Kristen DiAngelo is concerned about her colleagues. She says that there’s no replacement for the recently defunct free online network that helped them advertise and schedule appointments with clients. With fewer options available, they’re turning to the streets.
DiAngelo is a career sex worker who, like her colleagues in the industry, has used the website MyRedBook, an online advertising space for erotic service providers. The FBI shut down the site at the end of June as part of a nationwide operation to combat child prostitution, but according to DiAngelo its closure threatens the safety of sex workers who previously relied on it to meet and screen clients.
“I talked to a 68-year-old woman who had a massage business who’s going to go out on the street now,” said DiAngelo, who is also the producer of the documentary American Courtesans. “Because it happened overnight, because so many of these women didn’t think that could ever happen, it’s pretty devastating. It caught so many people off guard.”
Advocacy groups like the Sex Worker’s Outreach Project are concerned the shutdown will result in an increase in street-based prostitution.
Locally, St. James Infirmary provides health services to sex workers and advocates on their behalf. S.t James’ executive director, Stephany Ashley, lives on 17th and Capp streets, on the outskirts of what locals describe as the Mission’s hub of street-based prostitution. It runs along a primarily residential part of Capp Street and a mixed-use stretch of South Van Ness around 20th Street.
Ashley says she has not yet witnessed a surge in street-based prostitution, but predicted that the shutdown of MyRedBook would significantly affect sex workers. Just before the site closed, neighbors had been complaining of a spike in prostitution. Now, Ashley anticipates there could be more.
“It was the only site where you could advertise for free, so the seizure of that site is going to fall unfortunately on more low-income workers, workers who may not be able to afford to take out an expensive ad, and who may now have to turn to more risky methods of working,” Ashley said.
Part of the risk is being arrested, and Ashley pointed out it is easier for police to identify prostitutes in public, and harder to track them down online. According to St. James Infirmary, street-based sex work is linked with higher rates of violence, and sex workers who have been arrested also experience higher rates of violence and higher rates of sexually transmitted infections.
So far, neighbors in the area have not observed a recent spike in street-based prostitution that seems to stem from the RedBook closure, but an upswing from just before the shutdown has had some residents on edge.
Gregory Dicum, chair of the Central Mission Neighborhood Organization’s crime committee, said members of the group have observed a recent increase in street prostitution, and a new shift in activity toward 20th and Capp Street near Shotwell and 21st Street, and no increased police response, though one neighbor said things had been quieter since a community meeting with police in late June.
SFPD data indicates a sharp decrease in incidents in the spring, but only five incidents recorded in all of June, around the time residents complained of a spike in prostitution and a lack of police attention. A total of 31 incidents were recorded in the area from January through the end of June — July data is not yet available.
Another woman in the neighborhood suggested as a potential solution to neighbors’ concerns that sex workers “just respect the neighborhood.”
For St. James director Ashley, the priority in dealing with a potential influx of sex workers from MyRedBook is to keep them safe and mitigate the conflicts around local hotspots, in part by providing practical solutions like increased outreach from service providers and additional trash cans in the area to reduce the temptation to litter. But she, too, cited respectful interactions as an important solutions approach.
“I would like to see neighbors more willing to recognize that the sex workers they are discussing are full human beings who are also their neighbors,” Ashley said, “and to engage with them more like neighbors and less like problems that need to be solved. The problem that needs to be solved is poverty.”