Sex work in San Francisco: Navigating morality, health, and laws across the ages
Three things made San Francisco: fortune, thievery, and sex.
From the old mission days, to the Barbary Coast, through the Summer of Love, and to the tech boom, there’s been a steady narrative thread: everyone wants to get lucky.
In the early years of San Francisco, sex workers were offered protections by city officials and the city’s first sex worker health clinic. From 1911 to 1913, the Municipal Clinic offered free syphilis treatment for sex workers and testing for 50 cents.
The clinic’s supervising physician, Dr. O. B. Spalding, even secured city protection for property, staff and patients by agreeing to legislation requiring sex workers to carry clinic-issued bills of health, or else face arrest for vagrancy. Although the clinic operated for a little longer than two years, it reduced venereal disease among sex workers by more than 60%.
These protections and securities were tenuous and short lived. Under pressure from city clergymen, Mayor James Rolph ordered police protection withdrawn. Sex workers were no longer required to carry bills, but nor were they offered any physical or legal protection. As the clinic could no longer offer any kind of safe space, and the punishments for having or not having a bill were now one in the same, prostitutes quickly stopped attending and the Municipal Clinic shuttered soon thereafter. And, as Herbert Asbury wrote in “The Barbary Coast,” “disease again raged unchecked.”
At least one theme from this moment in history continues to this day: Sex workers still never know what legislation is going to threaten them next. Will it be the sudden enforcement of an existing law? Or will it be something new?
“As soon as one piece of oppressive legislation gets defeated another one pops up in its place,” said Andre Shakti, a sex worker living in Oakland. Shakti works in porn, as a dominatrix, as a stripper, and as a relationship coach. She’s presented at Ivy Q, Harvard’s exploration of “queer community beyond binaries and the LGB [lesbian, gay, bisexual].” Shakti is a self-directed independent contractor—emphasis on independent—with a list of gigs that range from managing conferences to workshops on fisting.
Sex work is never easy money. It involves a good deal more than holding one’s office hours in bed. Last November, Shakti spent hours of her time fighting Proposition 60, a measure that would have required condom use in porn. Although the proposed legislation may at first seem sensible, the bill contained provisions allowing California residents to sue producers for noncompliance—thereby gaining access to personal information, such as legal name and address. Porn actors, especially trans actors, are necessarily cautious of sharing personal information, and having it legally given to strangers would have been far more dangerous than condomless sex.
“Most of us are working or middle class individuals with seventeen side hustles or more to keep us going,” said Shakti. “We’re POC [people of color], queer, female, and trans, and when you have that many intersecting identities your vulnerability increases.”
Proposition 60 did not pass. But the work Shakti put into protecting her livelihood was unpaid. In the months since, she’s managed to make up for lost time and income, but there’s no telling when or what the next fight will be.
“We barely have time to recover,” she said. “It’s just cumulatively exhausting.”
For sex workers, the Bay Area is attractive for reasons that will sound familiar to almost any minority. Sex workers benefit from greater tolerance for orientation and expression, excellent social services, ease of connecting with like-minded individuals and a social climate that generally favors the rights of the individual over the desires of the state. The result is that the local market is nearly oversaturated with professionals. Which means workers must either be adept generalists or extremely niche professionals, and be prepared to do their job for less money than they might get outside of California.
“Many sex workers really only feel safe in California,” explained Shakti. In a state with stricter laws or more rigorous prosecution, sex workers might command higher prices but at a significantly greater risk to personal and legal safety. “We have to balance comfort, safety and health against having a roof and food on the table.”
At the Philz coffee shop on Castro street, I met with Claire Alwyne, a trans professional dominatrix who relocated to the Bay from London in the 1990s. She found San Francisco to be even more tolerant and accepting than her former home. Although laws regarding sex work are not very different between the two cities, social attitudes towards sex workers certainly are. “Here it’s above ground,” she said.
“We don’t sell our bodies,” said Alwyne. “We enter into a contract to engage in sexual behavior with another adult for an agreed upon time and an agreed upon fee. A bit like engaging a plumber. Which is why I am a member of a union,” she said, stressing the last word. “It’s about workers’ rights.”
Alwyne is a member of the Erotic Service Providers’ Union (ESPLERP), an agency currently involved in a lawsuit to decriminalize prostitution in the state of California. The initial lawsuit, ESPLERP v. Gascon, was struck down in November of last year. On January 13, 2017 it was filed for appeal at the Ninth District Court.
In the 19th and 20th century, anti-prostitution advocates structured their arguments around the issue of morality. In San Francisco, that charge was led by a Catholic priest, Father Terence Caraher, who routinely picketed brothels, encouraged his parish to harass sex workers and labeled the Municipal Clinic “a blow at marriage.” He spent his later years railing against every public amusement from trolley cars to roller skating rinks until his death in a San Jose sanatorium in 1914.
In the current era, anti-sex work advocates argue less about protecting the sanctity of matrimony, and more about ending sex trafficking. But laws designed to prevent trafficking, however well intentioned, often adversely and incorrectly affect the wrong parties, since law enforcement often ends up treating sex work as one in the same as sex trafficking. In some jurisdictions, adult sex workers can even be charged with “trafficking” themselves.
But the two should not be equated. Sex work is consensual. Sex trafficking is coercion. And sex workers want to end sex trafficking as much, as if not more, than everyone else. They are among the people most likely to witness human trafficking, but also among the least likely to report it, since they cannot do so without putting themselves at legal risk. The hope for a case like ESPLERP v. Gascon is to at last put a hard legal line between the two. The appeal may be a long shot, but if nothing else it is a small step in the right direction.
“The reality is that sex work is not going away,” said Alwyne.
“If you want to stop prostitution, stop the new girls from coming in here,” said Reggie Gamble, a madam of a Tenderloin brother in 1917. “They are coming into it every day. They will always be coming into it as long as conditions, wages and education are as they are. You don’t do any good by attacking us. Why don’t you attack those conditions?”
On January 25, 1917, Gamble led a group of several hundred sex workers in what might be called the first women’s march in San Francisco. Gamble, along with fellow madam Maude Spencer, led the women to the Central Methodist Church, where they assembled in one of the most unusual congregations ever to have gathered in the city to protest the anti-sex work movement sweeping the city.
In “The Barbary Coast,” Asbury records the reverend as replying that “a woman could remain virtuous on an income of ten dollars a week,” or about $190 in today’s currency. The reverend’s figure then, as now, is laughable, and the crowd responded in more or less the same way before shuffling out, nothing resolved.
One hundred years after Gamble’s and Spencer’s march, the Women’s March of this past January experienced a few of the same difficulties as it included, then uninvited, then re-invited sex workers. Many sex workers were left wondering just how much the movement really valued equality for all women, or whether tolerance came only with invisibility.
“We wake up every day to a world that doesn’t want us to exist, profit, or thrive,” says Shakti.
Premium aged, naturally aromatic, produced in a facility that also uses soy, nuts, dairy, and gluten: these are the words that might be used to describe Cirrus Wood. Or they may just be something he read off a bag of basmati rice he had in the pantry because he didn’t know what to write here.
Cirrus Wood is a freelance writer and photographer, fine art model, bike messenger and, occasionally, adult film actor. His writing has appeared in the Bold Italic, California Magazine, UC Berkeley alumni journal and other publications.
The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author alone. They do not reflect the opinions or positions of BETA or of San Francisco AIDS Foundation. BETA serves as a resource on new developments in HIV prevention and treatment, strategies for living well with HIV, and gay men’s health issues. Our goal is to inform, empower, and inspire conversation.