Carol Leigh (aka Scarlet Harlot) op-ed in SF Chronicle

Particularly of note from the article: "In 1998, San Francisco Police Department's vice squad was discovered to be receiving checks directly from massage-parlor workers for a diversion program but claimed to lose the records of those payments because of a computer glitch."

  More to cover up an ethical glitch, I suspect.

      <<< Starchild >>>

Carol Leigh Op-Ed in SF Chronicle
Appearing in: San Francisco Chronicle Op Ed

Carol Leigh
Friday, July 22, 2005

When hundreds of federal and state agents descended on massage
parlors in San Francisco earlier this month, declaring some women sex
slaves, another story was obscured by this moral panic: This rescue
operation was not necessarily in the best interests of these women.

The complex story behind the headlines is about migrant workers who
have made various deals in exchange for jobs and transportation to
the United States. Some of the workers may be relatively satisfied
with these arrangements, even though they are vulnerable and can be

In the early '80s, I worked at several massage parlors in San
Francisco. I liked working in them, and I especially liked spending
time with the other women, who were upbeat, smart and resilient,
nothing like the stereotypes. Since then, I have followed the news
and rumors about the parlors. I hear stories about strong women
trying to make their way, establishing families and gaining legal
status in this country. I also hear stories about contract labor and
debts, and about the repercussions women face when they don't make
the payments. As an activist, I have been an advocate for the massage
parlor workers, networking with health outreach agencies and advising
on city legislation.

Over the years, factions -- from gangs to the police -- have taken
advantage of these women. In 1996, former San Francisco police
officer Francis Hogue was convicted of kidnapping and sexually
assaulting a massage-parlor worker. Throughout 1997, local newspapers
ran accounts of gangs robbing and shaking down massage parlors. In
1998, San Francisco Police Department's vice squad was discovered to
be receiving checks directly from massage-parlor workers for a
diversion program but claimed to lose the records of those payments
because of a computer glitch. Recent reports about massage-parlor
busts sounded like more of the same, with women caught between
gangsters (i.e., "traffickers") and law enforcement.

In a twist in the latest cases, the federal government is detaining
women in an effort to "rescue" them. Chronicle reporter Heather
Knight explained their status in a story July 3: "The women can at
any time decide to return to South Korea, although law enforcement
officials could then declare them a 'material witness' to the case,
forcing them to stay in the United States without any benefits." This
sounds like another offer they can't refuse.

Now in federal custody, the status of these women is based on
their "innocence" about prostitution, according to Bradley Scholzman,
acting assistant U.S. attorney general for civil rights, who told The
Chronicle, "The fate of the women will hinge on whether prosecutors
determine they were forced to work against their will or whether they
participated in the sex ring voluntarily."

The premise of separating the "innocent victims" from the "sex ring
volunteers," however, ignores the realities of their situation. Some
may have originally "participated voluntarily," but may still be
victimized through abusive working conditions and when payments are
not applied fairly to the worker's debt. Plus, although the
government claims to offer special visas to protect these women, in
order to qualify for these visas, federal law states that she remain
only as long as she assists with the investigation and prosecution of
the traffickers. This cooperation and ultimate deportation could
result in extreme jeopardy for the migrant and her family.

Activists call for decriminalization as a way to apply labor codes
and oversee these industries. But the combination of migrant workers'
rights and prohibitions on erotic massage create a particularly
sensitive situation. How to avoid the pitfalls of law-enforcement
intervention, how to help those who want assistance to escape debt
bondage and other forms of abuse, without singling out Asian women in
the massage industry as a target for police and further victimizing
the entire community? Are we following the policies of the 1989 Board
of Supervisors resolution establishing San Francisco as a "city of

Migrants could greatly benefit from real justice and equity in terms
of immigration law: options for refugee status, enforcement of labor
laws and a fair system of migrant-work visas. This will do more good
and less harm than raids and special visas bequeathed to a few. It
wouldn't end the exploitation of migrants that accompanies illegal
migration, but it would mean they would be less dependent on a
criminal underground.

Another solution is inclusion. The tourist business in the area
benefits from the massage industry, so it's time to acknowledge the
contribution of the women who work in it. San Francisco must provide
a venue for workers to discuss grievances, while protecting identity
of those workers. The city could thus begin to take some
responsibility for the welfare of these women.

Assistance should be provided for victims of trafficking. But before
we buy into the "sex slave" melodrama, we should consider the
complexities of sex work, migration and trafficking. Framing the
range of abuses in the sex industry as a moralistic concern
about "sex slaves" obscures the real violations (and advantages) of
this industry. Until we can begin to support rights for migrant
workers and craft policies to support their needs to work, we are
stuck in a quagmire that attracts, then rescues "innocent victims."

Carol Leigh is director of Bay Area Sex Workers Advocacy Network

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For more info, see:
My websites on the issue