Apparently Dallas (Texas--one of the last places I would've expected this story to turn up) has started a program aimed at helping, rather than villifying, prostitutes. Right on!, I thought, reading the tagline on msn--"Dallas prostitutes offered help, not jail--prostitutes are treated as sex crimes victims, not criminals." Then I read the whole article. Then I slammed my head on the desk and tried to decide where I fell on this particular issue. You can read the article yourself here.
The women, once arrested (yes, they still get arrested--hmm, already it doesn't sound like they're being treated as victims, and yes, I realize that some (on both the left and the right) don't think prostitutes are victims)...well, maybe I should let you read it and insert my commentary as needed:
Police confiscate the prostitutes' property (so they ARE still criminals?) and interview them for information about criminal activity, such as whether pimps are running underage prostitutes out of area motels. Then social service workers assess the women's drug, alcohol and mental health counseling needs. The women get STD tests and other medical care at a mobile health clinic. (What happens if a woman doesn't want this assistance? I'm sure many could benefit from it, but why do I feel like a woman who asserts her agency over her body--ie, hey, dude, you're not getting a vaginal swab from me--which she is completely within her rights to do, is unlikely to get the gentle treatment any longer?)
The last stop of the night is the mobile courtroom. If the women have no felony warrants and seem sincere, (I'm sorry, but could this be a little more paternalistic, please? 'I'm really sorry, Daddy.' 'Do you really mean it?') the judge gives them the opportunity to avoid jail and enter rehab. After 45 days of inpatient counseling, they receive help with education, child care and housing. (Gee, 45 days involuntary committment to rehab or a night in jail, when I have kids to take care of. Wonder what I'll choose.)
I guess part of what irks me about this is the idea that these judges are being so magnanimous, taking care of these 'wayward women.' The article goes on and on about drugs, too. Yes, for a lot of women drugs are part of the sex-worker bag, but this focus on it seems calculated to widen the gap between Them (there are few female insults that rank above 'crack whore') and Us. It lets 'us'--the ordinary, law abiding citizens who have never sucked dick for crack--to feel better about ourselves. It also allows us to pin the blame firmly on these sex workers if they refuse 'help,' regardless of their circumstances--hey, lady, don't say we didn't give you a chance to redeem yourself. Then we don't have to deal with the social issues like pay inequity and lack of affordable childcare that foster disproportionate female poverty. We don't have to really digest the fact that (in some studies I've read...I'll link to them later) more than 50% of sex workers were sexually abused as children, or that johns are treated to a nudge and a wink while women are carted off to jail.
But Anne! you say (yes, I heard you). What kind of third-wave feminist are you? It's a choice! These women aren't victims, they're sex-positive goddess-women reasserting their agency over their bodies! Um. I hate to break it to you, but many--in fact, I'm going to go out on a limb here and say most--sex workers are not Annie Sprinkle. Nor are they Carol Queen, or Kate Bornstein (all of whom, don't get me wrong, are totally, rockingly awesome--google 'em if you don't know them). I will venture here that providing help rather than prison is the way I would go, were I in the cops' shoes--but without arrests or hearings. Community mental health, sexual health and substance abuse referrals, access to safe housing and childcare and jobs...these are the things I would aim to provide to those women who wanted them. Without intimidation or coercion.
Final note--the photo at the top of the MSN page shows a "17 year old arrested for prostitution" being comforted by social welfare workers. Hey, kids, guess what? Y'know what it's called when an adult has sex with a minor, even if he pays her? Statutory rape. And y'know what you should be arrested for if you're the minor that happens to? Not a goddamn thing.