Little government aid, ongoing stigma and the fight for decriminalization: San Francisco sex industry workers face long road to economic recovery

For some sex workers, laws such as FOSTA-SESTA block them from acquiring financial means to survive

St.-James-Infirmary-resource-tent-for-sex-workers-by-Jennifer-Yin-072321, Little government aid, ongoing stigma and the fight for decriminalization: San Francisco sex industry workers face long road to economic recovery, Local News & Views
St. James Infirmary in San Francisco is a clinic for sex workers run by sex workers that provides counseling, hormone therapy, medical assistance, harm reduction services and holistic treatments as well. – Photo: Celestina Pearl

by Jennifer Yin

“Are sex workers going to be safe tonight?” Celestina Pearl has asked herself three nights a week before performing outreach to the city’s sex workers during the height of the pandemic.

Throughout the shelter-in-place, Pearl, a former triage nurse and current outreach director for the peer-based occupational health and safety clinic St. James Infirmary, dons a facemask, latex gloves and bears care packages, going into San Francisco’s neighborhoods for her thrice-weekly outreach to street-based sex workers.

Pearl, well aware of the city’s hidden workforce, starts her outreach process at 10 p.m. on Polk and Post streets where she offers care packages containing packages of condoms, lube, wipes, mints and informational fliers to trans Latinx sex workers, then makes her way onto the Mission District to aide cis young Black and Latinx workers, finishing at 2 a.m.

Prior to the pandemic, Pearl would use her savvy to get into strip clubs to connect with exotic dancers. She would bring makeup, hygiene supplies and tampons encased in gift bags. She would secretly place informational fliers and resources discussing exotic dancers’ rights at the bottom of the bag so management would not notice and intercept her package.

“A lot of dancers were going to Los Angeles because they weren’t able to make enough money in San Francisco,” Pearl said. “Some of the clubs were just closing down. The Hungry I closed. I think three of the clubs in North Beach closed down before the pandemic.”

Devi Kirsch, an exotic dancer at the Condor Club in North Beach, said the club is rebranding as a burlesque club: “For the past few decades, [the Condor Club] has been a pretty standard topless bar, pretty much identical to other clubs but with vintage jacquard curtains and an old piano,” Kirsch said.

“The look has never matched the feel, so I’m excited for the change. It’s going to be an homage to old San Francisco and Carol Doda, the original topless dancer!”

Coincidentally, Pearl first moved to San Francisco when she was a 25-year-old burlesque dancer. She performed at nightclubs such as In Bed with Fairy Butch, Fat-Bottom Revue and Big Burlesque. A highlight was performing at Theater Rhinoceros with her 70-year-old grandmother that ended with a standing ovation.

The business model for strip clubs has been evolving and workers must adapt. “As some of the United States’ estimated 3,821 strip clubs start to open up again, women who work as strippers are confronting a transformed industry. Revenue in the industry is estimated to have decreased 17.4 percent in 2020 and is forecast to fall another 1.5 percent this year,” according to research from IBISWorld.

San Francisco’s sex industry was uniquely impacted by the public health orders put in place to curb the spread of the virus. Massage parlors shut their curtains, strip clubs were forced to turn off their neon signs and street-based sex workers were forced to pick up new clients as a result of federal law.

Red-Umbrella-sex-worker-protest-by-Jennifer-Yin-072321, Little government aid, ongoing stigma and the fight for decriminalization: San Francisco sex industry workers face long road to economic recovery, Local News & Views
The Red Umbrella is the international symbol for sex workers rights! Each year there is a Red Umbrella protest in San Francisco and cities around the world, like the one pictured here this past July 23, 2021. The FOSTA-SESTA law enacted under Trump coupled with COVID compromised the livelihoods of sex workers, driving them further underground or online and into uncertain situations. The Red Umbrella is a symbol of safety. – Photo: Celestina Pearl

Many found new avenues to pursue their livelihoods, such as using online platforms like OnlyFans, while others were left unemployed and faced with a hardscrabble existence, interviews with a dozen sex workers and sex worker advocates revealed.

Where is the money?

In March 2020, only a segment of the sex worker industry could file unemployment insurance claims with the California Employment Development Department to pay rent and bills.

“It’s been incredibly difficult for folks who were in sort of an underground economy,” Johanna Breyer, co-founder of advocacy group Exotic Dancers Alliance said. “Those businesses basically went under or halted for a long period of time; therefore, they have not been able to even recoup. I know folks personally because they haven’t filed taxes, so they were doing sex work or survival sex work and didn’t get stimulus checks.”

Sex workers also faced other hardships in accessing basic needs. Cesar Espinoza-Perez, a sex worker advocate and Latinx gay escort, said there is no current case management for sex workers where they can access resources like CalFresh and Medi-Cal. He expressed concerns for undocumented sex workers, who may be afraid to apply for resources due to their immigration status.

“I believe undocumented people will be able to access the state COVID-19 relief but only if they filed their 2020 taxes,” Espinoza-Perez said. “Some people don’t know how to file taxes or may not have the funds to pay a tax preparer.”

Pushed further underground

Finding new jobs proved to be difficult because of their past prior profession, interviews with sex workers and advocated revealed. “The strip clubs were closed for a year since the pandemic,” said one sex worker who wished to be anonymous.

“It forced me to get a regular job. It was extremely difficult. Not only am I used to nightlife hours, but no one would hire me because I worked at a strip club, even if I lied about being a waitress.”

They said that other sex workers found employment as untrained “pandemic strippers.” “Pandemic strippers are girls who were desperate for money, turned to stripping in underground clubs,” they said. “Most of these girls never worked at an actual strip club.”

Breyer, the sex worker advocate, commented on their situation as being true and that sex work is a highly stigmatized industry. “Unfortunately, people have to remain anonymous within their professions if they do want to venture out into other careers and try to obtain employment outside of the sex industry.”

Breyer added: “Society has a major issue around morality and trying to initiate some kind of control over other people’s bodies.” Social stigmatization led many sex workers to turn to online platforms for income.

Criminalization of online sex work

“I know a lot of folks that were doing online stuff where they would post videos, continually posting content and then saying, ‘Hey, send money,’” Pearl said. “There’s Venmo or CashApp. I was seeing that even on Facebook, as long as they’re careful to not violate any of these standards.”

However, there are legal barriers that stand in the way of online sex work. “The federal legislation FOSTA-SESTA, [which] conflated sex work with human trafficking, led to the closing of websites that we would use to promote our business,” Espinoza-Perez said. “It increased the street-based work in many cases.”

In 2018, former President Donald J. Trump signed the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, better known as FOSTA-SESTA. The law has been used to hold website publishers accountable if third parties are found posting ads for prostitution, including consensual sex work on their websites.

Pearl argues that FOSTA-SESTA was created without listening to the voices of the sex workers in which the law makers are targeting.

“I get the feeling that maybe because there were anti-trafficking organizations that were involved with the creation of FOSTA-SESTA, but somehow that means the voices of sex workers were included when that is not true,” Pearl said.

Without the security of online platforms, street based sex workers could face the risk of criminalization, under California Penal Code 653.22 PC, a section that allows police to arrest sex workers if they are found loitering in a public place with the intent to purpose or engage in sex work. If found guilty, workers can serve up to six months in prison and face a fine upwards of $1,000.

If convicted, sex workers may face legal repercussions such as having their children taken away. This is one concern for Norma Jean Almodovar, an American author and sex worker activist.

“No matter if the work is legal or illegal, all sex workers face having their children taken away for being unfit mothers,” Almodovar said. In addition, sex worker’s partners can be criminalized for acting as their manager.

Mobile-sex-worker-aid-van-by-Jennifer-Yin-072321, Little government aid, ongoing stigma and the fight for decriminalization: San Francisco sex industry workers face long road to economic recovery, Local News & Views
St. James Infirmary, where Celestina Pearl is an outreach director, provides mobile sex worker resource van in San Francisco to people working nights in neighborhoods around the city. – Photo: Celestina Pearl

Pearl is currently working with Decriminalize Sex Work, a national organization pursuing a state-by-state strategy to end the prohibition of consensual adult prostitution in the United States, on passing legislation such as SB357, a proposed law introduced by State Sen. Scott Wiener to combat laws like Penal Code 653.22.

Decriminalization

SB357 would repeal an existing law that “prohibits soliciting or engaging in an act of prostitution, as defined, or directed, supervising, recruiting, or aiding a person who is looting with the intent to commit prostitution, or collecting or receiving all or parts of the proceeds of an act of prostitution. Under existing law, a violation of any of these provisions is a misdemeanor.”

The bill will also authorize a person convicted of the right to petition in court for the dismissal and sealing of their case and resentencing. SB357 is currently pending with the Assembly Judiciary Committee. On June 1, the bill was passed through the Senate with a vote of 29-9 and currently resides with the Assembly for policy committee hearings.

Pearl stresses that lawmakers need to incorporate the perspective of sex workers and their lived experiences when they are writing laws aimed towards them. Though, she is confronted with the notion that institutional oppression will demonize their autonomy as sex workers and they may face repercussions if they state their profession as sex workers.

“It’s hard because we can’t point directly to actual sex workers because it’s criminalized,” Pearl said. “So that makes it really tricky to, you know, actually uplift the actual voices. But I think going through organizations that are directly representing sex workers is a good way to elevate the voices of the sex workers and including perspective in legislation, which I don’t think ever happened yet.”

A fresh new start

BSC Management, a property management company that owns Condor Club, Larry Flynt’s Hustler Club and Afterdark, fully reopened to the public on June 18. In a BSC press release stated that venues will implement COVID-19 safety measures on-site, but the specific protocols were not stated or listed.

Axel Sang, a spokesman for BSC who spoke to SF Gate, said: “The City of San Francisco is still waiting for the updated guidelines from other agencies such as Cal/OSHA which have not yet been published. We will update the specific safety measures once all of the governmental agencies have finalized their guidance.”

Venues are no longer requiring patrons to wear a mask as per the CDC guidelines, and they cannot ask for proof of vaccination, or “be asked about their medical history or prior COVID restrictions.” BSC Management recommends that all guests refrain from visiting if they feel ill.

In July, Pearl resumed outreach to San Francisco’s strip clubs and the team at St. James Infirmary transitioned services from front-of-the-door to in-person at their upstairs location.

100-years-of-struggle-for-sex-worker-rights-protest-banner-by-Jennifer-Yin-072321, Little government aid, ongoing stigma and the fight for decriminalization: San Francisco sex industry workers face long road to economic recovery, Local News & Views
– Photo: Celestina Pearl

Medical services distributed via their mobile van continue to be placed on hold until the infirmary’s HIV Services Director, Juba Kalamka, gives them the green light to proceed.

In the meantime, Pearl continues to manage the infirmary’s “Dear Sex Workers, We Love You” sex worker online series where participants can write as a form of healing with published poet and retired sex worker Natasha Dennerstein.

Pearl also hosts an online hangout where sex workers who have children or are expecting or prospecting can gather on the first Friday of every month. “We still usually have a handful of participants, we have fun and I do believe it is beneficial to our community,” Pearl said.

This piece was produced by City College of San Francisco Journalism Department and the Democracy and Informed Citizen Emerging Journalist Fellowship initiative of California Humanities. Here are links for CCSF Journalism and the fellowship: http://ccsf.edu/journalism and https://calhum.org/programs-initiatives/programs/democracy-and-the-informed-citizen//