A young woman clutches a microphone at SOMArts in San Francisco one rainy January evening. Inside a gallery with an exhibition of paintings, photography, and sculptures created by sex workers called We're Still Working, she smiles nervously and looks down at a piece of paper as she begins to speak. "I've been a sex worker for three years," she says. "Lots of people think it's an extravagant lifestyle."
Her statement is short and pointed: sex work is not glamorous, nor is it particularly lucrative for most. "I've been raped and robbed on more than one occasion," she says. "Clearly, it's not an extravagant lifestyle."
Behind her is a wall with several hand-drawn images hung on it. Some illustrate abstract expressions of being misunderstood. On the other side of the room, photographs show some workers posing for self-portraits. On an adjacent wall are monotype prints depicting some former workers' clothes, given up before they underwent medical transition. A small portion of the pictures are comics, invoking some of the more humorous parts of the job. Sex workers, like those in any industry, are not all the same person — many in the trade are voluntary, and some, like those in the Erotic Service Providers Union, are fighting for those rights. For now, however, prostitution in the U.S. (excepting parts of Nevada), is all still illegal. And although statistics are understandably murky, many of these sex workers are illegal immigrants.
There is, at least, one potential safety net for some workers fearing deportation if caught. San Francisco has been a sanctuary city since 1989, meaning it is not the local government's policy to detain immigrants to hand over to immigration officials to deport if they have not committed a violent felony. Sex workers then, as nonviolent offenders, likely wouldn't typically fall within this jurisdiction. If, however, San Francisco is forced by the Trump Administration to rescind its sanctuary status following a controversial executive order to cut funding for these cities and "punish" those that disobey, undocumented workers may be at more of a risk of deportation because it is still a crime to do any kind of sex work in the state of California.
Maxine Doogan, who works with the Erotic Service Providers Union, says that the new administration is "a real big concern" because it puts at risk the LGBT and trans people who immigrated to the U.S. seeking refuge.
"People are coming here who have been persecuted in other countries for their trans status, or their LGBT status," she says. "They come to the U.S. for sanctuary, and unfortunately, because the immigration laws are so poor, they don't allow people to obtain work with any sort of legal means. These people, often LGBT people or people of colour, have to pick working in the sex industry because it's part of the underground economy and they can work without having their lack of documentation exposed."
An effort is underway to decriminalise sex work, and it's making some progress — sort of. In late 2016, democratic California governor Jerry Brown signed several bills including one that would end the prosecuting of minors for prostitution. The supporters of the bill said that these minors are victims and not criminals. That can be true, but members of the Erotic Service Providers Union say that neither of those labels apply to all sex workers, because many choose to enter the trade. To drive home their point, the group got 24,000 people to sign a petition that would allow them to meet with Brown. Their mission? Decriminalise sex work, as a whole once and for all, so no one else is at risk while working or afraid to come forward to report violent crimes against them.
"For immigrants, people that don't have documentation, they might know that San Francisco is a sanctuary city, but how does that really play out for people in the sex trade?" adds Doogan. "We've got the double bind of being criminalised workers in addition to this undocumented status criminalized. It sets people up for exploitation."
So far there has been no ostensible headway on the state-level decriminalisation, but in the meantime, San Francisco is staunchly refusing to comply with the order, and has sued the Trump Administration for what the city government believes is an unconstitutional piece of legislation.
"You can't put a gun to the head of states and localities to get them to comply with what you might want at the federal level," says Dennis Herrera, San Francisco's city attorney, adding that the order is unconstitutional because it "tries to turn city and state employees into federal immigration enforcers."
To protect the city's workers, one of two things needs to happen: either the state of California — or even the city of San Francisco and others like it — needs to decriminalise sex work so that undocumented residents are never at risk of deportation, or San Francisco needs to do what it can to retain its sanctuary city status. Neither of these things will be easy to accomplish — and the latter wouldn't even necessarily guarantee that sex workers are safe from deportation — but the fight is still raging.
Here in the city, many sex workers formed as tight of a community as any, relying on each other for support and friendship. In the recently-ended SOMArts exhibition, curated by Maxine Holloway and Javier Luis Hurtado, Bay Area sex workers "challenge dominant narratives" about those in the trade by presenting art that subverts stereotypes. Illustrations show friendship and community, and reposition the workers as empowered and in control of their own decisions.
"We are not outsiders examining the sex worker community, but insiders with art to share," say Holloway and Hurtado. "We strongly believe that placing sex workers at the centre of our own narrative is one of the best ways to fight for sex worker justice."
Text Alyssa Pereira
Photography of artwork by Laurenn McCubbin courtesy of SOMArts Cultural Center