“Bicyclists and sex workers are both marginalized users of the street.”By Tyler Callister
In what looked like a bite-size version of Critical Mass, an estimated 115 cyclists huddled at Civic Center Plaza on Sunday, July 22 to kick off “Sex on Wheels;” a guided bike tour of San Francisco’s sex worker history.
Attendees pedaled to ten historical sites throughout the city, featuring actors portraying quirky historical figures—from the hooker who shot Andy Warhol to the wealthy nineteenth century madam who left her entire estate to her cats. The event capped the week-long, 5th annual San Francisco Sex Worker Festival.
Through a megaphone, event organizer Jennifer Worley gave the opening address, including the event’s raison d`etre: “Bicyclists and sex workers are both marginalized users of the street.” The gaggle of bicyclists then flocked down the asphalt, often taking up the entire road. “It’s sort of like we’re one vehicle,” Worley said.
At each site, the performers in full period costume retold tales, often near busy homes and shops. Most passersby pointed, laughed, or just gawked as if saying a collective “what-the-hell?"
Jessie Alley ranked as one of the first stops, south of Market on Sixth street. Named after Diamond Jessie Hayman — a nineteenth century prostitute turned rich madam. The performer explained the area was the original Tenderloin district. “It was called the Tenderloin because it was the choicest cut in San Francisco.”
Sex on Wheels also pimped out the St. James Infirmary, a nonprofit health clinic for sex workers. Margo St. James explained to the crowd that the clinic is run by people personally involved in the sex worker industry and provides service ranging from STI testing to peer counseling to massage.
When participants arrived at the fifth stop, a performer awaited them with an 1860’s dress and a fan covering her face. But the actor pulled the fan away and unveiled pink blush, heavy red lipstick, and a mustache. The figure was the infamous 1860’s brothel entrepreneur, Madame Mustache, who the actor portrayed with a thick French accent and flirtatious disposition.
The sixth historical stop featured a gold-rush era Asian American prostitute who was conveniently named Ah Toy. The performer, dressed in pink silk and flower pattern, burst onto the scene wielding a soup ladle like a sword and chasing a guy who had apparently just ripped her off. The guy scrambled away and the actor leapt onto a bench as cyclists gathered around to hear her story.
The tour ended in front of the Mitchell Brothers’ O’Farrell Theater. Sally Rand, a 1940’s exotic dancer known for her feathered fan dance, was portrayed. The actress wore nothing but a few slivers of clothing and shiny pasties. Finally, the Mitchell Brothers arrived with cigars and drinks in hand and full 70’s mustaches.
In an interview, Worley fleshed out her motivation for promoting the history of the flesh industry. “Sex workers are a group of people who generally don’t get advocacy, but in San Francisco there’s a supportive community,” Worley said. “There are 5 or 6 sex worker organizations in San Francisco. That’s pretty unusual.”
Sex on Wheels is an annual event organized by founders Jennifer Worley and Renee Rivera, and is sponsored by the San Francisco Bicycle Coalition . Worley also wants to see sex workers represented in women’s movements, and said that “sex worker history is women’s history in San Francisco.”