Petite, understated, and measured Supervisor Carmen Chu isn't the first person one might choose to face off against crowds of angry hookers.
But after months of chaperoning controversial legislation that tightens the City's reigns on massage parlor brothels, Chu has gained a reputation as San Francisco's top neutralizer of harlots. Today, in fact, she was scheduled to meet with anti-porn and -prostitution crusader Melissa Farley, the organized sex-worker community's arguable Public Enemy No. 1.
"The legislation the supervisor ushered through went through so many hearings, at the Department on the Status of Women, the Land Use Committee, Planning. At each and every one of those hearings, the supervisor had to deal with the wrath of the sex workers," said Chu's aide Cammy Blackstone. "The supervisor held her ground."
Chu's odyssey through the world of the working girl began when some denizens of her Sunset District complained of a pair of apparent brothels that the city couldn't shut down. Despite San Francisco's libertarian reputation -- and fame among travelers as a prostitution haven -- prostitution is, in fact, illegal here. But anti-cat-house laws have been notoriously hard to enforce. Massage parlors must be licensed here. And, previously, licenses could be yanked if three police raids within a year resulted in health code violations. There has typically been only one San Francisco inspector assigned to massage parlors. So this threshold was nearly impossible to reach. Notwithstanding, many aspiring brothel owners not wishing to deal with the permitting hassles required to obtain a massage permit, would keep call girls in the back of a purported nail salon or gym, and claim that the massage business was merely a sideline.
Chu proposed changing the rule that required three yearly health code violations before a massage licensed could be yanked, and requiring back-room massage operations to become permitted, just like front-room ones.
"We were getting a lot of push back from the sex workers, who said that working in the back of a massage establishment was safer than working the street," said Blackstone.
Chu obtained an alternative view of what was actually going on in those nail parlor back rooms from Farley, an anti-prostitution, anti-pornography crusader who is held up as a virtual Anti-Christ by San Francisco sexual libertarians. After consulting Farley, along with the Asian Anti-Trafficking Collaborative, and the Not For Sale Campaign against human trafficking, Chu determined that these hidden bordellos actually posed a greater danger than street prostitution. That's because they're a bastion of underage human trafficking and slavery operations, in which young Asian girls are tricked into coming to America, then held indefinitely to service clients here.
"There are sex workers like Julia Roberts -- the fun-loving, prostitute with a heart of gold. But there are also slaves, who answered an ad saying they were going to be a hostess in America, and instead they were enslaved," Blackstone said. "Nobody knows about them, and they are hidden in the back room of the estabishments."
Street prostititon isn't a practical option for human traffickers, it turns out.
"If they were on the street -- if a 14-year-old girl from Thailand was on the street -- somebody might say something," Blackstone said.
Eventually, Chu, along with the mayor, managed to help change the aforementioned rules regarding what it takes to shut down a massage parlor. Now, thanks to legislation sponsored by Gavin Newsom and also backed by Chu, the city's health department can consider the testimony of vice squad officers -- and in the event of three health code violations within two years, a business can lose its massage license. Back-room massage services -- known under the city code as "accessory use" operations -- will have to obtain massage permits under legislation recently passed by Chu.
Following the victory, Chu got together Friday with Farley, whom she hadn't previously met in person. I warned Blackstone that nobody in America riles up sexual libertarians like Farley does. When SF Weekly quoted her in an innocuous April article on government employment training subsidies, her opponents printed protest T-shirts and signs against the newspaper.
I asked Blackstone if Chu could handle that kind of inevitable heat from re-offended Farley opponents.
"The sex workers don't want anything to impede upon their turf, upon their way of making business, and I understand that," Blackstone said. "We're not living under the illusion that this will end massage prostitution, or end human trafficking. But it does make people a little more accountable. It's baby steps, I guess."