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SF History: Sex WORK In The City

Updated: Jun 22, 2023 15:58
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COYOTE (Call Off Your Tired Old Ethics) was founded in San Francisco in 1973 by Margo St. James, a sex worker, who also co-founded St. James Infirmary Clinic in the Tenderloin. COYOTE’s main goals were decriminalization (as opposed to legalization) of sex work, pimping, and pandering, as well as the elimination of social stigma concerning sex work as an occupation. Its work is considered part of the larger sex worker movement for legal and human rights.

St. James experienced an early conviction in the early 60s where she was arrested and falsely accused of prostitution. Despite her adamant denial, the judge believed that anyone who knew the “language is obviously a professional”. St. James was able to successfully appeal her conviction and eventually became one of the first women private investigators in California. Having the conviction on her record, however, excluded her from many jobs, so in 1989 she started working as a sex worker.

From left: American feminists Ti-Grace Atkinson, Florynce ‘”Flo” Kennedy, and Margo St. James beneath a COYOTE banner at a convention in Washington, D.C., in 1976.

COYOTE offered a spread of services to sex workers. They had a hotline called SLIP (Survival Line for Independent Prostitutes), immediate legal assistance for sex workers who had been arrested, suitable clothing for court appearances, and classes on survival skills for sex workers in jail. They abolished mandatory penicillin therapy and multi-day jail quarantines and pressured public defenders to provide better representation for people accused of soliciting and sex work, misdemeanor offenses.

They instigated and sponsored at least 26 lawsuits on behalf of prostitutes and lifted a mandatory three-day venereal disease quarantine imposed by the San Francisco Police Department on prostitutes. They won by claiming that the incidence of VD disease is at least as high among people 20 to 40 years old as among “whores and only women are arrested and forced to have regular checks for VD”. COYOTE was also able to get a judge to dismiss prostitution charges against 37 women whose male customers were not arrested, and they organized protests against police harassment, which they believed was one of the most critical issues affecting sex workers.

COYOTE HOWLS, a publication of COYOTE advertising the upcoming Hooker’s Ball, 1976.

In order to finance COYOTE and its newspaper, COYOTE HOWLS, St. James organized an annual Hook’s Ball, reaching an attendance of 20,000 between 1973 and 1979. These events served to destigmatize sex work, celebrate sex workers, and raise funds. From these events, COYOTE raised a bail fund to free women from exploitative pimps and created special welfare programs and assistance services.

San Francisco has had a strong tradition of sex work establishments, from the prostitution economy in the 1850s Barbara Coast district to the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s that ushered in topless nightclubs, massage parlors, pornographic bookstores, movie theaters, peep shows, and strip clubs. Commercial sexual entertainment and sex work have been a fact of life in San Francisco since the first days of the Gold Rush. As the city has grown and evolved over the decades, sex for sale has reinvented itself, adapting to changes in attitudes toward sex, legal criteria of obscenity, urban development, and city politics. What began as a bawdy district anchored by brothers appealing to transitory miners, evolved into a more fluid, integral part of San Francisco, ultimately leading to a new phenomenon and immense profitability of the sex industry.

In the early 1840s, the Barbara Coast district, which consisted of Pacific Avenue (then known as Pacific Street) between Montgomery and Stock Streets, housed most of the brothers, with prostitution being the main business. It also offered crude burlesque, belling dancing, and other sexually explicit dance forms, saloons with half-clad waitresses, and peep shows. San Francisco at the time was known as a “wide open town”, where attempts to crack down on sex work just caused it to move to another street or neighborhood. Three blocks of dance halls with the loudest possible music blasting from orchestras, steam pianos, and gramophones in such establishments as The Living Flea, The Sign of the Red Rooster, Ye Olde Whore Shop where Madame Bertha employed three French girls who gave erotic exhibitions and were known as the Three Lively Fleas.

Crowds on Pacific Avenue during the height of the Barbary Coast in 1913.
Photo: San Francisco History Center, SF Public Library

This wide-open town era would come to an end when Rev. Paul Smith took it upon himself to launch a tireless campaign against whatever sin and vice yet remained in the Barbary Coast. Rev. Smith’s campaign against immorality came to a head when more than 300 sex workers dressed and perfumed in their finest marched to the Central Methodist Church to confront the minister. When admitted to the church they asked, “How are we to make a living when all the brothels have closed?” The Rev. is said to have replied that he would work tirelessly to establish a minimum wage law and would assist the women in finding new employment. He claimed that a virtuous woman with children could live on $10 a week. “That’s why there’s prostitution!” came the reply,  at which point the ensemble left the church.

Sex Workers gathering at the Church, 1917

In 1917, the Supreme Court rendered its final decision on the Red-Light Abatement Act. Dancing was now prohibited in all cafes and restaurants anywhere in the vicinity bordered by Larkin, O’Farrell, Mason, and Market; all private booths were removed in establishments where liquor was sold; and unescorted women were to be ejected from such premises. The Black Cat, Panama, the Pup, Stack’s, the Louvre, and so many others were effectively closed.

But, as we know, this didn’t stop the city from embracing and celebrating its sex workers. Sex workers are a part of some of the oldest roots first planted here. Though visitors may find themselves aghast as they walked through North Beach today, assuming it’s simply come with the development of the city over time. To a degree, it has, yet it has a rich and complex past that so many are unaware of.

Tourist outside the Gay’N Frisky, 1955.
Photo: OpenSFHistory


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