We heard a lot about California's perfidious Proposition 8 in Washington, but another California election question got less attention. That was Proposition K, a measure that aimed to "prohibit the [San Francisco] Police Department from providing resources to investigate and prosecute prostitution." That's not exactly saying prostitution isn't illegal—but no money equals no arrests, so it would have made a big difference to lives of working girls in the City by the Bay.
I liked the proposition, but even with the blue wave of Barack Obama lifting all boats, I knew it wouldn't pass. My guess is average voters didn't feel they'd get enough personal value out of the measure. San Francisco is liberal, but presented with the idea of not arresting prostitutes, even Joe the Democratic Plumber can all too easily conjure up a vision of garish hookers lining once-quiet residential streets, disrupting peaceful enjoyment of life and bringing property values down. The abstract argument of prostitutes' human rights doesn't weigh heavily enough against that.
What would I do differently? Take a page from Tim Eyman's playbook. Make it a state initiative to spend no money prosecuting prostitutes, create a tax rebate around it, and tell people this will put money back in their pockets—working up some numbers about how much money is spent annually arresting consenting adults for prostitution, and giving a per-taxpayer estimate.
Or if the individual rebate didn't look impressive enough, the initiative could be written so that the funds got specifically redirected to some extremely sympathetic social service—say, care for wounded veterans. The women in SF talked about how the money saved could be used for sex workers' drug treatment, but to the less-liberal ear, that sounds like coddling criminals. Don't make the beneficiary anything to do with children, either—too many opportunities for nasty innuendo. But I can see some great publicity shots of wounded soldiers with sexy babes on their laps. "Vets Vote Yes on Initiative X!"
But even with the tax-rebate angle, it would still be a tough sell unless the NIMBY types could be convinced that it wouldn't affect their everyday lives. The solution is to keep street prostitution prosecutable. Streetwalkers actually make up a small minority of all prostitutes, but to most people that's the visible face of prostitution, and they don't like it. Look at the state of Rhode Island—they have laws against "Loitering for Indecent Purposes" and "Soliciting from Motor Vehicles for Indecent Purposes," but what's called "inside prostitution" is not prosecuted. (It's a little different, yes, because they have no state laws forbidding prostitution, and Washington does. But we're brainstorming here.)
I can hear the human-rights types wailing about how it would be unfair to leave the street girls out in the cold. But I call it expedient for both sides. I bet the street girls would happily go inside if it meant not getting busted. They understand that in politics, as in sex work, you go where the money is.