The sex worker struggle

From Google to Whorespeak: SF's activists fight a complex, uphill battle but keep the dream of decriminalization alive

The Lusty Lady in North Beach remains the nation's only unionized strip club

Google has come under fire in the past year for everything from privacy policies to censorship. But in December, some Bay Area residents were protesting the tech giant for a very different reason. The group that marched in front of the company's San Francisco office was angry over the company's donation to organizations fighting human trafficking.

The flyers declared, "Google: Please fund non-judgmental services for sex workers, NOT the morality crusaders that dehumanize us!"

Google had donated a whopping $11.5 million to organizations that "fight slavery" last December, including the anti-sex trafficking groups International Justice Mission, Polaris Project, and Not For Sale.

But the activists said that these are religious organizations that ignored the rights of consensual sex workers.

According to a press release from Sex Worker Activists, Allies, and You (SWAAY), "As frontline sex-worker support services struggle for funding to serve their communities, it is offensive to watch Google shower money upon a wealthy faith-based group like the International Justice Mission, which took in nearly $22 million in 2009 alone."

"I appreciate what they're trying to do, but I wish that they had done more research," Kitty Stryker, a local performer, sex worker and activist, of Google's choice to fund the organizations.

In a society where the term "sex worker" — coined to describe those who consensually engage in commercial sex and consider it legitimate labor — is still new to most people, this sex workers rights struggle can be an uphill battle. But it rages on, and San Francisco remains one of its most important front lines.



The heart of the struggle is, and or years has been, fighting the prohibition of prostitution, and the ultimate goal of the sex workers movement is the repeal of the laws that criminalize sex for hire. Decriminalization would be a vital safety measure for escorts, people working on the street, phone-sex operators, exotic dancers, porn actors, and other occupations that fall under the umbrella category of sex work.

Sex workers held worldwide conferences in the 1980s, meeting in Amsterdam and Brussels. Sex work was legalized and decriminalized in several countries around the world, including New Zealand, the Netherlands and Germany. The Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) became one of the most important organizations fighting for the cause, with chapters around the world.

Here in San Francisco, the city remains a hub for sex-workers rights advocates, who raise awareness about issues ranging from STD prevention to consent in BDSM contexts. The Saint James Infirmary supports and treats sex workers when they need medical assistance, and the Center for Sex and Culture is a resource and community center that embraces all San Franciscan's with their minds in the gutter, sex industry workers included.

San Francisco's sex workers rights history includes two unions. Workers at the North Beach strip club the Lusty Lady formed the Exotic Dancers Union in 1997. The union became part of the Service Employees International Union, and the Lusty Lady remains the only collectively run, sex-worker-owned strip club in the United States.

Maxine Doogan founded the Erotic Service Providers Union (ESPU) in 2004 as an umbrella organization for sex workers in various industries. The ESPU has been active in opposing regulations of the massage industry and sponsoring Proposition K, a 2008 ballot measure that would have decriminalized sex work in San Francisco.

I spoke to a handful of Bay Area sex-workers rights activists to get a sense of the major issues and priorities for the next year.

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