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Redefining Sex Work

The East Bay is home to a new — and growing — group of sex workers who are educated, empowered, and open about what they do for a living. But Prop 35 would force them back underground.

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Jolene Parton is a ho. She's also a Berkeley native, a comic-book fanatic, a Dolly Parton aficionado (hence the name, which is fake), an NPR listener, and a big fan of Vietnamese food. She wears big round glasses rimmed in translucent pink plastic, and, in her ears, jade-green plugs. She's redheaded and rosy-skinned and pretty in the kind of way that would be at home in a J. Crew catalog, but for the pierced septum and stylishly half-shaved head and aforementioned plugs; as is, she's probably more like American Apparel material. And she's been working in the sex industry, broadly defined, for about four years, first doing odd jobs at what she describes as the "entry-level" end of the sex-work spectrum — foot fetish stuff, artsy nude photography, one night during which she "cuddled with a guy in his apartment for money" — and then in porn and at various peepshows and strip clubs; a bit over a year ago, she started escorting. And when she says she loves her job — which she does, often and unbidden — she does so with the kind of steady-eyed enthusiasm that's hard to fake.

"It's been great, honestly," she told me a couple weeks ago at an Oakland Chinatown lunch spot, steam rising from the vermicelli bowl in front of her and fogging her lenses. She genuinely likes her clients, or at least as much as anyone can be expected to like the people they work with, and she appreciates the freedom of being able to set her own hours: "I don't have an alarm clock," she said. "I make breakfast every morning, I get to hang out with my friends whenever I want. This job affords me a lifestyle most people don't get."

Sex is one of those commodities that tends to be popular no matter how bad the economy is, and Parton said the Bay Area's booming tech industry — and its attendant cadre of young, lonely men who want an escort they're compatible with both sexually and intellectually — has been great for business. All told, with a rate in the several hundreds of dollars an hour, she can work between five and ten hours a week and still make far more than the vast majority of other 24-year-olds out there. Parton has met many of her friends through sex work, and it's via her involvement with the Bay Area chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project — a national advocacy group and decriminalization effort founded by and for sex workers in 2003 that's better known by its acronym, SWOP — that she's found her footing as an activist. "Honestly," she said, "my job is one of the most stable and rewarding things in my life."

Parton is exceptionally well-adjusted by any measure — especially for someone working in a trade that's illegal and often maligned — but as it turns out, she's far from alone. In fact, she's but one example of what's beginning to look like an emerging breed of sex workers: educated, empowered, tech-savvy, and activism-oriented, honest about who they are and proud of what they do. They have iPhones and nose piercings and college degrees; they chronicle their experiences on Tumblr and are out to their families. They're primarily what are known in the industry as "indoor" sex workers — meaning they find clients mostly via the web, at online marketplaces like Eros and Redbook, rather than working on the street, and they tend to charge rates in the hundreds of dollars an hour.

At SWOP's monthly membership meeting, they sit around a square table in a downtown Oakland office building and introduce themselves with the kind of businesslike matter-of-factness you'd expect at any group meeting — I'm Joanna, and I've been hoing for six years. I'm Laura, and I started out stripping but now I'm escorting full time — while Parton diligently takes minutes. They laugh a lot. Of the nearly dozen current and former sex workers I spoke to for this story, the majority come from what they describe as relatively healthy, middle- or upper-middle class backgrounds; most of them have completed some or all of an undergraduate education and some have advanced degrees. In other words, they've had choices in life — and they've chosen to be sex workers.

That's completely at odds with what Parton estimates is about "99 percent" of what you hear about people in her line of work — on the nightly news and on television dramas, from social conservatives and from second-wave feminists alike. Veronica Monet has worked in the sex industry for more than two decades, first as a prostitute and now as a sexologist and couples counselor, and she said she's scarcely seen public perception budge: "There is more understanding [of prostitution] now, but not much more," she said. "It's all still about the seven-year-old, the sex slave, the woman who is forced into it — people in trouble."

That's what underpins much of the discourse and nearly all the legislation surrounding sex work in this country, but according to those who study the field — not to mention the living proof of people like Parton and Monet — the research that's been done teases out a much more nuanced picture of the industry. All sex workers aren't Oberlin grads, of course, but they're not all underage and exploited, either — and, certainly, most of them are somewhere in between.

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