Saving women from themselves


OPINION In the name of protecting sex workers, a few San Francisco activists have adopted the rhetoric of antiprostitution advocates and taken their case to the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women (COSW). The commission, following this lead, has adopted a controversial strategy — opposed by the vast majority of dancers, activists, and sex educators — to close down VIP rooms, private booths, and private areas in adult clubs and repeal "encounter studio" permits, claiming that privacy in commercial sexual contexts must be stopped because it causes prostitution, sexual assault, and AIDS.
For starters, the AIDS claim is wrongheaded: starting 30 years ago, activists around the world have explained that the way to address sexual health is not to drive people further underground through this exact sort of repression.
Beyond that, the legislation put forward by the COSW echoes contemporary moral panic. This law uses terms that have historically been used to curtail our freedom under the guise of protecting women. For example, the proposed bill claims that prostitution is "coerced" — but that depends on how you define coercion.
Forced labor and coercion are serious crimes in the legal framework. But economic coercion is the motivation for many types of work, and the fact that women are coerced or forced into this work is being used to justify prohibitions that affect all sex workers. The term "sexual exploitation," which also comes up in the legislation, has been used to describe (and curtail) the voluntary commercial activity of sex workers.
The commission claims it based the proposal on testimony from dancers but omits the fact that the vast majority of dancers rejected the approach, showing up in droves at hearings. Of course, dancer and sex worker rights activists support some strategy to address complaints about unfair labor practices, exorbitant commissions, safety concerns, and harassment — but no effort was made by the COSW to find a consensus.
The campaign developed by the COSW places dancers in closer alliance with management as both dancer options and management options are being threatened. This phenomenon is part of Sex Worker History 101. The current dancers are further alienated and discouraged by this dynamic from organizing to improve working conditions. Unraveling this dynamic is necessary to further labor advocacy in this industry. The issue of private booths distracts from the problems of illegal stage fees, contractor versus employee labor issues, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration regulations.
Other parts of the plan include allowing COSW representatives to inspect the workplace and to "notify the Commission on the Status of Women when they make any change to the compensation schedule." Now there's a great idea: put the classy female elders of San Francisco in charge of working-class women in the sex industry.
This legislation sets some very troubling precedents. Solutions to problematic working conditions in clubs should be developed by the workers, with assistance from labor experts. Given the level of polarization this proposal has created, that could take some time. SFBG
Carol Leigh
Carol Leigh, author of Unrepentant Whore: The Collected Works of Scarlot Harlot (Last Gasp), is dean of academic studies at Whore College.
To read the legislation, go to