News that a November ballot initiative in Berkeley, California, would move toward decriminalizing prostitution may not have diminished Berkeley's reputation as a place for wacky legislation. But the ease with which the initiative came to a vote shows how progressive and feminist opposition to the sex trade may be evolving.
Supporters of "Angel's initiative" (named for a murdered transgendered prostitute) were easily able to collect more than 3,200 signatures for their petition, and in early July they estimated that they'd already gotten a solid half of the city's population on board for the vote. As for feminist objections about the exploitation of women, sponsor Robyn Few of the San Francisco-based Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) says: "I've heard all the arguments, and I've made several myself. Prostitution is not for everybody, and it can be really harmful to women. And the reason it's harmful is criminalization."
The initiative would make hooking the city's lowest policing priority, require the cops to make regular reports on prostitution arrests, and ask the city to lobby the state of California for decriminalization. Although it's largely symbolic, the measure could have an effect on the sex trade in Berkeley itself — which is why Berkeley's City Council voted to table the bill when it was considered early this year. SWOP is focusing its campaigning in the city's second and third districts, where prostitution is common.
Still, a softer line on soliciting doesn't mean Berkeley's lefties have adopted a broader view of individual rights. "Some of the hard-core libertarian language was removed when the bill was in the council," says Few. "There were references in there to the right to free trade, which they cut."