LOS ANGELES — What if they threw a press conference in opposition to an important state ballot measure and no one showed up? Shamefully, that's what happened today with the No on Proposition 35 press conference called for noon in front of the Van Nuys courthouse. This reporter attended, expecting at least a smattering of cameras and mainstream reporters interested in the Californians Against Sexual Exploitations Act (CASE Act), which, according to the language of the bill, adds "stronger laws to combat the threats posed by human traffickers and online predators seeking to exploit women and children for sexual purposes," and strengthens "sex offender registration requirements to deter predators from using the internet to facilitate human trafficking and sexual exploitation." As we have previously reported, however, it does much more than that—none of it good for the adult industry.
But there were no banks of cameras or reporters waiting with questions at the ready. I thought the thing had been cancelled until I heard my name called. It was industry attorney Michael Fattorosi, standing next to two other people. I'd found the press conference. The two others were adult industry vet Will "Taliesin" Jarvis and Maxine Doogan, president of the Erotic Service Providers Legal, Education and Research Project and the force behind the fight to defeat Prop 35.
"Force of nature" might be more accurate. In an uphill fight to defeat a proposition sponsored solely by a wealthy former Facebook executive with political ambitions in the state, Doogan, with no money to speak of and dependant upon the kindness of volunteers, can claim major victories in getting the Los Angeles Times and the Sacramento Bee, among other prominent state papers, to come out forcefully against a proposition they would normally have supported (if only because the words "sexual exploitation" are in the title.) In this case, however, even the normally conservative Bee recognized the unacceptable scope of the proposed law when it concluded, "Proposition 35 won't do anything to stop sexual exploitation, but it will cost taxpayers millions and force law-abiding citizens to defend spurious charges. Vote no on 35."
For Doogan, an articulate and energetic advocate for sex worker rights in California and throughout the nation, the lack of response today was upsetting but not unanticipated. She knows she is in an uphill battle, and that other races, propositions and measures are more likely to catch the attention of the media than the so-called sex trafficking prop, but she insisted that a win for the No side remains in reach.
"I am not convinced that it is going to pass," she said. If it does, she added, people will soon regret not having taken the time to look more closely at the language contained in the bill and work furiously to defeat it. The Los Angeles Times did, and was shocked to discover "far-reaching and inflexible penalties and procedures that would be enacted by this measure," leading it to state, "Proposition 35 all too well displays the weaknesses of the ballot process."
These are all damning indictments of the proposition, but the specifics more than support the positions. The Times notes but three reasons why they urge a "no" vote.
• It imposes new life terms for some offenders—and would keep them in place even if experience shows no correlation between longer terms and fewer or less egregious offenses.
• It expands the sex offender registry and, in so doing, converts it from a useful tool to help police and residents track the whereabouts of potentially dangerous sexual predators into a list that includes non-sex criminals, including traffickers who extort money.
• It would change evidence laws to block defendants from raising the sexual history of a victim of human trafficking in a trial, something that is often done to attack the credibility or impeach the character of the victim. That's a well-intentioned provision, no doubt, but it would most likely face serious constitutional challenges.
For Doogan, of course, there are many more reasons why Prop B must be defeated, but when asked what is most egregious about it, she answered simply, "It targets and punishes the real victims of sexual trafficking."
That view is also supported by Cynthia Garrity-Bond, a feminist theologian and social ethicist, who wrote in an analysis of the bill that "beyond the sound bites and hyperbole resides a poorly written law that further criminalizes and discriminates against sex workers and their consensual adult clients.... While playing upon concerns of the public over human trafficking in women and minors, Prop 35 expands the definition of the human trafficker to now include sex workers and all those associated with them, including children and domestic partners."
Others have called the bill a poorly conceived attempt to target people who engage in consensual statutory rape, and indeed, the following testimony by Stephen Munkelt on behalf of the California Attorneys for Criminal Justice during a public safety hearing in August, 2012 lays out the sort of situation that could easily occur if Prop 35 becomes California law.
"Let's imagine a Saturday night date night," he told the committee. "We have an 18-year-old boy and a 17-year-old girl. They head out to a movie. He buys her movie ticket, he buys her popcorn, they enjoy the show. Afterwards, he drives her to a romantic location. They share a beer while they talk. They get a little close, they start kissing and a little touching in sexually sensitive areas, and he says, 'I'd really like to take a picture of your breasts. You're just so terrific, I'll really like you to just unbutton a little, I'll take out my cell phone, I promise I'll never show it to anybody.' But he knows that he's definitely going to show it to some of his buddies. So she agrees, she consents.
"He's facing 15 to life under this statute," continued Munkelt, "because he gave her something of value—the movie ticket. Consent is not a defense. This is a coerced event because he used a controlled substance to make her more compliant when they shared a beer. And he used fraud by misrepresenting his intent when he took a picture that related to sensitive areas of her body. So under this statute he's facing 15 to life, and I hope all of you are sitting there saying, that's just impossible, that's crazy, but that's how broadly this is written. They've removed the defense of consent. As the proponents said, they also removed the requirement of any force or fear being used. In the less severe sentencing area of the basic 236.1(A) section, they've even removed the requirement that there is anything related to sex. It's to obtain labor or service of any kind. So you can be convicted of human trafficking under certain circumstances for having somebody mow your lawn."
The language of the proposed law also can be interpreted to apply to adult entertainment producers. According to Greg Diamond in a July editorial for an Orange County political blog titled I Despise Human Trafficking, but I Oppose the Badly Drafted Prop 35, "Either through accident or design, Prop 35 is badly drafted—potentially turning even misdemeanor offenses dealing with prostitution, solicitation, non-marital sex, sex with minors, “sexting,” pornography, obscenity, and extortion into major, multi-year felonies."
Doogan told AVN that she has reached out to the industry, but found the support door shut in her face. No one, she said, has stepped up to help defeat 35, and she said she was even told that one of the reasons was because porn is legal but prostitution is not. Needless to say, she finds that to be a fatally shortsighted point of view that ignores the reality that as far as sex workers are concerned, "We are all in this together." The fight against Proposition 35, she added, is at its core a battle to ensure equal rights for all labor and to end a tiered labor system in which sex workers are denied rights that other workers take for granted.
"By not supporting the sex worker rights movement here in California," she added, addressing the adult entertainment industry directly, "you are in fact colluding with the proponents of Measure B and Proposition 35 by not acknowledging that workers in the industry have the most powerful voice here."
Her message to voters was not to allow themselves to be confused or misled by what they think Proposition 35 does. There are plenty of laws on the books in California and at the federal level that address the sorts of human traffickers that most people imagine when they hear the term. "You can still be against trafficking and also against Proposition 35," she insisted. "By voting against it, you are not propping up sex traffickers."
Needless to say, it's hard for anyone to get their message through to voters in the current pre-election madness, especially if no one shows up to the scheduled press conference, and no doubt the supporters of the bill are counting on citizens to green-light it without engaging in close inspection of its language. On the other side, there are those unambiguous editorials in opposition by the most influential newspapers in the state, the support of California Assemblyman Tom Ammiano (D-SF) and the ACLU of Northern California, and of course hope always springs eternal for those who are committed to supporting the rights of all workers, and especially those who cling often perilously to the lowest rungs of employment: our sex workers.
In that sense, even if Proposition 35 passes, it will just be another bump in the road for Doogan, who is looking forward to a long fight ahead in her bid to make not just California, but every county and state in the country a safe place for sex workers and their customers to engage in legal, safe and consensual sexual practices without fear of being incarcerated or fired from other employment.
In terms of sex workers whose main employment is jeopardized for reasons that have nothing to do with their specialized abilities, Doogan agreed that you have to look no further than about an hour north of where we were standing this afternoon, to Oxnard, California, where teacher Stacie Halas is fighting for her professional life after having been fired this year when it was discovered she spent a mere 9 months of her life years ago working as an adult performer.
Attorney Fattorosi, by the way, also has weighed in on Proposition 35 on his blog, AdultBizLaw.com.
For more information about the proposition, including a multitude of links to the sources listed above and many more like them, go here. Donations to help support the No on Proposition 35 efforts can also be made there.
Photo: Maxine Doogan in front of the Van Nuys courthouse, October 26, 2012