Mon, Dec 22, 2003 - Page 7 News List

Strippers ask mayor to help stop abuses

OLDEST PROFESSION Exotic dancers and prostitutes say decriminalizing their jobs will enable them to work for themselves and escape the abuses of shady club owners

AFP , SAN FRANCISCO, CALIFORNIA

San Francisco's prostitutes and strippers are calling on the city's newly elected young mayor to help decriminalize the world's oldest profession and crack down on abuses of exotic dancers.

Dancers charge that the city's outgoing mayor, Willie Brown, the former lawyer of a prominent strip club owner, ignored years of labor law and safety violations in San Francisco's strip clubs.

The California Labor Commissioner has held hearings for a decade in which dancers aired grievances and recovered back pay. But dancers say the abuses continued.

Fed up with non-enforcement of labor laws, dancers have filed two class action lawsuits against the city's strip clubs charging that managers seized their tips, failed to pay them wages, and charged them hundreds of dollars per shift for the privilege of working.

They say these illegal fees led to a climate that coerced them into prostitution at increasingly low rates.

"We are not trying to close the clubs, what we want is safe working conditions and we want to have our labor rights respected," said San Francisco dancer activist Daisy Anarchy.

Anarchy and other dancers are particularly angry that police ignored the presence of illegal private booths at the clubs which dancers say led to assaults by customers.

When they complained to police, dancers say investigators failed to take their concerns seriously. Local prosecutors say the charges were hard to substantiate.

The liberal city's strippers and prostitutes have also criticized police for cracking down on street prostitution and private brothels, which they say has only driven the prostitution business into the strip clubs. Many who support labor rights for strippers here say decriminalizing prostitution is potentially a far more effective solution than attempting to stamp out the market for sex.

San Francisco activists have formed a US chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP), an Australian-based group which successfully advocated for the decriminalization of prostitution there.

SWOP-USA founder Robyn Few points out that legalization of prostitution typically creates a brothel model like that which currently exists in Nevada. But decriminalization repeals existing prostitution laws and allows women to work for themselves, as opposed to allowing the strip clubs to corner the brothel business.

SWOP-USA presented prostitution decriminalization initiatives for the California cities of San Francisco and nearby Berkeley last week.

Shortly after presenting their proposed legislation at San Francisco City Hall, the group held a ceremony at a nearby park to commemorate the 48 women killed by Gary Ridgway, the worst known US serial killer, who was Thursday sentenced to 48 life sentences in Seattle.

Ridgway confessed to murdering the 48 women, mostly prostitutes, during a two-decade crime rampage that the San Francisco prostitutes say was tough to solve, at least in part, because hookers with information distrusted police.

During the memorial for Ridgway's victims, which SWOP-USA organized in 17 US, European and Asian cities, the group called for an end to violence against sex workers and equal protection under the law.

"I am a human being. I am a valuable person in our society and I want you to see that I am a prostitute and I am worthy," said Few who likened her struggle to that of the gay rights movement.

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