AS THE SUN sets over Capp Street in San Francisco’s Mission District each evening, the red lights turn on, and the neighborhood becomes the center for sex work in the city. Cars pass slowly up and down the street, their occupants looking to solicit sex workers. At times, police intervene, brandishing bright flashlights and handing out citations and arrests.

Just last year, the San Francisco Police Department announced it was cracking down on prostitution, as it installed barricades on five blocks of Capp Street in hopes of curbing solicitors — or “johns” — that perused the streets.

But that same year, there were only 27 prostitution-related police reports filed by the SFPD, a nearly 92 percent decrease from 2018, which saw 336.

Although police activity has picked up slightly in 2023, the overall numbers of prostitution-related police reports show a continuing and dramatic decline over the last two decades. 

And that begs the question: What story does the policing of prostitution tell about evolving attitudes toward sex work in the city? 

The above chart shows the number of reported incidents of broadly defined prostitution from 2018 to August 2023. Included in the count are loitering for the purpose of prostitution, soliciting for an act of prostitution, pandering, soliciting or engaging in lewd conduct, keeping or residing in a house of prostitution, soliciting to visit a house of prostitution and soliciting a lewd act. 

This chart shows the number of prostitution-related incidents from 2003 to August 2023. The SFPD has two datasets that document police reports: one from 2003 to 2017 and one from 2018 to the present. There are discrepancies in the way in which prostitution-related incidents were documented between the two datasets, in that a broader number of charges were included in the umbrella of “prostitution” in the 2003 to 2018 dataset. This chart restricts incidents from 2003 to 2017 to match those in 2018 to the present (i.e., the loitering and solicitation incidents listed above). 

An analysis of the data, along with interviews with police and sex-worker advocates, suggests a variety of factors are at play — including changes in the law, in policing strategy, law enforcement’s increased focus on human trafficking and in the way sex work is viewed by the powers that be.

It is often said that prostitution is the world’s oldest profession. It is also a job that throughout history — be it in Europe’s Middle Ages or modern-day San Francisco — has not always been viewed as a profession. 

The competing perceptions of prostitution have significantly shaped the way it has been policed in the city. On one side, there are those who view the job as a crime and want it policed as such, and on the other those who have been actively fighting to decriminalize it. 

Loitering decriminalized

Prior to 2023, the police were able to arrest people whom they believed to be sex workers on the streets under section 653.22 in the California Penal Code, which states that “loitering” in a public space with the “intent to commit prostitution” is a crime. But Senate Bill 357 — or the Safer Streets for All Act — decriminalized loitering. It was passed by the California state Legislature in July 2022 and went into effect in January 2023. 

The decriminalization of loitering was introduced by Sen. Scott Weiner and supported by several sex work, LGBTQIA+ and minority rights advocacy groups, who argued that, in enforcing the California code, the police were engaging in discriminatory behavior.

The corner of 19th and Capp streets in San Francisco’s Mission District is known as the epicenter of sex work in the city. Prior to 2023, police could arrest suspected prostitutes under the state’s anti-loitering law, which has since been repealed. Loitering arrests accounted for 65 percent of all citations related to sex work in the past five years. (Lydia Sidhom/Bay City News)

Advocates for sex workers had been pushing for California to get rid of the loitering law for years, said Rachel West, who works for the US PROStitutes Collective, a network of current and former prostitutes that has campaigned for the decriminalization of sex work since 1982. 

“Anybody who was walking or standing on the street could be arrested for loitering,” West said. “It particularly targeted trans women.”

Weiner’s bill sought especially to protect transgender women and people of color, who legislators and advocacy organizations said were disproportionately impacted by the loitering law. 

Before it was outlawed, loitering with the intent of engaging in prostitution made up a majority — or 65 percent — of all police citations or arrests related to sex work within the last five years, according to the San Francisco incident report dataset. 

This chart shows the number of police reports for each type of police report for prostitution between 2018 to August 2023. Note that there are multiple categories for solicitation. 

This chart shows the number of police reports for loitering versus for solicitation from 2010 until August 2023. Note that loitering – and not solicitation – was decriminalized in January 2023. 

Around the same time that loitering was decriminalized, the San Francisco Police Department announced that it was installing barricades on the Capp Street corridor. The barricades, which went up in fall 2022 on the 18th through 22nd street blocks of Capp Street, were intended to divert sex workers and clients from the area. 

In addition to the barricades, the SFPD said in a press release that it launched a “multi-pronged plan” to address “community concerns regarding illegal prostitution, human trafficking, and traffic/pedestrian safety” along Capp Street. Part of this plan, the SFPD said, involved having officers go undercover by posing as sex workers to catch johns and cite them for soliciting prostitution. 

This chart shows the number of reported incidents of “prostitution” (between 2018 and August 2023) per intersection in San Francisco, restricted to just the top 10 intersections with the highest number of incidents. The SFPD anonymizes its incident report data such that the closest intersection to the reported incident is recorded. Bars are color coded by district. 

This map shows all reported incidents of prostitution between 2018 and August 2023.  Incidents are clustered around Capp Street, Shotwell Street and the surrounding areas. Note that the SFPD incident report dataset is anonymized to include only the coordinates of the nearest intersection. 

Map showing the density of prostitution reports per neighborhood for 2018 to August 2023.  

The “criminal activity” aspect of sex work has increasingly been pinned on the johns — who can be cited or arrested under California’s still criminalized solicitation penal code 647(b)

But, while solicitation charges against johns are climbing in relation to previous years, they are meager compared to the volume of citations and arrests handed to sex workers for loitering before 2020 and decriminalization. 

Halfway through 2023, the police had cited or arrested a mere 31 johns for soliciting, making up nearly 80 percent of all prostitution-related police incidents, according to SFPD incident report data.

Though solicitation for the first time makes up a majority of citations and arrests for all prostitution-related charges — whereas before it was loitering — it is not the only charge being issued for johns. 

For example, a police interaction with a john can turn into a citation for a traffic violation instead of one for solicitation. The police reported that they issued nearly 150 traffic citations — none of which are considered “prostitution-related” — to johns in the Capp Street area during their fall 2022 crackdown. 

This chart shows the number of traffic citations the police gave on Capp Street and Shotwell Street between 2018 and August 2023. The SFPD have targeted johns not by handing out more citations and arrests for prostitution-related crimes, i.e. solicitation, but rather for other violations like traffic. The chart displays all traffic citations given on Capp Street and Shotwell Street, which are not all necessarily for johns.  

District Attorney Brooke Jenkins has also focused the office’s efforts on johns, she said in a statement issued last fall. Johns are referred to neighborhood courts and “john school,” a virtual course which teaches “the firsthand experiences of prostitutes, the health risks associated with solicitation, sex trafficking education, and the potential legal consequences of future offenses,” read the statement. Since November 2022, the DA has referred 51 solicitation cases to john school, according to the office. 

If the police are focusing their efforts on citing and arresting johns — and the DA on prosecuting them — in light of the decriminalization of loitering, it leaves the question: how are sex workers themselves now viewed and treated by law enforcement? 

The answer the police department gives: sex workers are the victims of abuse and human trafficking.

When asked if the SFPD views all sex workers as victims of human trafficking, spokesperson Eve Laokwansathitaya said yes; that is, police do not recognize the possibility that people may engage in sex work simply to earn a living wage.

“This is more seeing prostitutes as victims,” Laokwansathitaya said. “Our focus is going after the people soliciting prostitutes — the johns — because prostitutes are the victims of human trafficking.” 

It’s two different things

Advocates for sex workers say that while the police department’s concerns about human trafficking are legitimate, they should not obscure the fact that much sex work is engaged in voluntarily just to make a living.

“The police themselves and the police department have traditionally mixed up sex work and trafficking as the same thing — they’ll use those interchangeably,” said West, the advocate at US PROStitutes Collective. “Sex work and trafficking are two different things: there’s human trafficking, which is abuse, coercion and fraud, and then there’s women out there trying to work, and the police are stopping them from working.” 

And despite the police’s new stated attention on trafficking, the number of sex trafficking citations and arrests has stayed constant throughout the past two decades, according to the SFPD incident report data.

The SFPD incident report dataset provides one category for prostitution, which includes all charges of soliciting, pandering and loitering, as well as a category for human trafficking related to sex work. This chart shows the number of police reports filed for prostitution-related citations or arrests from 2003 to August 2023 in tandem with the number of reports for all prostitution-related human trafficking. 

In lieu of citing or arresting sex workers for loitering, the police aim to “provide resources” for sex workers themselves, Laokwansathitaya said. The police view themselves as “advocates” for sex workers, intended to serve as a conduit between victims and a life outside of the sex work industry. 

In keeping with this approach, Laokwansathitaya said police officers in the Special Victims Unit are encouraged to hand out “referral cards” that contain phone numbers to services such as the National Human Trafficking Hotline and emergency shelters. Officers carry these cards around to give to sex workers. In some cases, they “can call the numbers on the card to set up arrangements, such as shelter,” Laokwansathitaya said.

The answer is poverty 

The two-decade decline appears to signal an overall de-emphasis on prostitution as a criminal activity by the police. 

Yet sex work remains illegal. And advocates for prostitutes argue that law enforcement fails to recognize that many people engage in sex work just to support themselves.

The growing focus by police on human trafficking boils down to “false care,” said Nell Myhand, who works with US PROStitutes Collective’s sister organization Women of Colour in the Global Women’s Strike

“The police needed a way to say, ‘we care about these women who are out there, and we will show you how much we care by calling them trafficked instead of poor,’” Myhand said.

Instead of focusing on trafficking, the question should be “Why are women in prostitution in the first place?” West said. The answer, West and Myhand said, is poverty.

“Crackdowns start with the idea that sex work is immoral and criminalized, ignoring the reality that sex workers are moms who are just trying to make a living.”

Nell Myhand, Women of Color in the Global Women’s Strike

The US PROStitutes Collective reported that 66 percent of women arrested on charges of prostitution are Black. They added that sex workers are disproportionately mothers who turn to sex work as means to support themselves in a city with an increasingly high cost of living. 

“Crackdowns start with the idea that sex work is immoral and criminalized, ignoring the reality that sex workers are moms who are just trying to make a living,” Myhand said. “And then women and children get blamed, and people say: ‘How dare you engage in sex work even though you’re hungry? How dare you engage in sex work even though you’re homeless?’”

Activists from the US PROStitutes Collective, a sex worker advocacy group established in 1982, protest outside of the Mission District police station against a police crackdown on sex work in San Francisco in 2018. (US PROStitutes Collective via Bay City News)

Instead of focusing police resources on crackdowns, the US PROStitutes Collective and other advocacy organizations have pushed for the city to implement more policies that would address poverty. This includes, for example, expanding the child tax credit and providing a guaranteed care income for low-income single mothers. 

The sentiment behind that approach is shared by some Mission District residents, including Arturo Rosas, who has lived in San Francisco for 44 years. 

“Prostitution will keep happening in this city for as long as there are poor people in this city,” Rosas said one Tuesday night while watering his plants on Shotwell Street, a street over from Capp. “How else are these girls going to survive?” 

Lydia Sidhom is a rising third-year at UC Berkeley studying Data Science and Political Science. She is a Dow Jones News Fund intern for Bay City News. Lydia was a lead beat reporter, deputy news editor and projects developer for The Daily Californian and will be a deputy projects editor there this fall. She enjoys telling stories through data. In her free time, Lydia loves to read, bake and travel.