Redefining Sex Work

The East Bay is home to a new — and growing — group of sex workers who are educated, empowered, and open about what they do for a living. But Prop 35 would force them back underground.

Jolene Parton is a ho. She’s also a Berkeley native, a comic-book fanatic, a Dolly Parton aficionado (hence the name, which is fake), an NPR listener, and a big fan of Vietnamese food. She wears big round glasses rimmed in translucent pink plastic, and, in her ears, jade-green plugs. She’s redheaded and rosy-skinned and pretty in the kind of way that would be at home in a J. Crew catalog, but for the pierced septum and stylishly half-shaved head and aforementioned plugs; as is, she’s probably more like American Apparel material. And she’s been working in the sex industry, broadly defined, for about four years, first doing odd jobs at what she describes as the “entry-level” end of the sex-work spectrum — foot fetish stuff, artsy nude photography, one night during which she “cuddled with a guy in his apartment for money” — and then in porn and at various peepshows and strip clubs; a bit over a year ago, she started escorting. And when she says she loves her job — which she does, often and unbidden — she does so with the kind of steady-eyed enthusiasm that’s hard to fake.

“It’s been great, honestly,” she told me a couple weeks ago at an Oakland Chinatown lunch spot, steam rising from the vermicelli bowl in front of her and fogging her lenses. She genuinely likes her clients, or at least as much as anyone can be expected to like the people they work with, and she appreciates the freedom of being able to set her own hours: “I don’t have an alarm clock,” she said. “I make breakfast every morning, I get to hang out with my friends whenever I want. This job affords me a lifestyle most people don’t get.”

Sex is one of those commodities that tends to be popular no matter how bad the economy is, and Parton said the Bay Area’s booming tech industry — and its attendant cadre of young, lonely men who want an escort they’re compatible with both sexually and intellectually — has been great for business. All told, with a rate in the several hundreds of dollars an hour, she can work between five and ten hours a week and still make far more than the vast majority of other 24-year-olds out there. Parton has met many of her friends through sex work, and it’s via her involvement with the Bay Area chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project — a national advocacy group and decriminalization effort founded by and for sex workers in 2003 that’s better known by its acronym, SWOP — that she’s found her footing as an activist. “Honestly,” she said, “my job is one of the most stable and rewarding things in my life.”

Parton is exceptionally well-adjusted by any measure — especially for someone working in a trade that’s illegal and often maligned — but as it turns out, she’s far from alone. In fact, she’s but one example of what’s beginning to look like an emerging breed of sex workers: educated, empowered, tech-savvy, and activism-oriented, honest about who they are and proud of what they do. They have iPhones and nose piercings and college degrees; they chronicle their experiences on Tumblr and are out to their families. They’re primarily what are known in the industry as “indoor” sex workers — meaning they find clients mostly via the web, at online marketplaces like Eros and Redbook, rather than working on the street, and they tend to charge rates in the hundreds of dollars an hour.

At SWOP’s monthly membership meeting, they sit around a square table in a downtown Oakland office building and introduce themselves with the kind of businesslike matter-of-factness you’d expect at any group meeting — I’m Joanna, and I’ve been hoing for six years. I’m Laura, and I started out stripping but now I’m escorting full time — while Parton diligently takes minutes. They laugh a lot. Of the nearly dozen current and former sex workers I spoke to for this story, the majority come from what they describe as relatively healthy, middle- or upper-middle class backgrounds; most of them have completed some or all of an undergraduate education and some have advanced degrees. In other words, they’ve had choices in life — and they’ve chosen to be sex workers.

That’s completely at odds with what Parton estimates is about “99 percent” of what you hear about people in her line of work — on the nightly news and on television dramas, from social conservatives and from second-wave feminists alike. Veronica Monet has worked in the sex industry for more than two decades, first as a prostitute and now as a sexologist and couples counselor, and she said she’s scarcely seen public perception budge: “There is more understanding [of prostitution] now, but not much more,” she said. “It’s all still about the seven-year-old, the sex slave, the woman who is forced into it — people in trouble.”

That’s what underpins much of the discourse and nearly all the legislation surrounding sex work in this country, but according to those who study the field — not to mention the living proof of people like Parton and Monet — the research that’s been done teases out a much more nuanced picture of the industry. All sex workers aren’t Oberlin grads, of course, but they’re not all underage and exploited, either — and, certainly, most of them are somewhere in between.

“The relationships between customers, managers, sex workers … are incredibly varied and very nuanced,” said Max Besbris, who conducted a sociological study of Oakland’s sex trade as part of his honors thesis at UC Berkeley and is now a Ph.D candidate at NYU. “What we’ve seen is that there’s a great deal of agency exercised by a lot of women and men who do sex work. But the laws basically reduce all relationships to exploitative ones.”

The latest and highest-profile such proposed law is Prop 35, which appears on California’s November ballot. It’s a complicated measure, rife with legalese and referential to several different parts of the penal code, but essentially, Prop 35 would expand the definition of, and increase penalties for, human trafficking. On the surface, it sounds like one of those unequivocally positive ballot measures anyone can feel good about voting for — and, in fact, it’s been endorsed by both of California’s major political parties.

Advocates of Prop 35 — mostly law enforcement and those who work with victims of childhood sex abuse — argue that human trafficking is an epidemic in California and the laws as they currently exist don’t adequately address the problem. But the ballot measure is also getting vehement criticism, much of it from within the sex industry itself: A number of victims’ rights organizations have come out against it, arguing, for the most part, that a problem as complicated as trafficking deserves a more comprehensive solution, and many sex workers have raised fears about unintended consequences, specifically with regards to the fact that the proposed law would expand the definition of trafficking to anyone who benefits financially from prostitution, regardless of intent. “Prop 35 implicates a lot of adult consensual behavior,” said Monet. “In my opinion, it’s an erosion of sexual rights” — not a protection of human ones.

In Parton’s eyes, it’s not just that Prop 35 would further criminalize the kind of work she does. It’s that it’s predicated on the idea that that kind of work — the kind where all parties are participating by choice and no one feels exploited — is fundamentally impossible, that all sex workers are victims. And in that sense, Prop 35 isn’t just an inconvenience — it’s an affront to a political and social movement that’s taken years to build.

If the East Bay’s new sex-work community has a nucleus, it’s probably the legendary downtown San Francisco peep-show The Lusty Lady, which unionized in 1996, became a cooperative in 2003, and is still the only business of its kind in the world to be fully unionized and worker-owned. That’s where Parton said she “found female community for the first time,” and where many people I spoke to said they first become steeped in the sex-positive, activist-oriented, third-wave-feminist ethos that underpins the local sex-workers’ movement.

It’s also a symbol just how long activism and sex work have been linked in the Bay Area. San Francisco was where the American sex-workers’ rights movement first got started, according to activist and sex worker Carol Leigh; it was in fact Leigh herself who first coined the term “sex worker.” Even as early as 2004, decriminalization measures in Berkeley and San Francisco were garnering support from voters and mainstream politicians — and though none have passed, a few have come close.

It certainly helps that the Bay Area continues to be known as a mecca for sexual minorities of all kinds. “People are more comfortable being out in the open here,” Parton said. “Because of all the advances in the gay rights movement and sex [education], and polyamorous people and sex parties and kink parties — people are just more comfortable being sex workers here, openly.”

At this point, would-be and current consensual sex workers now migrate to the Bay Area from all over the country, Leigh said. During an informal gathering a few weeks ago at San Francisco’s Buck Tavern, I met several women who came here specifically because of what they’d heard about the community: “I moved here to be a part of this,” explained a coltish young woman over Goose Islands and sliders. “I’m glad I did.”

In an illegal, amorphous, underground trade, reliable statistics are hard to come by, but anecdotally, it appears that the number of sex workers like Parton is growing. “It definitely feels like there are a lot of us,” said Sandy Bottoms, an Oaklander who’s been in the industry for a couple years and is currently paying her way through law school by escorting.

Part of that is simple economics. “I’ve been in the industry for a long time, and any time the economy suffers, the [sex] economy booms,” said Monet. At the same time, as sex work in general continues to become more acceptable, numbers will keep going up, on both the supply and demand side. There’s now less stigma than ever before about buying sex — so more people are doing it.

But many people think there’s something else at play, something that’s specific to this place and this point in time: As San Francisco’s latest tech boom has created an entire new population of men — men who are too busy to date, but who have money to burn. And, at the same time, as it becomes increasingly acceptable for women from upper-middle-class backgrounds and good colleges to become sex workers, a wider swath of men may feel okay about seeing them. “It’s a comfort thing,” said Bottoms, explaining why many of her clients specifically seek her out based on what they perceive to be her education level.

Both Parton and Bottoms advertise what’s known in the industry as “the girlfriend experience” — that is, an escort session that’s more like an actual date than the wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am whirlwind most people associate with prostitution. The girlfriend experience is a relatively new sector of the sex industry, and it seems to attract both a certain kind of escort and a certain kind of client. “People are looking for someone that they can relate to,” Parton explained. “I advertise a girlfriend experience, so guys who come to see me want someone like a girlfriend — someone who can cuddle with them and laugh at their jokes and have an intelligent conversation. … They like seeing a smart woman, and I like seeing men who want to see smart women. I have long discussions about politics in the Middle East with my clients. And I love it.”

Parton advertises herself exactly as she is in real life — “I’m into comic books and stuff” — and a result, she said, her “sample probably skews heavily toward the dorky. Mostly, it’s just a lot of lonely, nerdy guys.”

Bottoms, for her part, said she’s seen “a huge range”: Professionals in passionless relationships who view seeing an escort as a more ethical alternative to cheating; lawyers who don’t have time to date; older men with terminal illness. “I’ve had clients in grad school, and they wanted to have sex, wanted to have a good time, but they didn’t want to invest the time and energy it takes to have a girlfriend, so seeing an escort was a good alternative.” She has seen men as young as early twenties and as old as eighties.

Bottoms (not her real name) is petite and bubbly and clearly very smart, the kind of person who’ll casually slip a historical anecdote about renaissance-era work arrangements into a conversation about the modern-day sex industry. Like many of her contemporaries and colleagues, she’s a prodigious user of social media; on Twitter, she’s equally prone to thoughts like “I’ve got a session in 5 minutes and can’t stop the pickle burps #sexworkerproblems” as she is to tweeting about her torts homework or the presidential debates. And in her ads, Bottoms presents herself as an educated person, because she is. “My grammar is correct [in my ads]. My spelling is correct. … There are these different things that we sense as the calling cards of education. I have people messaging me all the time saying, ‘I read your profile and I like the things you said and the way you said them.'” Which makes sense: Most of Bottoms’ clients are well-educated white men, so it’s only natural that they’d want to hire someone like them. “A lot of what we do is sex, but a lot of what we do is talking,” she said. “And when we can commiserate about law-school midterms, that’s a big bonus.”

Like Parton, Bottoms loves her job. And like Parton, she’s deeply concerned that, if passed, Prop 35 will hurt her and people she knows. Also known as the CASE (Californians Against Slavery and Exploitation) Act, Prop 35 increases penalties for sex trafficking by lengthening prison sentences, forcing sex traffickers to register as sex offenders, and mandating that sex traffickers relinquish all online passwords and usernames.

Ask Nola Brantley and it’s a no-brainer. As the executive director and co-founder of the Oakland-based nonprofit MISSSEY (Motivating, Inspiring, Supporting, and Serving Sexually Exploited Youth), she’s personally worked with hundreds of children who have been sexually exploited. The average age of the girls she works with is twelve, and the vast majority of them have been in the foster care system, been victim to domestic abuse, or grown up in abject poverty. “These are the most vulnerable members of our society,” she said. As far as she concerned any law that has the potential to help children at risk is worth passing, period.

But Prop 35 also dramatically expands the definition of trafficking to encompass anyone who “deprives or violates the personal liberty of another” in a number of ways: “force, fear, fraud, deceit, coercion, violence, duress, menace, or threat of unlawful injury to the victim or to another person.” Each of those words has its own specific legal definition, and they’re broader than you might think: As Yael Chanoff recently pointed out in the San Francisco Bay Guardian, “So if a prostitute shares a joint with fellow worker, she could be guilty of providing a controlled substance, meaning she could be guilty of coercion, meaning she could be guilty of depriving personal liberty. That means triggering the harsh penalties for trafficking.”

If passed, the CASE Act would also reclassify pimping — which, in its current state, essentially encompasses anyone who derives a profit from prostitution — as a form of sex trafficking, meaning it’s punishable by harsh prison sentences, asset forfeiture, and placement on the sex offender registry. It’s that part of the law that has many sex workers the most worried, and it’s part of the reason that entities like the Los Angeles Times and the American Civil Liberties Union of Northern California have come out against Prop 35. The revised language could ensnare all kinds of people, opponents point out — a sex workers’ child or partner, for example. And after all, even the most well intended laws can have all kinds of unforeseen consequences.

Amy Golden could be one of those unintended consequences. She’s smart, stable, married with kids and living in Oakland. And though she’d never thought about sex work in earnest before her thirties, a few years ago — when she found herself with a recently laid-off husband and a developmentally disabled four-year-old who required intensive care — it started to look like it might make sense. Sex work would allow her to continue paying the bills while staying home with her son nearly as much as she needed to, and it took some of the pressure off her husband to find work immediately. Soon enough, she started escorting.

These days, Golden’s business is so successful that, in addition to escorting, she’s managing a seven-woman sex worker’s organization of her very own. The women she works with range in age from late twenties to sixties, and are, according to Golden, all working by choice. The business is run like a cooperative, and though Golden’s the figurehead, her role sounds much more like that of a den mother than a madam: She keeps the space stocked with food, buys her co-workers lingerie, acts as a mentor for those hoping to start their own businesses. She considers herself a role model, albeit a bit of a nontraditional one, and she’s enormously proud of what she does. “We are demonstrating that women can band together,” she said. “We can be in this industry without being taken advantage of.” And what’s more, she and her husband have been able to give their son a much better life than they may have otherwise. “This has just been an amazing gift,” she said.

But because Golden’s name is on the lease of the East Bay building that houses her practice, she could be labeled a sex trafficker under Prop 35. Her twenty-year-old daughter, whom Golden is partially supporting while she’s in school, could be in trouble. And so could her husband, and so could her landlady. As someone who feels like she’s done everything right, who has gone out of her way to protect her employees from exploitation, who has children of her own, and who is strongly, viscerally opposed to sex trafficking, Prop 35 feels personal. “I am 100 percent opposed to the exploitation of children and to child trafficking,” she said. “And the idea that I could be accused of those things — it turns my stomach.”

According to Alexandra Lutnick, who’s done extensive research into the Bay Area sex industry via her work as both research director for RTI International, a public-health nonprofit, and as a doctoral student at UC Berkeley’s school of social welfare, this isn’t just a case of unintended consequences, of an anomalous example getting caught in the crosshairs — it’s a case of the law failing to understand the realities of the industry it purports to regulate. Prop 35, she said, and in fact much of the law, “reduces the complexity to the simple story of victim and villain. This is language that really evokes a lot of emotions from people. But not all sex-work relationships work that way.”

And she’s not just talking about people like Parton and Bottoms and Golden, white women over the age of eighteen who make hundreds of dollars an hour and have the political and social capital to work for themselves. In fact, she said, the research that she’s done on underage sex workers in the Bay Area tends to show that it’s more common that peers and friends — not pimps — are the gateway between minors and sex work.

It’s a complicated subject, to be sure. “There is no average experience of sex work,” said Parton. “But I would go so far to say the experience is a lot closer to mine or to the other women in SWOP than people think. We enter the business as adults, making a conscious decision for financial reasons. And if Prop 35 passes, my life will be impacted in a very negative way.”

For one thing, said Bottoms, in addition to implicating people surrounding sex workers, the CASE Act would “force people into the closet that much more.” And, she said, “You can be emotionally damaged by having to hide who you are and what you do.” Bottoms already has three entirely separate identities: One she uses with clients, another she uses online and in activism, and a third that she uses in school and with her family. She has three email addresses, three names — three lives, essentially. “It’s exhausting,” she said.

And beyond that, there’s an argument that forcing people like Bottoms to go back underground has bigger and more abstract implications for sex workers’ rights. Just as the gay rights movement used honesty and openness as activist tools, arguing that increased visibility could only mean increased rights, so, too, has the sex workers’ rights movement. “If sex workers come out,” Parton said, “people would realize how many of us there are and how many of us they know.” Many SWOP members consider being “out” to their friends and family a crucial part of their political work — and view Prop 35 a major erosion of that work.

But talk to advocates of the law and they’ll argue that Parton’s not the one who needs protecting. It’s people like Leah Albright-Byrd, a native San Franciscan who became a prostitute at fourteen after running away from home. Fifteen years later, she’s a strong advocate for victims’ rights, and a big supporter of Prop 35. A few weeks ago, she ran into the man who trafficked her on the street, with a different young girl — and that, to her, is reason enough to pass the law. “It’s absolutely ludicrous that this can happen,” she said. “And it’s exactly why we need Prop 35.”

As far as Brantley’s concerned, sex workers who are opposing Prop 35 are in a uniquely privileged position, and the fact that they’re leveraging their own political power to fight something that’s intended to help the powerless is reprehensible. “They’re so worried about the potential harm to them that they’re not stopping to think about the harm that’s happening to children every single day. This is children we’re talking about,” she said, eyes widening. “And those women who are over eighteen and who have had all these options and who have freely chosen to be sex workers? That’s the minority, not the majority.”

At its crux, the Prop 35 argument seems ultimately to slide into the same philosophical trap so many other public-policy debates do: “This is about not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good,” Brantley said. A former child sex worker herself, she’s been in the industry long enough to know that no law is a panacea, but she believes this is a start. “There’s no harm in doing what we can to protect these children.”

But Lutnick thinks there is. “What I don’t see in Prop 35 is anything that’s addressing the structural factors. And if we’re not addressing those structural factors — poverty, racism, homophobia, transphobia — it doesn’t matter how high we increase the penalties.”

She’s spent significant time working with young people involved in the sex trade, she said, “and what we hear from them is they need employment opportunities, they need housing opportunities.” She points to the drug war as an example of criminalization gone wrong — of a Band-Aid solution to a societal problem, a feel-good ballot measure that will fail to do any real good. “Ultimately,” Lutnick said, “Prop 35 is not going to facilitate any changes in the lived experiences of the young people we are trying to protect.”

MISSSEY’s offices are located in downtown Oakland — on the very same block, coincidentally, that SWOP holds its monthly meetings, though the two buildings are separated by a Rite Aid and a lot of ideology. It’s a powerful metaphor for the debate writ large. In reality, both sides of the Prop 35 debate aren’t that far away from each other: Both the Lutnicks and the Brantleys of the world agree that child sex trafficking is a problem when and where it does happen. Both agree, by and large, that there is no such thing as an average sex work experience. Both sides even agree that Prop 35, as it’s currently written, isn’t a perfect law. But the opponents of Prop 35 argue that the numbers are inflated and the average experience is closer to Bottoms’ than it is to Albright-Byrd’s, while Prop 35’s advocates argue the exact opposite. And there are no numbers to prove either side right or wrong.

The most commonly cited estimate places the number of children at risk of sexual exploitation at somewhere between 100,000 and 300,000. That statistic has been cited by The New York Times and Salon as well as many proponents of Prop 35. But according to Lutnick, it’s been widely discredited among academics and social workers in the field. Last year, the Village Voice and its sister papers ran an assiduously researched dissection of the statistic, ultimately finding that the estimate assumes “at risk” an illogically broad swath of demographics and behaviors — for example, it presumes that all American runaways are at risk of child trafficking, despite the fact that the vast majority of runaways return home far too quickly to truly be at risk of sexual exploitation. In the end, reporters Martin Cizmar, Ellis Conklin, and Kristen Hinman found that “law enforcement records show … that there were only 827 arrests per year” for child prostitution over the past decade in the United States. Not all child prostitutes are arrested, of course, so that number is surely an underestimate, but it’s also much, much lower than 100,000 to 300,000.

(Now is probably as good a time as any to note that, like the Village Voice, the thirteen other papers its parent company owns throughout the US, and the vast majority of alternative weeklies, the Express carries escort ads. We consider this part of our identity as a sex-positive paper.)

And that — the sheer uncertainty, the bald fact that nobody on either side fully understands the shape and scope of the sex industry — is hugely problematic, especially in a political fight that’s colored by morals and shot through with emotion. “What we have right now is absolutely no verifiable statistics as to trafficking,” said Monet. “And getting lost in this hysteria is the truth.”

Because if we know anything about sex work, it’s that it’s home to a sometimes unbelievably wide range of experiences, and that no legislation is or will be one-size-fits-all. What might have helped Albright-Byrd will likely hurt Golden, and vice-versa. That’s a problem for people on both sides of the debate: This is an industry fraught with nuance, but for the sake of argument, everyone has to be a hardliner.

In order to legitimize their cause in the face of widespread distrust and misinformation, people like Parton are, by necessity, forced to play up the sense of agency and empowerment they feel, and to gloss over the less attractive parts of the job and the industry. “We do have to downplay the negative aspects and the annoying aspects and the parts we don’t like,” said Parton. “We have to prove to people that we’re okay.”

Lutnick’s seen it, too. “What I’ve witnessed over so many years is there’s this enormous pressure to say everything’s okay,” said Lutnick. “I’ve heard from so many people saying they feel like there’s a performance to it. But to me, if we were able to talk about the nuances, to agree that it’s not a homogenous population with homogeneous experiences, we’d be able to get past some of that. And yet I don’t feel, culturally and socially, that we’re at a place where we can talk about that in an open way.

“Really, there is a lot of agreement here,” she continued. “We all want a system where men, women, transgender individuals can live a life free of harm and violence. We all agree on that. But moving on is the hard part.”

She’s confident that’ll happen at some point, as the sex workers’ movement continues to mature. And in the meantime, Parton’s just hoping her dream job won’t land her or her friends in jail.

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