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.


Hi - Thanks for this article.

We have been on the frontlines of the protests at backpage and craigslist for the past 3 years and respect SWAAY's position.

We want to work with everyone to simply stop the enslavement of other human beings against their will.

We are not political, not religious, not professional protesters.

We are simply normal people who are sick of the status quo and saying SOMETHING HAS TO CHANGE!

We welcome all members of the SF community to join us in fighting the slavery of children (and adults) who are forced into the sex industry (or other labor industries) AGAINST THEIR WILL.

Our website is stopslavery2012 com and I can be reached directly at phil @ stopslavery2012 or 888-206-3264

As a start, we welcome all your readers to view the short video from SARA KRUZAN, a child victim of human trafficking in prison in California for the past 17 years, and then call the Governor's office tomorrow - on SARA KRUZAN WEDNESDAY! more info at:

phil cenedella
exec. dir.

Posted by Phil Cenedella on Feb. 14, 2012 @ 8:42 am

It seems that you really feel that your approach is simple, direct and most helpful. Yes, of course Sara should be released and working for her release is important, and there are ways to do that without supporting laws and policies that oppress women and prostitutes.

I am glad you say you want to communicate with sex workers. You can imagine that, if people are criminalized, they wouldn't necessarily jump for a chance to talk to someone who is part of a movement that is responsible for harm to sex workers. A person would have to make special effort to understand the diverse predicaments of sex workers and the ideas of the movement for sex workers rights.

Please feel free to email me if you are interested in communicating about these issues and being educated about just what the sex workers' rights movement is talking about in relationship to solutions to abuses of people in the sex businesses/trades.

Carol Leigh

Posted by Carol Leigh on Feb. 20, 2012 @ 2:10 pm

Decriminalize sex work NOW!

The reasons for the need for anti prostitution laws are only bogus excuses on the part of law enforcement for their incompetance and non profit groups that take in lotsa money using it.

There are laws against kidnap and rape of adults and minors.
If the police or DAs are unwilling or incapable of enforcing these law they should show some self respect and find another career so our hard earned tax dollars can hire someone who will get the job done!!

Support ur local sex workers!

Put governments scarce resources into putting away kidnapers, rapist, child molesters and finding missing chidren, solving all the unsolved murders, arresting burglery suspects.

NOT persecuting consentual sex workers and their clients!!!!!!

Posted by sf T party on Feb. 19, 2012 @ 12:37 pm

Related articles

  • Live nude girls say goodnight

    The unionized, worker-owned strip club Lusty Lady is forced to close by high rent

  • No justice, no piece

    This weekend's Sex Worker Film and Arts Fest whores itself for social change

  • Doin' it in the dark

    Seattle's notorious amateur porn festival comes to SF. Plus: Digital Mystikz, Afrika Bambaataa, Danny Tenaglia, Riot Grr, more nightlife

  • Also from this author

  • Privatization of public housing

    Many residents feel they're moving from the frying pan of Housing Authority control into the fire of developer and nonprofit management

  • Homeless for the holidays

    Changing demographics in the Bayview complicate city efforts to open a shelter there

  • Betting on Graton

    Newest casino targeting Bay Area residents promises to share the wealth with workers and people of color