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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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Both Parton and Bottoms advertise what's known in the industry as "the girlfriend experience" — that is, an escort session that's more like an actual date than the wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am whirlwind most people associate with prostitution. The girlfriend experience is a relatively new sector of the sex industry, and it seems to attract both a certain kind of escort and a certain kind of client. "People are looking for someone that they can relate to," Parton explained. "I advertise a girlfriend experience, so guys who come to see me want someone like a girlfriend — someone who can cuddle with them and laugh at their jokes and have an intelligent conversation. ... They like seeing a smart woman, and I like seeing men who want to see smart women. I have long discussions about politics in the Middle East with my clients. And I love it."

Parton advertises herself exactly as she is in real life — "I'm into comic books and stuff" — and a result, she said, her "sample probably skews heavily toward the dorky. Mostly, it's just a lot of lonely, nerdy guys."

Bottoms, for her part, said she's seen "a huge range": Professionals in passionless relationships who view seeing an escort as a more ethical alternative to cheating; lawyers who don't have time to date; older men with terminal illness. "I've had clients in grad school, and they wanted to have sex, wanted to have a good time, but they didn't want to invest the time and energy it takes to have a girlfriend, so seeing an escort was a good alternative." She has seen men as young as early twenties and as old as eighties.

Bottoms (not her real name) is petite and bubbly and clearly very smart, the kind of person who'll casually slip a historical anecdote about renaissance-era work arrangements into a conversation about the modern-day sex industry. Like many of her contemporaries and colleagues, she's a prodigious user of social media; on Twitter, she's equally prone to thoughts like "I've got a session in 5 minutes and can't stop the pickle burps #sexworkerproblems" as she is to tweeting about her torts homework or the presidential debates. And in her ads, Bottoms presents herself as an educated person, because she is. "My grammar is correct [in my ads]. My spelling is correct. ... There are these different things that we sense as the calling cards of education. I have people messaging me all the time saying, 'I read your profile and I like the things you said and the way you said them.'" Which makes sense: Most of Bottoms' clients are well-educated white men, so it's only natural that they'd want to hire someone like them. "A lot of what we do is sex, but a lot of what we do is talking," she said. "And when we can commiserate about law-school midterms, that's a big bonus."

Like Parton, Bottoms loves her job. And like Parton, she's deeply concerned that, if passed, Prop 35 will hurt her and people she knows. Also known as the CASE (Californians Against Slavery and Exploitation) Act, Prop 35 increases penalties for sex trafficking by lengthening prison sentences, forcing sex traffickers to register as sex offenders, and mandating that sex traffickers relinquish all online passwords and usernames.

Ask Nola Brantley and it's a no-brainer. As the executive director and co-founder of the Oakland-based nonprofit MISSSEY (Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting, and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth), she's personally worked with hundreds of children who have been sexually exploited. The average age of the girls she works with is twelve, and the vast majority of them have been in the foster care system, been victim to domestic abuse, or grown up in abject poverty. "These are the most vulnerable members of our society," she said. As far as she concerned any law that has the potential to help children at risk is worth passing, period.

But Prop 35 also dramatically expands the definition of trafficking to encompass anyone who "deprives or violates the personal liberty of another" in a number of ways: "force, fear, fraud, deceit, coercion, violence, duress, menace, or threat of unlawful injury to the victim or to another person." Each of those words has its own specific legal definition, and they're broader than you might think: As Yael Chanoff recently pointed out in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, "So if a prostitute shares a joint with fellow worker, she could be guilty of providing a controlled substance, meaning she could be guilty of coercion, meaning she could be guilty of depriving personal liberty. That means triggering the harsh penalties for trafficking."

If passed, the CASE Act would also reclassify pimping — which, in its current state, essentially encompasses anyone who derives a profit from prostitution — as a form of sex trafficking, meaning it's punishable by harsh prison sentences, asset forfeiture, and placement on the sex offender registry. It's that part of the law that has many sex workers the most worried, and it's part of the reason that entities like the Los Angeles Times and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California have come out against Prop 35. The revised language could ensnare all kinds of people, opponents point out — a sex workers' child or partner, for example. And after all, even the most well intended laws can have all kinds of unforeseen consequences.