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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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Amy Golden could be one of those unintended consequences. She's smart, stable, married with kids and living in Oakland. And though she'd never thought about sex work in earnest before her thirties, a few years ago — when she found herself with a recently laid-off husband and a developmentally disabled four-year-old who required intensive care — it started to look like it might make sense. Sex work would allow her to continue paying the bills while staying home with her son nearly as much as she needed to, and it took some of the pressure off her husband to find work immediately. Soon enough, she started escorting.

These days, Golden's business is so successful that, in addition to escorting, she's managing a seven-woman sex worker's organization of her very own. The women she works with range in age from late twenties to sixties, and are, according to Golden, all working by choice. The business is run like a cooperative, and though Golden's the figurehead, her role sounds much more like that of a den mother than a madam: She keeps the space stocked with food, buys her co-workers lingerie, acts as a mentor for those hoping to start their own businesses. She considers herself a role model, albeit a bit of a nontraditional one, and she's enormously proud of what she does. "We are demonstrating that women can band together," she said. "We can be in this industry without being taken advantage of." And what's more, she and her husband have been able to give their son a much better life than they may have otherwise. "This has just been an amazing gift," she said.

But because Golden's name is on the lease of the East Bay building that houses her practice, she could be labeled a sex trafficker under Prop 35. Her twenty-year-old daughter, whom Golden is partially supporting while she's in school, could be in trouble. And so could her husband, and so could her landlady. As someone who feels like she's done everything right, who has gone out of her way to protect her employees from exploitation, who has children of her own, and who is strongly, viscerally opposed to sex trafficking, Prop 35 feels personal. "I am 100 percent opposed to the exploitation of children and to child trafficking," she said. "And the idea that I could be accused of those things — it turns my stomach."

According to Alexandra Lutnick, who's done extensive research into the Bay Area sex industry via her work as both research director for RTI International, a public-health nonprofit, and as a doctoral student at UC Berkeley's school of social welfare, this isn't just a case of unintended consequences, of an anomalous example getting caught in the crosshairs — it's a case of the law failing to understand the realities of the industry it purports to regulate. Prop 35, she said, and in fact much of the law, "reduces the complexity to the simple story of victim and villain. This is language that really evokes a lot of emotions from people. But not all sex-work relationships work that way."

And she's not just talking about people like Parton and Bottoms and Golden, white women over the age of eighteen who make hundreds of dollars an hour and have the political and social capital to work for themselves. In fact, she said, the research that she's done on underage sex workers in the Bay Area tends to show that it's more common that peers and friends — not pimps — are the gateway between minors and sex work.

It's a complicated subject, to be sure. "There is no average experience of sex work," said Parton. "But I would go so far to say the experience is a lot closer to mine or to the other women in SWOP than people think. We enter the business as adults, making a conscious decision for financial reasons. And if Prop 35 passes, my life will be impacted in a very negative way."

For one thing, said Bottoms, in addition to implicating people surrounding sex workers, the CASE Act would "force people into the closet that much more." And, she said, "You can be emotionally damaged by having to hide who you are and what you do." Bottoms already has three entirely separate identities: One she uses with clients, another she uses online and in activism, and a third that she uses in school and with her family. She has three email addresses, three names — three lives, essentially. "It's exhausting," she said.

And beyond that, there's an argument that forcing people like Bottoms to go back underground has bigger and more abstract implications for sex workers' rights. Just as the gay rights movement used honesty and openness as activist tools, arguing that increased visibility could only mean increased rights, so, too, has the sex workers' rights movement. "If sex workers come out," Parton said, "people would realize how many of us there are and how many of us they know." Many SWOP members consider being "out" to their friends and family a crucial part of their political work — and view Prop 35 a major erosion of that work.