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This is How the Bay Area Showed Up for Sex Workers’ Rights

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Guest post by Lia Russell

“FOSTA won’t fix it!” “Sex worker justice NOW!” On June 2, hundreds of chanting sex workers, labor rights advocates, families and allies took to the streets of Oakland in support of sex workers under attack on International Sex Workers Day.

With Maxine Holloway and Arabelle Raphael from Bay Area Pros Support at the helm, contingents and groups such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, Degenderettes, the TGI Justice Project and St. James Infirmary turned out in droves after a call was made to show up in support of sex workers.

In March, Congress passed a joint bill, Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, or SESTA/FOSTA. In a misguided attempt to combat the perceived rise in online sexual exploitation, the bill makes it illegal for websites to host content that could be construed as facilitating sex trafficking and exploitation. However, the bill puts the onus on those sites to monitor user-generated content, so in a preemptive move to avoid scrutiny, Craigslist removed its Personals section. Backpage was also seized in April after one of its executives pleaded guilty to laundering and facilitating prostitution. Many sex workers in the Bay Area and beyond used such sites to curate lists of known violent “bad dates” and vet potential clients, while warning each other about who to avoid.

With SESTA/FOSTA in place, all of those security measures have taken a hit. Combined with the statewide housing crisis and draconian law enforcement tactics, desperate sex workers have taken to the streets to find work, such as on the Mission’s most notorious track, Shotwell and Capp. Hillary Ronen, the Supervisor who represents District 9 which includes the Mission and Bernal Heights, has been working to address the issue of sex workers who work on Shotwell and Capp. In early May, Central Mission Neighbors called a meeting with Ronen and members of the District Attorney’s office and the SFPD Mission precinct to discuss eradicating sex work in the Mission.

Since SESTA/FOSTA’s ratification, reports of sex workers’ accounts on social media and adult websites being shut down have surged, cutting off access to funds for rent, food, healthcare and other necessities. For many on June 2, this was their first time publicly identifying as a sex worker. As Holloway writes, the Bay Area has had a long history of sex worker advocacy, first starting in the 70s with Margot St. James founding COYOTE, and later St. James Infirmary, which provides sex workers with legal and medical resources.

Despite the hundreds of attendees and leaders who showed up and marched through the streets of Oakland, the march wasn’t without some controversy. On multiple occasions, angry passersby screamed at the marchers, with one man memorably yelling, “Your father is Satan! You’re [all] going to hell!” Another driver tried to run over one of the bikers working as security for the march, while Oakland PD sat and watched, only getting involved after one antagonizer’s car tire was popped. Another sex worker had a bottle thrown at her head from an outsider.

Despite the melee at the end, the march’s success was a sign that sex workers are finally being heard. “With this rally, we got a lot of visibility and a lot of momentum,” Holloway says. “The next step is now how to channel this into action.”

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