Sex Worker Festival Redefines the Oldest Profession 

Sex workers fight the criminalization and stigmatization of their industry through a Bay Area festival that combines live performances, films, and political organizing.

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Gina Gold used to ignore men who harassed her on the street. One day in the early 1990s, when the Oakland-based performer and filmmaker had just begun working as a dancer at the Lusty Lady strip club in San Francisco, a man followed her on her way out. "I used to let men just catcall me a lot," she recalled. "I was very shy and scared." Her boss at the club later encouraged her to stand up for herself — inside and outside of work.

"The manager of the Lusty Lady was the first person who pointed out that I had power in the world," said Gold, adding that she learned to scold harassing men while she danced behind glass at the club. "You can turn around and tell them to stop."

Gold will share these memories on May 15 at La Peña Cultural Center (3105 Shattuck Ave, Berkeley) as part of TMI (Too Much Information) Storytelling, a regular East Bay story series she produces. This special edition of the event, called Sex Worker Diaries, kicks off the weeklong San Francisco Bay Area Sex Worker Film And Arts Festival, which features lives performances, film screenings, workshops, and panels throughout the East Bay and San Francisco.

Gold's recollection of the empowering nature of exotic dancing provides a fitting narrative for the launch of the festival, which showcases a diverse range of artistic projects rooted in celebrating, supporting, and accurately portraying people involved in the sex work industry. The goal is to push back against the ongoing criminalization and stigmatization of sex work — by providing a platform for marginalized workers in a highly misunderstood profession to share their stories and show audiences they aren't helpless victims.

The festival (which the Express is co-sponsoring) comes at a time when sex-worker-advocacy groups in the Bay Area and beyond are increasingly speaking out against anti-prostitution laws, discriminatory police practices, and conservative views about sex work — all of which can force workers further underground. A lawsuit challenging California's prostitution ban is heading to federal court in Oakland this summer. And over the past year, Bay Area activists have repeatedly protested discriminatory state regulations that block sex workers from receiving financial aid when they become victims of violence.

"The sex worker activist movement is taking more of a position in the forefront of politics," said Carol Leigh, a longtime San Francisco activist known as "the Scarlot Harlot," who founded the biennial festival in 1999 and coined the term "sex work" in the Seventies. "The festival helps establish sex workers as a vibrant, artistic, creative, and thoughtful part of the Bay Area."

As sex worker activism has expanded over the last fifteen years, the festival — now in its ninth incarnation — has also grown tremendously since its modest start as a one-day film series. From May 15-24, the festival will feature burlesque shows, erotic performances, experimental theater, documentary film screenings, educational workshops, anti-police brutality events, and a spa and healing day (exclusively for sex workers). This year is also the first time the festival is hosting a significant number of events in the East Bay, including programming at Omni Commons in Temescal (4799 Shattuck Ave., Oakland), where organizers will host film screenings, a panel discussion, and a book launch party for $pread, an anthology of essays by sex workers. "Because of the economy of San Francisco, a lot of working-class people are moving to the East Bay," said Erica Elena, the festival's director. "A lot of our constituency is now here."

The East Bay is also a logical location for political organizing, activists said. Last year, a new Oakland eviction law that critics said unfairly targets prostitutes sparked substantial backlash. And officials in the East Bay have repeatedly launched efforts to combat sex trafficking — campaigns that activists said often end up unfairly targeting consenting adult prostitutes. Progressive sex worker-advocacy-groups have long argued that politicians and law enforcement agencies conflate child trafficking with adult sex work and thus criminalize adults under the guise of fighting child exploitation. Police stings designed to catch exploitative "pimps," for example, have sometimes resulted in the arrests of adult women who chose to go into sex work for economic reasons.

"There's a lot of emphasis on saving sex workers from themselves and saving them from trafficking," said Laure McElroy, film curator for the festival. "But it's a more nuanced issue. With our movies, we really tried to point that out." At the "Sex Work ≠ Trafficking" night at Omni Commons (May 20), for example, the festival is showcasing Becky's Journey, a documentary short about a Nigerian woman who attempts to migrate to Europe to do sex work — a counter-narrative to the mainstream story of women kidnapped and coerced into prostitution, McElroy said. "She's 'trafficking' herself," she said. "This is something she wants to do."

Leight said that even as advocacy efforts have gained traction over the years, "in some ways the prejudices have increased, because we're portrayed only as victims." The festival will screen more than thirty films that, from various angles, break down the stereotypes and misconceptions around sex work perpetuated by media and pop culture. Some of the films also shine a light on the families of sex workers, including the documentary We Are Foot Soldiers, produced by the children of prostitutes in India. That movie aims to reject the notion that women in sex work are irresponsible parents putting their children in harm's way — instead, offering a three-dimensional portrait of children who often support their mothers' decisions.

"People have these ideas of who sex workers are," said a New York City-based activist and burlesque performer who will be one of the performers at the festival and goes by the stage name The Incredible Edible Akynos. "But we're just people who do this kind of work."

Festival organizers said they hope to elevate the voices of communities that are often underrepresented and marginalized even within the sex worker movements, such as transgender workers, people of color, and street-based workers. One political organizing event, for example, is dedicated to combating violence against trans women of color (May 16 at the Center for Sex and Culture at 1349 Mission St., San Francisco). The diversity of the festival's films, performers, and attendees can serve as a clear reminder that people of all backgrounds participate in this industry. "You never know who a sex worker is," said The Incredible Edible Akynos.

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