Sex in the city: The “gentrification” of sex work
The light is low and dark orange on Oakland’s International Blvd. Groups of people cluster around food stands or bus stops. Some are playing dice.
Empty patches stretch between vacant strip malls and shuttered schools. There’s a Chinese restaurant that used to be a church. A church that used to be a storefront. Mexican grocery stores with hand painted signs. There’s a little march of people holding a banner that says: “Honk for safe streets.”
And there are women posted up on the corners watching the traffic, sizing up the people inside the cars that are moving a little more slowly on the road.
This area is a known prostitution stroll. There used to be others in Oakland, like San Pablo Ave. and MacArthur Blvd., but the traffic has moved further east as the other neighborhoods redevelop and attract wealthier residents.
Some women are alone. Others are in groups of two or three. Most aren’t decked out in super-high heels or big makeup. They just look nice. And they’re facing the cars.
The number of police reports on prostitution in Oakland more than doubled between 2013 and 2014, from 122 to 291. That could mean there’s more policing, that there’s more prostitution, or both.
Police and activists say they don’t know. So the women on International Blvd. were mostly willing to talk, but nobody wanted to give their full name or too many details. To really hear what goes on on the street, you need to talk to people that have quit trading sex and don’t need to hide. Like Kristen DiAngelo.
Life on the street
“The fear is still there,” DiAngelo says.
She still does sex work, but she hasn’t worked on the streets since the ‘90s. She finds clients online now. She says she does it to help with the bills.
DiAngelo spends the rest of her time advocating for other sex workers. According to her, right now there’s a crackdown on sex work in Oakland – something she says she’s never seen before. But she says it reminds her of what happened to her, years ago.
“They began kicking us out of the massage parlors,” she says. “You know, saving us.”
DiAngelo was 16 and on her own. She says she didn’t have enough money to go without working for more than a few days.
“I needed someone to get me an ID that said I was of age so I could continue working safely,” she recalls. “I didn’t want to end up on the street, but the opposite happened. I ended up at a truck stop in San Jose within 48 hours.”
A friend connected DiAngelo with someone she said could get her an ID.
“So I went and met this guy – I didn’t even understand what a pimp was back then – and he said I can get you this ID, you just have to work for the weekend to pay for it. But that’s not how it works and I didn’t know that,” says DiAngelo.
In reality, she says, once you’re involved with a pimp it’s hard to get loose.
She worked the street on and off for ten years. In the mid ‘80s, she was repeatedly beaten and raped by a man. When she pressed charges, she says her experience with the police and the legal system was so horrific that she decided to devote herself to activism.
“His attorney argued it was nothing more than petty theft because of who I was,” she says. “Now that pissed me off.”
Now she works for the Sex Workers Outreach Project in Sacramento, providing legal and health support for women in the sex trade. She says new efforts to criminalize prostitution make it so women have to hide from the law instead of being able to use it to keep themselves safe.
At the Outreach Project, they’ve been collecting data about people in the sex trade in Sacramento. According to DiAngelo, almost a third say the police have harmed them. And most say they wouldn’t report a crime committed against them.
“We had comments like, why would you ever purposely put yourself in front of a police officer?” DiAngelo says.
She hears the same story when she talks to people in Oakland. The Oakland Police Department didn’t respond to emails and calls requesting comment.
A two-tiered system
“The more criminalized the sex worker is, the more risks they’re gonna take on,” says Matthew Kellagrew, co-founder of Red Light Legal, a nonprofit in Oakland that provides legal support for people in the sex trade.
Kellagrew and co-founder Kristina Dolgin say the crackdown on the demand side – the people buying sex – has made it less safe for workers on the supply side: the street. Dolgin says there are fewer clients, “which means that the clients that are available are ones that are willing to take risks.”
In other words, they’re people with less to lose. More likely to be reckless or violent. Which is why they’re seeing an increase in instances of violence from predatory clients.
And clients understand supply and demand; they know they have the upper hand. So prices are going down fast. According to the St. James Infirmary, a health services provider in San Francisco, the price of sex on the street dropped from $300 to $200 in the last year.
Cyd Nova of the St. James Infirmary has called it “the gentrification of the sex trade,” in which more upwardly mobile people move the industry from the neighborhood to the internet, cities start cracking down on crime-ridden areas they used to neglect, and street work becomes more risky and less lucrative.
So given all this, why does anyone work on the street? Dolgin says up until a few years ago, you could post and screen clients on Craigslist or a free host site called redbook.com. But law enforcement has closed those channels. Sites like redbook.com still exist, but they’re pay to play. And to access high-end clients you need money.
“[Money] to pay for professional photos, to pay for your own website, or to be on a website that hosts escort ads – to be able to afford to look like you are in the same socioeconomic class with those clients,” Dolgin says.
In practice, Dolgin says, that usually means being white, thin, and conventionally pretty. But if your situation is you need money tonight – which is the whole reason most people get into the sex trade – then you work outdoors. And Dolgin and Kellagrew say those people are disproportionately low-income, black women.
One kind of conduct is criminalized and the other kind of conduct is not.
In terms of what they’re actually doing, there’s not much difference between a person posting a profile online and the women on International Boulevard. But the women on the street are much more likely to need the money, and much more likely to go to jail for their work.