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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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"The relationships between customers, managers, sex workers ... are incredibly varied and very nuanced," said Max Besbris, who conducted a sociological study of Oakland's sex trade as part of his honors thesis at UC Berkeley and is now a Ph.D candidate at NYU. "What we've seen is that there's a great deal of agency exercised by a lot of women and men who do sex work. But the laws basically reduce all relationships to exploitative ones."

The latest and highest-profile such proposed law is Prop 35, which appears on California's November ballot. It's a complicated measure, rife with legalese and referential to several different parts of the penal code, but essentially, Prop 35 would expand the definition of, and increase penalties for, human trafficking. On the surface, it sounds like one of those unequivocally positive ballot measures anyone can feel good about voting for — and, in fact, it's been endorsed by both of California's major political parties.

Advocates of Prop 35 — mostly law enforcement and those who work with victims of childhood sex abuse — argue that human trafficking is an epidemic in California and the laws as they currently exist don't adequately address the problem. But the ballot measure is also getting vehement criticism, much of it from within the sex industry itself: A number of victims' rights organizations have come out against it, arguing, for the most part, that a problem as complicated as trafficking deserves a more comprehensive solution, and many sex workers have raised fears about unintended consequences, specifically with regards to the fact that the proposed law would expand the definition of trafficking to anyone who benefits financially from prostitution, regardless of intent. "Prop 35 implicates a lot of adult consensual behavior," said Monet. "In my opinion, it's an erosion of sexual rights" — not a protection of human ones.

In Parton's eyes, it's not just that Prop 35 would further criminalize the kind of work she does. It's that it's predicated on the idea that that kind of work — the kind where all parties are participating by choice and no one feels exploited — is fundamentally impossible, that all sex workers are victims. And in that sense, Prop 35 isn't just an inconvenience — it's an affront to a political and social movement that's taken years to build.

If the East Bay's new sex-work community has a nucleus, it's probably the legendary downtown San Francisco peep-show The Lusty Lady, which unionized in 1996, became a cooperative in 2003, and is still the only business of its kind in the world to be fully unionized and worker-owned. That's where Parton said she "found female community for the first time," and where many people I spoke to said they first become steeped in the sex-positive, activist-oriented, third-wave-feminist ethos that underpins the local sex-workers' movement.

It's also a symbol just how long activism and sex work have been linked in the Bay Area. San Francisco was where the American sex-workers' rights movement first got started, according to activist and sex worker Carol Leigh; it was in fact Leigh herself who first coined the term "sex worker." Even as early as 2004, decriminalization measures in Berkeley and San Francisco were garnering support from voters and mainstream politicians — and though none have passed, a few have come close.

It certainly helps that the Bay Area continues to be known as a mecca for sexual minorities of all kinds. "People are more comfortable being out in the open here," Parton said. "Because of all the advances in the gay rights movement and sex [education], and polyamorous people and sex parties and kink parties — people are just more comfortable being sex workers here, openly."

At this point, would-be and current consensual sex workers now migrate to the Bay Area from all over the country, Leigh said. During an informal gathering a few weeks ago at San Francisco's Buck Tavern, I met several women who came here specifically because of what they'd heard about the community: "I moved here to be a part of this," explained a coltish young woman over Goose Islands and sliders. "I'm glad I did."

In an illegal, amorphous, underground trade, reliable statistics are hard to come by, but anecdotally, it appears that the number of sex workers like Parton is growing. "It definitely feels like there are a lot of us," said Sandy Bottoms, an Oaklander who's been in the industry for a couple years and is currently paying her way through law school by escorting.

Part of that is simple economics. "I've been in the industry for a long time, and any time the economy suffers, the [sex] economy booms," said Monet. At the same time, as sex work in general continues to become more acceptable, numbers will keep going up, on both the supply and demand side. There's now less stigma than ever before about buying sex — so more people are doing it.

But many people think there's something else at play, something that's specific to this place and this point in time: As San Francisco's latest tech boom has created an entire new population of men — men who are too busy to date, but who have money to burn. And, at the same time, as it becomes increasingly acceptable for women from upper-middle-class backgrounds and good colleges to become sex workers, a wider swath of men may feel okay about seeing them. "It's a comfort thing," said Bottoms, explaining why many of her clients specifically seek her out based on what they perceive to be her education level.