On (Not) Legislating Morality

I’d like to state the following disclaimer: I am not a sex worker and I don’t work with sex workers, nor am I well-versed in the laws surrounding pimping, solicitation and pandering; I’m merely a community organizer who happens to count sex workers among my close friends and take issue to the rhetoric of the moral panic gripping San Francisco right now.

Yesterday afternoon, I received a message from a friend who snapped a picture of this flyer, calling for all Central Mission residents to come to an urgent community meeting at the Mission rec center with the District Supervisor, Hillary Ronen, members of the SF District Attorney’s Office, and a police captain from the Mission precinct.

Central Mission Neighbors flyer

As someone who was born in San Francisco and is old enough to remember both the late ’90s, early aughts dot com era and the “new” tech boom of the late 00s, I’m well aware of the new Guilded Age we now find ourselves in. There are now almost 8,000 homeless people living on our streets with not nearly enough housing for them or anyone who makes below a six-figure income. In tandem with the housing crisis and the economic inequality that has fueled it come a whole host of issues that arise when people are desperate for jobs and living on the streets — such as drug use and sex work, which this meeting sought to address.

The Central Mission includes Shotwell and Capp Streets, both of which are known tracks for sex workers and johns looking to hook up, and which is also a residential neighborhood. The majority of people at the meeting were middle-class white families and residents who had lived in the area for years. What took me by such surprise however, was that there were no sex workers there to lend their voices. When I pointed this out, I was told that this wasn’t for lack of trying, as one woman claimed she had reached out to St. James’s Infirmary, a local clinic that provides medical services and shelter to sex workers, and gotten no response. The flyer I saw was posted in a yoga studio on 20th and Folsom, hardly a loud announcement meant to reach more than a select few people who frequent that business. I was about to tell her that other sex workers’ advocacy groups such as BAYSWAN and Survivors Against SESTA exist as well before I was cut off by the next speaker.

A major misconception about sex workers, and one that was repeatedly ad nauseam at this meeting, is that somehow every woman who engages in such work is a victim. Sex work — the preferred term over “prostitution” — denotes people who work in all adult services, from porn stars to strippers, to escorts, and not just workers who find clients on the street. The women who work on Shotwell and Capp have more in common with Stormy Daniels than the enslaved girls we see on every episode of Law and Order. However, the default solution to dealing with sex workers is to arrest them and their pimps and johns on charges such as solicitation, pandering, pimping, or trafficking which do nothing but further marginalize sex workers as criminal records often bar them from finding other (legal) forms of work.

Compounding the situation is a recent law, SESTA/FOSTA, that aims to hold websites who knowingly condone or facilitate sex trafficking liable. Since its April ratification, civil liberties and Internet freedom groups from the EFF and the ACLU to sex workers’ advocacy groups have denounced it for placing burden of proof on websites and for perpetuating myths of sex work and putting workers at risk who use such websites as Craigslist and Backpage to vet their clients and warn each other about known abusers. Supervisor Ronen pointed this out, but not before a chorus of disgruntled residents voiced their displeasure at having to watch out for “trafficked girls” and violent pimps.

I also did not have a chance to point out that while the majority of people present were white householders with stable sources of income and shelter, a large number of sex workers are not. The optics of a meeting of mostly white homeowners in what was once a predominantly working-class Latino neighborhood to dictate who was welcome in the neighborhood did not look great. If the city is to somehow “rid” the streets of sex workers, they would be well advised to begin looking to assist sex workers in finding stable forms of shelter, narcotics treatment, and other incentives to deter them from working in the Central Mission and consider other forms of employment, rather than continuing to bow to those who wish to see them locked up and thus further continue cycles of incarceration and violence.