Bay Area Sex Worker Advocacy Network
Box 210256
San Francisco, CA 94121


An analysis of San Francisco Commission on The Status of Women's Draft Ordinance 6-28-06
by Carol Leigh, BAYSWAN (415-751-1659)

Click here to look at quotes from the draft ordinance


Sex Workers Against Sex Workers Join Women Saving Women From Themselves

In the name of 'protecting sex workers,' a few San Francisco activists have adopted the rhetoric of anti-prostitution advocates and taken their case to the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women.

Although numerous complaints have been made about a variety of problematic working conditions, the San Francisco COSW, following this lead, has adopted a controversial strategy, opposed by the vast majority of sex workers and sex educators. Their solution: close down VIP rooms, private booths, private areas and repeal legislation that allows an 'ancient' rubric, 'Encounter Studios,' all the while claiming that privacy in commercial sexual contexts must be stopped because it causes sexual assault and AIDS. If you don't believe me, see the legislation for yourself. Click here to look at some of the language that I have pulled from this draft legislation or scan through the entire 68 pages yourself

'Sex Workers Against Sex Workers' lead the way to combat prostitution?

Frustration with years of official neglect, ignoring complaints about sex industry labor violations, police payoffs, plus stigma/horizontal hostility/competition amongst sex workers has lead to this repressive strategy promoted by SF's Commission on The Status of Women and some sex workers who I refer to as SWASW, 'Sex Workers Against Sex Workers.'

Most of the handful of those pushing this strategy are former dancers (I know of only three), but there may be one or two prostitutes and one proprietor. A number of others (including some of my friends) have supported the strategy to close private booths, but I assume they would object to the language of the legislation. (Indeed some of the original proponents have complained about the legislation, but objecting only to the plan to put regulatory control in the hands of the San Francisco Entertainment Commission.)

Of course many prostitutes and dancers support some strategy to challenge unfair labor practices, exorbitant commissions, safety concerns, harassment and some other very serious problems faced in the industry but no effort was made to find consensus in strategies. The campaign developed by COSW and SWASW places dancers in closer alliance with management as both dancer's 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 and these dynamics have set this back another several years.

The 'Sex Workers Against Sex Workers' along with COSW leaders accused the current dancers of being brainwashed, coerced and 'bought out' by management. The Entertainment Commission hearing developed into a shouting match with the 'classy' elders of COSW talking down to the 'misled dancers,' who had come to the stand identifying themselves as single mothers, long time dancers as well as a few students, future sociologists and lawyers. Again, Sex Worker History 101.

For the ten years that this issue has been in the public eye, at public hearings often fifty or more current workers and activists show up to oppose the legislation. Only the same three or four show up to support the legislation. The overwhelming opposition is not recorded in the minutes of the Commission on The Status of Women. COSW reps explain this by implying that current dancers don't really understand the issue, or that the ones who would agree are too afraid to speak up. In January 2006 I submitted a critique of an earlier draft which was also ignored.

Moralism and Protectionism: Privacy for Women in 'Commercial Contexts with Sexual Ambiance' Fosters and Coerces Prostitution

Contrasting with its claim to 'modernize,' the language of the legislation has a 19th century tone, invoking the specter of society's need to protect women by curtailing their exposure and privacy. This 'retro' sensibility is growing in response to moral panics surrounding trafficking and other issues. The tone of the contemporary moral panic is so pervasive that COSW staff and commissioners don't recognize the moralism informing and motivating their strategy. The primary difference in the linguistic sensibility is that in they 19th Century, the workers would be referred to with a more oblique euphemism such as 'Soiled Doves.' Exotic dancers is still a euphemistic term and the legislation portrays them only as victims which is seems to be the acceptable way to invoke sex workers rights for the 'movers and shakers' at the Commission on The Status of Women.

The legislation states, that it's purpose is, "modernizing the regulation and permitting of live adult entertainment businesses for the purposes of protecting the health, safety and welfare of exotic dancers and the public, and to protect exotic dancers from conditions at live adult entertainment businesses in San Francisco that foster sexual and economic exploitation of women and coerce acts of prostitution."

Definitions and Inflammatory/Manipulative Language

Most disappointing is that this law uses terms that have historically been used to curtail our freedom under the guise of protecting women.

Although the proposed legislation claims that certain prostitution is 'coerced,' financial coercion and social pressure does not meet legal stands of 'coercion.' This legislation uses a vernacular definition of 'coercion.' Forced labor and coercion are serious crimes. Coercion into prostitution is a serious crime when it occurs in the legal sense of the framework of forced labor. Economic coercion is motivation for many types of work and historically the fact that women are coerced or forced into this work is used to justify criminalization and prohibitions that affect sex workers.
Sexual exploitation has many loose definitions and has historically been used to curtail the commercial activity of sex workers. In this legislation, protection from sexual exploitation by curtailing the 'victim's' options is enshrined in San Francisco law. This would be a precedent and a dangerous one.

There are also many definitions of 'exploitation.' Exploitation can mean to use, or to misuse. Traditionally anti-sex moralists refer to all commercial sex is sexual exploitation. Indeed, one is exploiting sexuality. When we enshrine sexual exploitation into law as a pejorative we set the stage to further prohibit all sexual exploitation, according to the moralist definition.

These issues are also at the center of an international discussion about women's control of their bodies. It is disappointing that in a progressive city we do not understand the international human rights agenda that resists this treatment of women and sex workers. The approach of this legislation fits with the right wing and anti-sex political agendas in our country.
For an international history on this point, see page 6 of this document.

Sex Workers Unite! Repeal All Laws Allowing Prostitution Rubrics!

The draft legislation also repeals codes regulating Encounter Studios, claiming that "existing regulations for Encounter Studio Permits contained in the San Francisco Police Code and zoning and location criteria do not adequately protect the health, safety, and welfare of exotic dancers, patrons of Live Adult Entertainment Businesses and the public."

A talk show caller on a recent show immediately asked the obvious question: What about massage businesses? They would certainly be subject to the same complaints, and restrictive legislation could target these businesses based on the same concerns.

The inclusion of Encounter Studio repeal belies the true intention of this legislation, to close down any 'defacto legalized' rubric for prostitution in the name of protecting dancers.Yes, sex worker organizations resist confining models such as those in Nevada. Prostitution rubrics follow similar models and are as problematic, but historically the movement does not attack the working options that sex workers have. This is included in 'Sex Worker Organizing Principles 101.'

Private Booths cause Prostitution which causes AIDS, Hep B and other STDs

In order to support the idea that their intention is to 'protect the public' COSW holds that prostitution spreads AIDS.

Their laundry list of targets expands as the document continues, ultimately claiming that private booths "foster illegal and unsafe sexual activity on the premises of the business, to the detriment of the exotic dancers and the general public," which reflects back on portrayals of sex workers as vectors of disease.

COSW claims that, "The City has a substantial interest in adopting regulations that will reduce the possibility for the occurrence of prostitution and unsafe sex acts at Live Adult Entertainment Businesses due to the public health risks of AIDS, Hepatitis B, and other sexually transmitted diseases associated with prostitution and unsafe sex acts." Ultimately they also claim that it's too dark, holding that the booths and "dimly-lit areas within Live Adult Entertainment Businesses greatly increase the potential for misuse of the premises, including prostitution, coerced prostitution, sexual assaults, and unlawful conduct of a type which facilitates transmission of disease."

Thirty years ago activists around the world explained that the way to address sexual health was not to drive prostitution further underground through criminalization and civil penalties, but to promote safer sex and sexual health. Those (even sex workers!) who have been promoting this legislation have never publicly objected to such claims within this document, but use protectionist strategies to promote their solution: no more private booths.

Using a disease model for prostitution, they promote a case (Kev, Inc. v. Kitsap County, 793 F.2d 1053 (1986)) "regarding how live adult entertainment results in secondary effects such as prostitution and other law enforcement problems."

Bookstores and Bondage Parlors
The new laws are applied to restrict private enclosures in theaters. Specifically naming buttocks as a forbidden region of touch, how would this effect the 'spankers and spankees' at fetish business? (The legislation somehow effects 'Adult Bookstores,' but I am not sure how, so I invite you to figure it out. No matter, we would be protecting women with this legislation!)

Got Education about Labor Rights?

The draft legislation extends an odd offer to those who complain about exorbitant stage fees:

"The Commission adopted a resolution urging the Board of Supervisors to (1) prohibit the owner or operator of any establishment in which women provide live nude or semi-nude entertainment to charge, require, or demand that the women pay any fee, commission, tip, or any other consideration as a condition or prerequisite for providing said entertainment."

I like this idea, but is that legal when applied to one industry?

Saving Strippers from Themselves

The San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women has had a contradictory history in the context of sex workers' rights. Although they had passed a resolution supporting decriminalization of prostitution, they also promote this strategy which obviously reads as a curtailment of sex work opportunities. It is not clear to COSW that the moralist rhetoric and strategies to stop conditions that "foster prostitution" leads to stigmatization and creates conditions for abrogation of sex worker rights. COSW is based on prioritizing issues of women so the focus of the commission ignores the gender diversity in San Francisco. Historically, little attention has been afforded transgender women by COSW. The sex industry In San Francisco may include 20-25% male workers and a large percentage of transgender workers. Although currently 'storefront' erotic entertainment serves a 'straight' identified clientele, most of us understand that how important it is that there should be more opportunities for gender diversity in these contexts. This legislation squelches the kind of changes that could contribute to such diversity.

Because of these sorts of inconsistencies, the 1996 San Francisco Task Force on Prostitution specifically omitted recommending COSW for oversight in relationship to sex industry issues or empowering COSW in the context of prostitution. Departments recommended included the Human Rights Commission, the Labor Commissions and the Health Department.

Claiming that they base their solutions on testimony from dancers, COSW omits the fact that the vast majority of dancers rejected the strategies promoted by COSW. They explain that, "women complained that one-on-one encounters with patrons in booths or other private areas, and other unfair businesses practices coerce women to engage in acts of prostitution and promote illegal and/or unsafe sexual activity on the premises of the business. In addition, booths and similar private encounter areas in Live Adult Entertainment Businesses increase the likelihood that exotic dancers will be subjected to (or make) illegal solicitations of sex for money, and that exotic dancers who do not engage in prostitution will be subjected to groping, fondling, unwanted sexual advances, physical touching, and assaults of a sexual nature by patrons demanding sex." The COSW response is an old one. Ultimately, women risk sexual assault in many societies and historically societies have restricted women's freedom to protect them from sexual assault, confiding them to the home, forcing them to wear head-to-toe cloaks to protect them from male assault.

In fact, at the Entertainment Commission hearing, when challenged with this omission, they explain that these decisions should not be made by a majority and that when even one woman is raped, that society should respond. This argument makes sense in that society should respond, but how should we respond? Invoking this simplistic rhetoric insults the question at the heart of the matter: Who should be assuming leadership in making recommendations on sex industry reform. Not the workers, the 'Soiled (and spoiled) Doves,' but the women- who-know-better? For legislation to empower sex workers, they should be empowered as workers, supporting workers rights and not as victims in hiding in some perpetual victim-witness program.

At the Entertainment Commission hearing, one COSW staff person chastised the packed room of dancers some of whom snickered when another woman invoked the occurrence of rape as an excuse to restrict women. The COSW staff person insulted the huge group of dancers present, and accusing them of being callous about sexual assault, and that, when one woman is raped..." Another COSW representative explained to the dancers present that they just didn't understand, and it was for their own good.

Other 'maternalistic' strategies 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." This is a great idea, to put the usually wealthy or at least middle-class female elders of San Francisco in charge of working class women who work in the sex industry. Not. There are volumes of history written about class conflicts between these groups of women. These flawed solutions makes it clear: COSW staff and commissioners have no expertise in sex industry issues. They have sought no expertise from long time experts including sex educators, LGBT rights advocates and others who have a stake in this issue. When expertise is offered, they ignore it.

To conclude, as a long time sex worker activist, I find several aspects of this situation most disturbing:

1) San Francisco is liberal, but our city has historically been a hotbed of anti-sex worker activism. This current attack initiated in our own community.

2) Although progressive San Franciscans comfort themselves that "this legislation hasn't found a sponsor and won't, and won't make it through the Board of Supervisors" this is certainly a model for anti-prostitution legislation that would easily pass in other cities. Combating this legislation in this city takes energy from positive efforts to work for sex worker rights and could continue for many years to come. Unfortunately, any anti-prostitution legislation has great legs!

3) Solutions to problematic working conditions in clubs should be developed by the workers with assistance by labor experts, which, at this point, after this much polarization, would take some time. Beyond that and in the immediate the real priorities of this community should be understood, respected and addressed.

4) Much of these dynamics is related to criminalization of prostitution, fighting to control the small, crudely and cruely regulated piece of turf allowed us in this criminlaized.

At this time the legislation has no sponsorship and most feel that there is no immediate danger. Letters, analysis, etc, would be helpful. As I work on this project I will include email addresses and contacts so that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors understands that there is widespread opposition to this legislative tactic.

Media Reports:

(coming soon)

Carol Leigh 415-751-1659

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