To protect undocumented residents and visitors, San Francisco became a Sanctuary City, with strict rules around when and how much we are willing to participate with immigration enforcement. Out of respect for queer residents, we became the first city in the nation to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples. And earlier this year, in the wake of Proposition 64, the city’s district attorney moved to retroactively dismiss 3,038 marijuana-related misdemeanors.
San Francisco has had a lot of firsts. But for all its outwardly progressive ideals, S.F. is still stubbornly conservative when it comes to a few social issues. High on the list are sex workers, a population that’s noticeably neglected by city officials who wield the power to fund vital services. We have no idea how many people engage in the sex trade citywide; the last legitimate study on San Francisco’s street-based sex workers was conducted in 2007. Only one strip club in the history of the city has ever successfully unionized. And St. James Infirmary, the city’s only comprehensive sex worker drop-in center, relies on GoFundMe campaigns to pay for its moves. (It lost its first location in 2015 but managed to find another and relocate thanks to $35,000 in donations from the public, and requests another $35,000 for a move this year.)
Being ignored and underfunded is one issue, but when attention focuses on the trade in City Hall, it’s usually accompanied by stigma and criminalization. On Monday, several large changes to the city’s massage-practitioner laws flew through the Board of Supervisors’ Land Use Committee, despite language that blatantly criminalizes people who have willingly engaged in the sex industry in the past.
The new guidelines would allow the city’s Director of Public Health to perform local, state, and federal background checks on people applying for massage permits, and grant them the power to deny permits for any applicant who has been convicted of an offense related to prostitution (unless it can be proven that the applicant did so unwillingly).
According to legislation Supervisor Katy Tang authored, the intention is to stop the sex trafficking that allegedly plagues certain massage establishments across San Francisco — a cause that is undoubtedly admirable. In a January 2018 report by the Polaris Project, Human Trafficking in Illicit Massage Businesses, San Francisco is said to be a “prominent hub” for sex trafficking, due in part to its proximity to a port and a major airport.
But numbers — whether exact or even estimated — of victims who engage in non-consensual sex at massage parlors don’t exist. In San Francisco’s third-ever Human Trafficking Report, released in April, there was no information on how many people experience sex trafficking through the massage trade each year.
What is available are details of enforcement. In 2015, more than 400 illicit massage businesses were recorded in San Francisco. After an intensive year of citations, fines, and scrutiny from the Department of Health, more than 175 of those appear to have shut down.
Emphasis on “appear.” As Rachel West, a spokesperson for the US PROStitutes Collective, told supervisors on Monday, “This crackdown will push the industry further underground, which makes women less likely to report violence or go to the police to report rape against them.
“The city’s been cracking down and harassing massage parlors for the last 20 years,” she added. “They haven’t gone away, and this is just another attempt to put a stranglehold on them by any means necessary to shut them down.”
On the surface, it does seem like the heavy-handed enforcement angle is working. And taking into consideration how the city has handled massage businesses in the past three years, the new legislation starts to make sense. It’s easy to see this as a case where the city changes the laws to better assist its enforcement program.
But even Polaris, which lauded San Francisco’s efforts to cite and shut down parlors, notes that there are few resources for sex-trafficking victims who may have been forcibly employed by illicit massage businesses.
“Even in the best-case scenarios, service providers across the country report being underfunded and under-resourced,” their study states.
And in the meantime, such legislation sweeps up other people who may have transitioned from the consensual sex trade to massage work to pay the bills.
“The workplace regulations enforced in this bill create conditions in which massage practitioners will be unfairly profiled on the basis of their assumed engagement in unlawful activity, and gives regulatory agencies more power and means to revoke permits, issue harsher fines, and shut down businesses,” a statement by St. James reads. “As a community organization that prioritizes the safety of people who trade sex, we believe that massage practitioners will be greatly harmed by this ordinance.”
The new restriction also comes at an odd time in California’s criminal justice reform. Attempts to “ban the box” — a reference to the “Have you been convicted of a felony?” box on job applications — have been largely successful. In 2017, Governor Jerry Brown signed into law AB 1008 — which forbids employers from inquiring about an applicant’s conviction record until they have received a conditional job offer. But San Francisco’s new plan to ban someone from receiving a massage permit because they’ve engaged in consensual sex work in the past is the antithesis of such a policy.
Unfortunately, this legislation is only the latest battle sex workers in San Francisco have faced. The forced shuttering of Backpage.com earlier this year has made it nearly impossible for workers to solicit online, forcing many to return to the streets where it’s harder to screen clients, and where they’re more prone to arrest. The Chronicle reports that street-based pimping and sex trafficking has tripled in the last year, with 67 instances in August 2018 versus 21 from the year before.
And with more arrests taking place, it makes the one good thing San Francisco has done in the past few years for sex workers — an SFPD policy that says authorities can’t penalize sex workers who report assault — an undesirable option. Who wants to turn to the cops for support if, for example, they’ve just arrested your friends?
The committee passed the new massage legislation swiftly on Monday; only three people spoke in opposition. (One of the downsides of only having one sex-worker collective in the city: They were all out of town on a work retreat when the hearing came up.) It heads to the Board of Supervisors for a full vote in the coming weeks.
In the meantime, people engaged in sex work continue to be left out of these conversations. And until they get a seat at the table, San Francisco will no doubt continue to ignore, legislate, and criminalize those who willingly use their bodies to pay the bills.
Nuala Sawyer is SF Weekly’s news editor.
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