“Sex work is regulated where it’s legalized and it’s not driven underground—there it begins to take on the look of other jobs,” Cate added.
Jim Wagstaffe, a lawyer in the San Francisco Bay Area, believes that legalization is a valid way to recognize sex work. “On a personal level—as long as it’s controlled—I think that societies that legalize prostitution are much healthier,” he said. “There’s a taboo about sex in our society, and if sex is a taboo then openness to discussion is repressed. A lot of European countries don’t have that.”
The legal status of prostitution from country to country is invariably hazy, as sex work is rarely regulated by clear-cut laws. But in some countries, such as Germany, Switzerland and New Zealand, prostitution is regulated as a system, just like any other profession.
Perhaps the most notable case in point is the Netherlands, where the world-famous red-light district in Amsterdam puts prostitutes on public display behind windowpanes in compartment-like rooms that face the streets of the city.
The windows—just large enough for a person to stand in and move about liberally with feet planted—are not only touching on both sides, but are stacked so that the streets of the red-light district resemble the frozen food aisle of a grocery store.
Prostitution is regarded like any other profession in the Netherlands in the sense that prostitutes pay taxes and receive benefits. They are also subject to mandatory HIV tests and each window room is equipped with its own “panic button” as a safety precaution.
Natasha Collins, fourth-year student at UCSC, studied in the Netherlands last year through Education Abroad Program. She believes that the country’s openness to prostitution stems from the Dutch culture.
“Prostitution is a good example of a smaller political issue that is kind of indicative of the entire discipline system in the Netherlands, where it’s more concerned with rehabilitation than it is with punishment,” she said. “Which you can say for a lot of places, actually, other than the United States.”
Collins believes that the United States is reluctant to legalize prostitution because, “I think the government’s worried about losing votes, because it would be supporting something that I think most of the nation opposes due to religious affiliation,” she said. “It’s labeled as a moral issue, but it’s essentially a political issue.”
But universal human rights is not the only agenda—the government has monetary reasons for legalization, as well.
Not only to prostitutes pay taxes, but the red-light district is one of the most marketable attractions in all of Holland.
Herre Vermeer is now a student studying in Santa Barbara, but he was born and raised in the Dutch city of Utrecht, which has a red-light district of its own. He believes that legalization in the Netherlands has managed to protect a lot of women, but he also thinks that the law has its fair share of problems.
“I see prostitution as a serious thing; it must be very damaging to women and men who are in the business [because it could limit] future possibilities for normal relationships,” he wrote in an email to City on a Hill Press.
“I’d like to keep as many out of the business as possible and, maybe, look for other ways to protect [them],” he continued.
The Coalition Against Trafficking Women has sought to achieve the elimination of prostitution.
The international organization, which was founded in 1988, works to promote gender equality and basic human rights around the world. CATW claims that prostitution and trafficking go hand in hand and they both stem from issues of gender inequality.
CATW’s co-executive director, Janice Raymond—who is also Professor emerita of Women’s Studies and Medical Ethics at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst—sees flaws with legalized prostitution, especially in Amsterdam’s red-light district.
“Ninety percent of the women standing in those windows are from other countries,” Raymond said, “and they didn’t get there on their own steam.”
Amsterdam’s windows have been connected to illegal business activity, and recently 33 businesses—20 percent of all sex businesses in Amsterdam—have lost their operating licenses after an intense sweep by Amsterdam city officials. Two-thirds of windows in the red-light district have yet to be investigated.
Prof. Raymond said that despite rhetoric about the benefits of legalization, it is not as easy as it sounds.
“People don’t [understand] that when the women are decriminalized, so are the pimps and the brothels,” she said.
Raymond thinks that legalization springs from good intention, but it doesn’t address gender inequality.
But Sweden, she said, seems to be on the right track.
Prostitution was legalized in Sweden in 1907, but eight years ago, the Swedish Parliament passed legislation that made it a crime to purchase sex, which takes blame away from the women who sell it.
“Sweden is committed to promoting gender equality,” Prof. Raymond said, and the United States will have to take big strides to catch up.
CATW’s Factbook on Global Sexual Exploitation estimates that only 10 percent of those arrested for prostitution crimes in the United States (excluding Nevada) are the male clients, or johns.
Raymond said that CATW is not only opposed to the consequences of prostitution, but to the institution itself. “The very nature of using someone as an instrument is a violation of the international human rights of the individual,” she said.
Raymond also believes that society cannot achieve gender equality if prostitution still exists. “I don’t think equality can be purchased that easily,” she said.
But society can’t change that easily, either.
Gender inequality cannot be leveled overnight, but in the meantime, Raymond said that societies should work to “decriminalize the women; not the industry, not the brothels, not the pimps.”
After spending a year in The Netherlands, Collins has trouble drawing any definite conclusions about prostitution, but she doesn’t think that making prostitution illegal will help.
“I don’t think government regulation can eliminate prostitution completely,” Collins said. “But I do think that it makes the situation more bearable for a lot of people, for a lot of women.”
She added, “If you’re a prostitute, I think the law would be the least of your worries. It’s more the guys who are standing out there.”
Professor Sandra Cate reiterated that prostitution emerges out of economic strife, and it unfolds in many layers. Trafficking is just one extreme. “It’s an economic implosion,” she said.
But the economy will continue to influence sex work.
“Globalization is [responsible for prostitution] to the degree that it disenfranchises people, especially in smaller areas,” Cate said. “And when people lose the ability to make a living for themselves, they can become desperate.”
Behind that red door in Lower Ocean, Sotelo and Neiblum began to wrap up their conversation—at least for the day.
“I think we share the opinion that it’s not a moral objection to prostitution, per se, it’s more about what it does to the neighborhood,” Neiblum said.
“If we call the cops on them it’s not because we don’t care about them, or because we don’t have compassion for their plight—it’s not like that,” he continued. “I just don’t want my daughter being harassed.”
He doesn’t have a solution, but he does have advice:
“You have to use the Golden Rule,” Sotelo said. “Your decisions make an impact. And I think that sooner or later you’re going to have to take a stand, even if it’s just for your daughter, your mother, your wife, or your neighbor.”