Statement re Sex Work Decriminalization

At the LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District Board meeting on March 15, 2023, it was unanimously agreed to add our signature and endoresment to the following statement, as drafted by Bay Area Workers Support and St. James Infirmary Health Clinic:

Public Statement: Bay Area Sex Workers and Advocates Call for Decriminalization, Not Legalization, in Response to SF Supervisor’s Statement on Sex Work

Bay Area sex workers and advocates appreciate San Francisco Supervisor Hillary Ronen for acknowledging the challenges that those in the sex trade face and initiating policy about these issues. We strongly urge San Francisco and Oakland cities to partner with local sex workers, survivors, and community advocates, who have been engaged in this work for decades, when creating policies and programs for Bay Area residents in the sex trade.

Our Three Asks:

    • Decriminalize sex work instead of legalizing it, as punitive approaches have proven ineffective and violent.
    • Increase support of peer-led resources and services for Bay Area sex workers.
    • Collaborate with local sex workers, survivors, and community advocates to develop policies and programs prioritizing the safety and well-being of the sex worker community.

We welcome Ronen’s collaboration across the Bay with Oakland City Council member Nikki Fortunado Bass to establish more “comprehensive resources and services to sex workers.” We invite Supervisor Ronen, Councilmember Bass, and other policymakers to work with us and listen to the voices of sex workers and advocates such as Bay Area Workers Support, St. James Infirmary, and other public health, social justice, and harm reduction organizations that have signed onto this letter. The SF Bay Area has a strong legacy of sex worker rights and activism. Together, we can develop policies and programs that prioritize the safety and well-being of sex workers and the Bay Area neighborhoods we work.

It is important to recognize that reducing harm in the sex trade requires an intersectional approach that addresses the Bay Area’s housing crisis, economic opportunities, racial inequality, transgender discrimination, police violence, interpersonal partner violence, queer youth support, the foster care system, and other disparities. Additionally, reversing laws like FOSTA/SESTA, which have increased violence, exploitation, and economic instability for sex workers, is necessary. Reducing street prostitution can not happen by solely creating a policy. Until people can meet their material needs in other ways, outdoor prostitution will always exist.

San Francisco and Oakland’s latest response to deterring outdoor prostitution is to barricade the streets. This may temporarily relieve a neighborhood from seeing some sex work, but this is not a solution. This approach only pushes sex work to other blocks or underground, creating more opportunities for abuse and even more dangerous working conditions. In addition, the whole neighborhood faces impeded access to fire and emergency services and is a constant reminder of a hostile environment.

Legalization and decriminalization of sex work are two distinct concepts with different implications. Legalization involves government control and regulation of the industry, which still creates an underground “illegal” sect of the sex trade, increasing opportunities for exploitation and abuse of sex workers. Legalization may create obstacles for those who do not meet the legal requirements to work, such as undocumented people, those escaping violence, transgender individuals, and folks living in poverty, making them more susceptible to exploitation and abuse. Those who cannot comply with the regulations will be forced to work underground and still be criminalized and punished. To be clear, legalization disproportionately harms BIPOC, transgender, gender non-conforming, those living with violence, unhoused, and poor people in the sex trade. 

Decriminalizing sex work removes the punishment and stigma associated with it, allowing sex workers to access legal protections, health and social services, community support, and other resources that would improve working conditions, safety, and overall well-being. Decriminalization is supported and advocated for by World Health Organization (WHO), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, National Organization for Women (NOW), American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), National Harm Reduction Coalition, DecrimCA, and the National Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP). It is important to note that decriminalization does not change laws against trafficking, coercion, sex with minors, and other forms of abuse.

We urge San Francisco and Oakland policymakers and neighborhood representatives to work with us and listen to the voices of sex workers and sex worker-led organizations to develop policies that prioritize the safety and well-being of all Bay Area residents. Decriminalization and providing resources would be a more equitable approach that respects the dignity and autonomy of sex workers while addressing the complex social, economic, and health issues associated with the sex trade.

We look forward to hearing from you.

Bay Area Workers Support
St. James Infirmary Health Clinic

With the support of:
National Harm Reduction Coalition
El/La Para TransLatinas
Rad Mission Neighbors
Democratic Socialists of America San Francisco
The SF Transgender Cultural District
LEATHER & LGBTQ Cultural District