Nov. 4, 2008 — -- Pretty soon, a "pretty woman" may be able to work the streets of San Francisco legally.
The city's residents will vote today on Proposition K, a ballot measure that would stop police from enforcing laws against sex workers and eliminate funding for anti-prostitution programs. If it is passed, the measure will make San Francisco the first major U.S. city to decriminalize prostitution. (In Rhode Island, prostitution is legal as long as it's conducted indoors. In Nevada, prostitution is legal in counties with under 400,000 residents, which means it's still against the law in Las Vegas.)
The measure comes at a moment when prostitution's popping up throughout pop culture.
In the United States, Showtime's "Secret Diary of a Call Girl" and "Californication" explore what hookers do on and off the clock (and take full advantage of the freedoms granted to them by premium cable).
Earlier this year, prostitutes became the punch line du jour when then-New York Gov. Elliot Spitzer's indiscretions turned Ashley Dupree into the poster woman for high-end escorts.
Abroad, the French movie "Cliente," about a TV anchor and director who develops a thing for gigolos after her marriage falls apart, is sparking a discussion about accepting prostitution as part and parcel of human sexuality.
True, prostitution and pop culture go back like, well, prostitution and the dawn of time.
"If the old cliché is true, that prostitution is the world's oldest profession, one could speculate that stories about prostitution are pretty close to being the world's oldest stories. Who can resist that subject matter?" said Robert Thompson, a Syracuse University professor of television and pop culture.
"They tend to fall in two categories: the prostitute as protagonist. 'Pretty Woman' would be the best example of this -- 'Cinderella' retold where Cinderella is a hooker," Thompson said. "The other side is the warning tales of the dangers of prostitution, the made-for-TV movies about teens who run off into the sex trade: the slaverylike conditions, the violence. Both sides seem to be alive and well in American culture."
Those supporting Proposition K hope voters are moved enough by the horror stories to enact legislation that can make life better for sex workers by addressing health and safety issues.
"It's a brutal world; prostitution, pimping. There's no real future. They'll either end up in jail, dead or strung out," said Brent Owens, who produced, directed and narrated seven documentaries on street prostitution for HBO, including "Atlantic City Hookers" and "Pimps Up, Ho's Down." He's currently working on a drama about prostitution called "Pimp's Law."
"Some of these women have 500 arrests, 300 arrests, 200 arrests," he said. "It amounts to harassment in a way. Getting arrested is part of the job. If [Proposition K] passed, it would make life a lot easier for them. It would make something that isn't really a crime more widely accepted."
"We're not going to stop prostitution in San Francisco or anywhere else in the country," San Francisco-based criminal attorney Stuart Hanlon said. "The key thing in prostitution is making it safe and healthy for the sex workers. I think Prop K does that."
Even though San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom and District Attorney Kamala Harris oppose Proposition K, the measure may pass. A local CBS poll released Oct. 30 found that 35 percent of likely voters supported the measure, while 39 percent were opposed and 26 percent were still undecided.
If voters push the measure through, some San Francisco sex workers said they hope Proposition K can help them shape how pop culture interprets their profession and gets them a higher profile -- in the same way porn stars parlayed their niche popularity into the mainstream.
Jenna Jameson went from XXX fame to household name; Katie Morgan harnessed her adult-film experience to land roles on "Entourage" and "Zack and Miri Make a Porno."
"If you let Hollywood determine what images of prostitutes are and not the sex workers themselves, then you're going to get a negative image," said Mariko Passion, who's been a sex worker in San Francisco for 10 years. "If we could have more sex workers in pop culture, maybe that wouldn't happen. De-criminalization is the first step to de-stigmatization. It will slowly become harder to make prostitution the butt of a joke."
And to further play into pop culture's love affair with prostitution, Passion has a specific plan should Proposition K pass.
"Once prostitution is decriminalized in San Francisco, I want to pitch a reality show about sex workers," she said.
Sex and money? Sounds like the stuff that makes TV execs leap for joy.