Two views of sex work

As panel explores ways to "discourage demand" for prostitution, sex workers call for a more nuanced understanding of their profession


There are two starkly different ways to look at prostitution in the Bay Area. One view sees sex workers as victims, not just those exploited by the horrible practices of human trafficking and child prostitution, but all sex workers. The other view accepts that sex work can be a legitimate choice made by consenting adults, a job less demeaning and more empowering than many low-wage service jobs.

Those divergent perspectives clashed on the streets of San Francisco on Feb. 11 when the San Francisco Commission on the Status of Women hosted a panel discussion in the Main Public Library on "discouraging demand" for prostitution, a goal that prostitutes trying to cover their rising rents don't share, as they said outside while protesting the event.

In the spotlight at the forum was San Francisco's First Offender Prostitution Program, also known as "John School," which was first implemented in 1995 to curb the commercial sex trade and provide an alternative to criminal charges for those caught soliciting prostitution, much like traffic school for bad drivers.

A March 2008 study, "Final Report on the Evaluation of the First Offender Program," by researcher Michael Shively, hailed the program as a success, with claims of vastly reduced rearrest rates and high attendance numbers. In 1999, 822 people qualified to enter the program, and that had dropped to 333 participants in 2007.

Fees generated by the program totaled $3.1 million from 1999 through 2007, which was split among the District Attorney's Office, San Francisco Police Department, and the anti-prostitution group Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE).

But human trafficking and sex work have shown few signs of abating in the Bay Area, where law enforcement sources say Alameda County is one of the state's biggest prostitution hot spots. And groups like SAGE say all sex work abuses women, whereas rival groups like the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) say it is the criminalization of prostitution that drives it underground and allows heinous practices like child prostitution to flourish.

Christina Deangelo says she's been a sex worker since the late 1970s, and she showed up at the event to criticize its judgmental and one-sided program. "Without having even one of us on the panel, who can actually tell you [what is going on], you are killing us," she said.

The sex workers who showed up were particularly critical of panelist Melissa Farley, a controversial psychologist and researcher who spent years studying prostitution and sex trafficking. As an advocate of abolishing prostitution and a proponent of the "Discouraging Demand" strategy, Farley has been met with much criticism in the past.

Ontario Superior Court Justice Susan Himel disqualified Farley as a witness in 2010, ruling that "Dr. Farley's unqualified assertion in her affidavit that prostitution is inherently violent appears to contradict her own findings that prostitutes who work from indoor locations generally experience less violence."

Sex worker advocates have also slammed Farley, such as blogger and activist Jessica Nicole, who says Farley "makes further manipulative and disturbing language decisions in her research of clients of sex workers," saying that Farley doesn't "understand the complexities of the industries she is researching."

Farley has argued that prostitution is "inherently violent," and harmful both physically and mentally to the women involved. She says that her research shows that "89% [of sex workers] I spoke to want to get out of prostitution. Most see it as a last ditch effort for survival."

But many sex workers disagree, and they have grown more vocal about their stance on the business.


most charitable guess is that she is about age 55 now. I'm guessing she might have had to lower her rate.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 18, 2014 @ 6:24 pm

The government has no business telling two consenting adults what to do with their time.

I don't buy the argument that sex workers can't consent because they wouldn't do it if they had another choice. It's insulting for some self-appointed advocate to tell grown women that they know what's best for them. Unless they actually are children, or among the relatively few women who really are sold into sex slavery, there is always a choice. It may be that they just looked at their skill set and decided that this was a better choice than some crap job like being a fry cook or cleaning someone's toilets. I'd make the same choice.

At least they have that choice. For men with few skills, the choices may consist of back-breaking construction work, coal mining, sanitation work, taxi driver, or things like that. All of which are more difficult/dangerous/disgusting than indoor sex work.

For those who ask rhetorically, "Would you want your child doing this kind of work?" My answer would be that I wouldn't want my child doing a lot of jobs, including those I listed above. But someone has to do them. Might as well do what we can to improve the working conditions. I may not want my child doing them, but if they did, I'd want the conditions to be as good and as safe as possible. And criminalizing either the supply or the demand side won't get us there.

Posted by Greg on Feb. 19, 2014 @ 9:14 am

That's sexist. There are lots of rent boys out there and, presumably, lots of demand for that in SF.

So you really do have that option, Greg, assuming you're not ancient, fat, bald and look like crap.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 19, 2014 @ 9:27 am

run strip and lapdance joints, run phone-sex hotlines and aspire to pimpdom.

Greg needs to think outside his buns more.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 19, 2014 @ 9:50 am

For men, it's not as widely available, and generally not as lucrative when it is. Even within SF, but especially anywhere else. But true, that kind of work is out there, and everything I said about women applies to men as well.

Posted by Greg on Feb. 19, 2014 @ 4:46 pm

Do you and Marcos go on rent boy outings together?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 19, 2014 @ 5:07 pm

Or are you just here to hurl insults and vandalize the site? Oh wait. Dumb question. You're a troll.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 19, 2014 @ 5:45 pm

It's reasonable to ask what credible basis he has for that knowledge, especially since most of them do not declare their illegal earnings to the IRS

Posted by Guest on Feb. 19, 2014 @ 6:03 pm

You would've noticed that your article is overly simplistic and does not take into consideration any of the nuances that were discussed. Did you actually stay and listen or just decide what you wanted to hear? It seems the latter is correct-- no wonder we have so much reactionary media! SAGE does not consider all people involved in sex work to be "victims". There are not only 2 views of sex work in the Bay Area and if you think it is so, then you are not paying attention!

Posted by Guest on Feb. 19, 2014 @ 6:54 pm

Your own website talks about sex workers in the sweeping generalizations of "victim/survivor" language, which most real sex workers would find insulting. If you're so open to nuance, then why wasn't a single panelist from SWOP invited?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 19, 2014 @ 11:01 pm

Nothing about us without us!! People should not make laws involving sex workers, or any segment of the population, without input from that group of people.
Sex workers have been around forever, been marginalized forever, and are not going away. They should at least have safe working conditions.
I escorted for a few years to support my family. I was already the breadwinner. My husband was disabled, and didn't work. I had a fulltime job with benefits, and escorting was my part time second job, with full time pay. It worked well for my family. But I was lucky. I was never robbed or hurt, or even threatened. If I had been, I might not want to fill out a police report against my thief or attacker if I thought I could get arrested from it. That is an unsafe working condition.

At the very least, we need decriminalization. Back when we could still use CraigsList, those women who were consenting adults could tip off the police to trafficking because we could spot it. We knew which ads were legitimate service providers and which ones had someone else in control. But you don't want to bring something to the police only to have them arrest you for how you know it.
That Melissa Farley would use the metaphor of working the fields vs house n*&&#%s shows that she has her head up her ass. Her opinion is nullified by her offensive and incorrect analogy. She's wrong because I was in control. I ran a successful business. I was CEO, web design, marketing, transportation and logistics, safety, and service staff. I was compensated for my time. But she is right about it being two very different worlds. And they both need to be able to say what they need without being reprimanded for needing it.
For whatever reason, some people fall into sex work, and for whatever reason, it works really well for some of them. Let's treat them like real people, and let them do it safely.

Posted by Annie Savoy on Feb. 19, 2014 @ 11:57 pm

You're a survivor of prostitution, so you're too traumatized to understand your own victimhood. Join the fold, Annie. SAGE can help people like you, with innovative solutions like Prop 83, which properly define your disabled husband as a pimp. Since he received material support from your sex work, he certainly belongs in jail as a sex trafficker. Once we put your disabled husband in jail, we can get you counseling for the trauma you experienced, because that's the kind of people we are.

Posted by Wise Sage on Feb. 20, 2014 @ 12:24 am

Putting my husband in jail would would have meant that our son would have grown up without a father. By your logic, since he also benefited, our son would have been behind bars, too. How does that help? Many women do sex work to support their families. Turning families into criminals doesn't help anyone. And my husband didn't force me to go out. I maintained my own website, I did my own screening and booking. I willingly gave the money to him to take care of household bills.

I was the hero here. I kept a roof over our heads, food on the table, the lights on.
I was not traumatized from the actual work. Frankly, those men treated me better than my husband. What was traumatizing was my husband telling me to "quit or leave", where the only way he would have agreed to stay together is if I would have gotten a "real second job". He would have let me stay if I would have agreed to work 80 hours a week, for a fraction of what I was already bringing home. Now THAT's slavery. It was traumatizing that he would use the fact of my sex work to put forth that I was unfit and undeserving of ANY CUSTODY. It was traumatizing that simply because I did sex work, his lawyer and his friends believed all of the lies he told about me.
I left my husband when I realized the only way to quit sex work was to quit supporting a family of three. And yet because of the stigmas about sex work, what certainly feels like triumph to me is not something I can readily share with friends and family.
My husband passed away last year, and without the very ugly custody battle, my son and I are just fine, thank you.

Every person who does sex work (and it IS WORK, it's just a job!!), has their own reasons, and until you've walked in that person's shoes, you have no idea what's best for them. Blanket assumptions have no place here.

Posted by Annie Savoy on Feb. 20, 2014 @ 9:50 am

A parody of SAGE's position, as was the handle. I apologize if you found it offensive.

Posted by Guest on Feb. 20, 2014 @ 11:20 am

After I looked up who they were, your sanctimonious crap seemed so real, especially after what my husband put me through.
No offense taken. :)
Well played.

Posted by Annie Savoy on Feb. 20, 2014 @ 11:54 am

Outdoor sex work has victims--the neighborhood and especially the women in it are victimized. In places where street prostitution is prevalent, women are accosted for sex no matter what they're wearing (they've told me). The prostitutes themselves are more likely to be victimized when working outdoors. These issues don't apply to indoor prostitution through escort services or brothels or solo practitioners.

Posted by Wanderer on Feb. 20, 2014 @ 6:34 pm

First of all, anyone who works in public areas puts them at greater risk of being victimized, because they are interacting with strangers. So, how do we deal with those other professions which put people in danger? Do we ban women from driving a taxi or a public bus? Or forbid women from taking a job in law enforcement because she might become a victim of violence? No, instead we expect those who hire people to work in public areas to make the working environment safer.

In some countries where street workers are not prohibited from plying their trade in public areas, there are specific areas where they can work, away from residential areas and where the workers are much safer than they otherwise would be, and where neighborhoods are not impacted by those workers. As for women being accosted by men looking for commercial companionship, well, in other neighborhoods, we have to deal with religious folks accosting us trying to shove their religion down our throats. Many of these religious zealots even enter private property, ignoring the no solicitors signs, and knock on our doors, eager to intrude in our lives despite the fact that they were not invited to do so.

I guess if zealots are allowed to mistake passing citizens for pigeons, and despite the fact that their presence offends me, what can we do?

Posted by Guest on Feb. 20, 2014 @ 11:37 pm
Posted by guest on Feb. 21, 2014 @ 12:40 am

...need to have their voices heard. Nobody knows their dangers better than them. But we all know they've got it hardest of all.

Posted by Annie Savoy on Feb. 26, 2014 @ 7:38 pm

...need to have their voices heard. Nobody knows their dangers better than them. But we all know they've got it hardest of all.

Posted by Annie Savoy on Feb. 27, 2014 @ 6:20 pm

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