Tucked inside the second floor of the Redstone Building on 16th Street, more than 60 Mission residents packed into a room resembling an improv theater for a discussion on decriminalizing sex workers in the Mission and across the city.
Over the course of the next two hours, a panel of four women and two men sought to convince the audience that sex work was like regular work and that criminalization was sexist and would only further deteriorate conditions for both residents and sex workers in the neighborhood.
“Once we began organizing and focusing on the problems of sex work, it opened us up to everything going wrong in the city,” said Nihar Bhatt, a member of the new group, Rad Mission Neighbors, which organized the evening.
The audience, comprised of mostly 20- to 30-somethings, all snapped their fingers and clapped in agreement. But one middle-aged man who said he lives off of Shotwell, where sex work has been an ongoing problem for neighbors, disagreed.
“How many of the six people in the front actually live in the Red Light District in the Mission?” the man asked the audience referring to Shotwell and Capp streets.
No hands went up.
“I’m appalled that you are glamorizing prostitution,” he said. “The prostitution problem is bringing problems to the neighborhood. It appalls me to hear you call yourselves members of the community.”
The man, who left before I could catch his name, said he had bought a home in the Mission more than 50 years ago and had never seen it this bad, and since the workers had returned to the streets, his grandchildren and other family members had seen or been victims of sexual harassment by johns.
A combative back-and-forth argument erupted between the audience member and one of the panelists, Celestina Pearl. Pearl works as the Outreach Coordinator for St. James Infirmary, the roaming clinic that provides services to sex workers in the city. When she tried to reply to man’s comment, he cut her off.
“Sir, let me finish. I respectfully listened to you,” said Pearl.
The man interjected once more, then quieted down as Pearl shot back with statistics showing that decriminalization of sex work leads to decreased levels of crime, as well as fewer reported cases of sexually transmitted diseases.
Another woman identifying herself as a current sex worker said that the number of women waiting along the corridor doubled the day the website “Redbook” shut down.
“You want us off the streets? Let us get back on the Internet,” she said.
The audience snapped their fingers in agreement, with some clapping.
The gentleman who disagreed tried to interject once again, saying the harassment women faced on the street drove them into prostitution. Another panelist disagreed.
“I didn’t get harassed into prostitution! I made a choice because I needed to survive. What’s going on over there is fucked up!” the panelist, known as Alexandra, said.
The man and some of his family members, seemingly tired of hearing what the panelists had to say, packed their stuff and strode out of the meeting.
Others stayed for another hour and a half. The evening was Rad Mission Neighbors’ inaugural discussion or meeting; prior to Thursday evening, the group had about 30 members.
The panel included Bhatt, the meeting’s moderator; and local activist Rachel West, an organizer for US PROS Collective, a network representing sex workers based in the city. Also on the panel were Pearl, a mother and organizer for St. James Infirmary, and Paul Boden from Western Regional Advocacy Project, a non-profit activist organization that works on issues of homelessness and poverty. All of the panelists either grew up in the Mission and most have been pushed out by rising rents, they said.
West, from the US PROS Collective, said that between 1994 and 1996, she was part of a Board of Supervisors prostitution task force that conducted outreach to sex workers in the city. The task force also produced a report, which found that the city could save millions of dollars by ending the criminalization of sex work.
The Rad group argues that the Sex Worker Abatement Unit operated by Mission Station Police Captain Gaetano Caltagirone — with overwhelming support from those who live in the Mission’s red light corridors on Capp and Shotwell streets — discriminates against people of color along those corridors in the Mission where sex workers are known to patrol.
But the people who live and work on Shotwell don’t necessarily think the problem lies solely with the sex workers. They attribute the problems to the johns and the amount of traffic they create. Tom Madonna, a bartender at Shotwell’s Bar, on the corner of 20th and Shotwell streets, said that the activists aren’t living in the neighborhood and don’t really see how bad things get at 3 a.m.
On any given night, late traffic piles up as cars swarm into the tiny residential street, creating noise and hazards. Residents who live there often get their cars side-swiped and damaged. It’s not the morality of it that bothers people, he said — it’s the commotion.
“It sounds lovely if you don’t live in the area, but the folks who live in the neighborhood are frustrated with the noise and traffic,” Madonna said.