Sex workers generally don’t announce that they’re sex workers by holding up signs in public and shouting their chosen profession in the streets on a sunny afternoon. But that was the scene of solidarity shown in Oakland on Saturday, as about 500 sex workers and their allies marshaled downtown and marched down 14th Street at this past weekend’s Sex Worker Justice Now Rally and March.
There have been June 2 “International Sex Worker Day” observances and rallies every year going back to the 1970s. But this year’s march in Oakland — like similar protests Saturday in New York, Chicago, and New Orleans — was especially urgent in the wake of the recent FOSTA and SESTA internet censorship legislation that has killed off Craigslist Personals and Backpage.com, and robs sex workers of the ability to advertise or screen clients.
“We are tired,” says Bay Area pornographer and sex worker advocate Nikki Darling. “We are tired of our livelihood being pushed further and further underground.”
The large crowd hoisted signs like “The President Pays For Sex, Why Can’t We?” “Jesus Married a Whore,” and “Censor Trump’s Tweets Instead.” The turnout of nearly 500 was a nice surprise even for the rally’s organizers from the sex worker-run clinic St. James Infirmary and sex workers advocates Bay Area Pros Support (BAPS).
“A longtime Bay Area sex worker said to me, ‘I was amazed. Five years ago, there would have been 10 of us,’ ” march co-organizer and sex-worker advocate Arabelle Raphael tells SF Weekly.
Demonstrators were asked to wear red, and they turned out with red umbrellas, red roses in their hair, red devil horns, and “Glitter Bloc”-sequined red masks like the Black Bloc crowd uses to hide their identities at protests. But some of the more powerful speeches were from those who came forward with their identities during this dangerous period.
“You guys know about my story,” said Celeste Guap, whose account of being sexually assaulted and exploited by as many as 29 police officers shocked the Bay Area in 2016. “That wouldn’t have happened if sex work was decriminalized. Had it been decriminalized, I wouldn’t have had to have free sex with cops.”
“We need to teach the public the difference between sex work and sex trafficking,” Guap added. “They say they’re against sex trafficking. But when you take away internet platforms, you drive people to pimps and you lose the ability to screen clients.”
Heartbreakingly, Guap’s point was driven home the very next morning when she was taken into police custody and placed on a medical hold after a domestic-violence call.
“Police brutality is a huge thing that’s been reported to us fairly recently, especially since more people are working outdoors,” Raphael said. “Police have increased their ‘wave a badge, get free services.’ Police abuse is a big thing.”
This is why BAPS has initiated an emergency response fund to support disenfranchised sex workers.
“We realized after FOSTA/SESTA that there was so much that needed to be done,” says Bay Area sex worker and march co-organizer Maxine Holloway. “People had immediate needs, their groceries, rent and bills needed to be paid, and their income had just been cut off. People needed support and advice because we are in precarious situations. We’re trying to keep our people alive and OK and safe.”
Demonstrators shouted chants like “FOSTA Won’t Fix Shit!” “Don’t Be a Jerk! Sex Work Is Work!” and a constantly changing refrain of “Sex Worker Rights Are Everyone’s Rights!” interspersed with different endings like “Trans Rights,” “Disabled Rights,” “POC Rights,” and “Immigrants’ Rights.”
“We will not be strong without intersectional issues, and we need to be visible within them,” Holloway told SF Weekly.
The crowd marched to the Alameda Courthouse, where the Warriors “Strength in Numbers” banner took on a whole different meaning. A diverse roster of sex workers spoke out on PA speakers from the back of a pickup truck.
“ ‘Streetwalkers’ and ‘high-class escorts’ get the most visibility, and people think that’s all there is,” Holloway said. “But there’s so much in the middle. People enter the sex trade and stay in the sex trade for so many different reasons. All of those reasons are completely valid.”
Curious onlookers snapped cell phone pictures, and a few were downright hostile.
“Your father is Satan! You’re going to hell!” one motorist yelled at the marchers. Another stopped to argue with protesters and ended up getting his rear tire punctured, and there were verbal reports of a demonstrator on a bicycle being hit by a car (although not injured).
These incidents were tame compared to the violence seen at other recent Bay Area political protests, but underscore the regular resentment sex workers face.
“We will continue to be here, and we will never apologize for how we survive,” Darling says. “All puns aside, we will not take this lying down.”