On January 25th, 1917, over 200 sex workers stormed the Central Methodist Church in San Francisco's Tenderloin district to directly confront the Reverend Paul Smith, one of the most vocal anti-vice advocates in the city. The police force of San Francisco had made it clear: on Valentine's Day, 1917, the 1,400 women who lived and worked in the city's brothels would be evicted; prostitution would no longer be tolerated by the city government. As we've detailed in a previous blog post (which can be found by clicking here), the sex workers of San Francisco's Barbary Coast and Tenderloin districts refused to go out without a fight. While many anti-vice reformers voiced concern for the health and well-being of the city's prostitutes, they refused to advocate on behalf of these women for a basic wage or other human rights protections, instead opting to destroy their means of income in the name of social health and "progress". In response, San Francisco's sex workers organized what would become the first known sex workers' rights protest in U.S. history.
100 years later, sex workers worldwide are still fighting for basic human rights. Through their tireless organizing efforts, the concept of "decriminalization" has come to the fore as the best way to protect sex workers while eliminating sex trafficking and other non-consensual forms of sex work (see Amnesty International's statement on decriminalization and sex workers' rights: https://www.amnesty.org/en/latest/news/2015/08/sex-workers-rights-are-human-rights/) On January 25th, 2017, Devon Angus and I coordinated with a number of sex workers' rights organizations here in San Francisco to celebrate the 100 year anniversary of this historic protest with a march and rally to the site of Paul Smith's church. Carol Queen from the Center for Sex & Culture read Reggie Gamble's speech from 1917, while representatives from the Erotic Service Provider's Union, Sex Worker's Outreach Project, and US PROStitute's Collective read a new manifesto for sex workers' rights in the 21st century. While working on Alice, it was quickly apparent to Devon and myself that while our primary job was as researchers and authors, we could not help but also become political advocates for sex workers today.
The problems that Alice Smith addressed in her memoir have yet to be solved; sex workers today are demanding the same basic protections that they were in 1913, and they will continue to fight tirelessly for these protections. All humans deserve basic health services free from stigmatization. All humans deserve safety from police harassment. All humans deserve to be able to turn to the law for protection from rape and abuse. All humans deserve access to a basic living wage. All humans deserve to live freely as whatever gender they prefer without judgement and harassment. All humans deserve a say in how their bodies and their livelihoods are regulated. And it is my opinion that humans who make a living off of erotic services in a consensual and non-violent manner deserve to live a life free of fear, free from fear of incarceration, the fear of social stigmatization, free from the fear of violence that sex workers disproportionately face. If we aim to be decent feminists, if we aim to be decent humans , then we must ally ourselves with sex workers' in their struggle for basic human rights. And we must allow sex workers to create the terms upon which this movement is built. Today is the International Day of Sex Workers' Rights, but this battle will continue all day, every day, until the needs of sex workers are met worldwide.
-Ivy Anderson, March 3rd, 2017