Keeping the Mission Alive


Sex Work Politics: From Protest to Service Provision

By Samantha Majic

Reviewed by Marianne Wesson


What happens when a group of spirited individuals, inspired by a strong sense of mission, start up an organization to provide needed services to a neglected group and find that there may be government funding available to fuel their project? These origins characterize the histories of AIDS activism, domestic violence shelters, and rape crisis centers, among others. Social scientists call these enterprises “social movement-borne nonprofits,” and the conventional wisdom is pessimistic about the longevity of their radicalism: many studies suggest that over time, their grassroots energies and oppositional politics do not survive the challenge of negotiating with their funding sources.


Even when an upstart organization is providing services for which the government acknowledges a need, the relationship between the organization and the government may be fraught, for several reasons. Sometimes the problem is one of emphasis and style, as when therapy-oriented social service agencies insist on a model that assumes those in need of assistance are somehow broken and must be mended, preferring this strategy to one that takes aim at the injustices and misfortunes that often bring clients in. In other instances, the difficulty is more explicitly political, as when governmental agencies register their disapproval of some aspect of the service population’s choices (such as to use drugs, to have unprotected sex, to make a living as a sex worker) by insisting that the projects they fund must enforce a prohibition against the forbidden activity as a condition of the provision of services. This latter model is unsurprising, as governments seldom like to be discovered providing, even through intermediaries, what some of their constituents will see as rewards to individuals whose conduct is illegal at worst, reckless at best.


In the usual account, however much a grassroots service provider’s leaders and staff might wish to defy the law-enforcement model of service provision, without independent sources of funding they must bend to the governmental regulations. Even rape crisis centers, whose clients usually have done nothing illegal, may find it difficult to advocate for them by (for example) criticizing the practices of local police departments or prosecutors, as these agencies have representatives on funding boards and have been known to retaliate against their critics. All of these pressures, according to the prevailing narrative, operate to silence dissent, stifle political activism, exhaust oppositional energies, and coerce the conformity of the once-feisty founders and staff of the service organization. (A particular version of this story is told, quite convincingly, in Rose Corrigan’s  Up Against a Wall: Rape Reform and the Failure of Success, [2013], which I reviewed in these pages in January/February 2014.)


Samantha Majic seeks to dissuade us from accepting this account uncritically, by recounting her lengthy and thoughtful investigations into the careers of two California organizations, CAL-PEP (California Prostitutes Education Project) and the St. James Infirmary. The story she tells is instructive, and fascinating on many levels. CAL-PEP as a service organization emerged from the response of the City of San Francisco to the AIDS epidemic; it was one of a number of groups that accepted funds set aside by the city, and later the California Division of Health Services, to engage in HIV/AIDS prevention activities. But its earlier roots lay in COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), a San Francisco-based organization devoted to the defense of prostitutes and the enhancement of their legal status. Margo St. James, the formidable organizer who founded COYOTE in 1973, campaigned not only for the repeal of legal prohibitions on prostitution but also for a transformation in public attitudes toward prostitutes. COYOTE argued that prostitutes were not immoral temptresses or fallen women, but workers, who labored at a sometimes hazardous but honorable occupation. Laws criminalizing their work, claimed St. James, far from protecting them, rendered them vulnerable to exploitation by johns and pimps, and disabled them from seeking the help of the law when they were harmed or mistreated. In the first decade of its existence, COYOTE had a number of successes, but the city’s laws against prostitution remained on the books.


When the AIDS epidemic exploded into a matter of public concern, St. James and COYOTE foresaw that San Francisco prostitutes were likely to be blamed (along with gay men) for the spread of the disease, and they also knew that this new hazard would add to the risks of sex work. Its members pursued a number of low-cost street level initiatives designed to protect prostitutes from the virus, such as handing out fliers and holding informational meetings in districts where prostitutes lived and worked. The Centers for Disease Control, meanwhile, had started up a multistate project to research the sociology of the disease and engage in educational prevention efforts; the staff of the San Francisco unit heard of COYOTE’s work, and hired and trained some of COYOTE’s people to carry out the CDC project. This small kernel of cooperation became CAL-PEP. Eventually, many other city, state, and federal organizations found it useful to recruit CAL-PEP to help with their own anti-AIDS work. In the late 1980s, CAL-PEP applied for and received charitable nonprofit status under section 501(c)(3) of the tax code, and the organization’s service and research activities flourished in the penumbra of these various marks of governmental favor.


Some thought that CAL-PEP and its healthcare orientation had swallowed COYOTE’s brand, but St. James and her associates persisted in their advocacy for prostitutes, at times on the health and safety front but also, on occasion, in more confrontational and political fashion. In 1999, it opened the St. James Infirmary (named not only as an homage to the blues song, a lament for a dead prostitute, but in honor of the indelible Margo); the clinic would become the first in the world to offer health services “to sex workers, by sex workers.” The infirmary was to some extent funded by the San Francisco Public Health Department and operated under its aegis and in shared space. Later, as the funding became more secure, the infirmary acquired its own space, and it came to provide a large number of services to sex workers, not all of them strictly medical.


The story is inspiring—but would CAL-PEP and the St. James Infirmary inevitably fall to the same fate that so much social science research predicts: bureaucratization, depoliticization, the steady erosion of the original actors’ values and goals, in favor of the agendas of their governmental sponsors? Majic makes a persuasive case that they have not. Although the two enterprises have had their struggles with the governments that support them and been forced to trim their sails occasionally, they have won some battles as well. Majic recounts a small but satisfying moment of victory for CAL-PEP. During the years of the George W. Bush presidency the organization had changed its official name to California Prevention and Education Project, because of fears that its granting agencies would think the organization was “teaching women to be prostitutes.” In 2010, however, it concluded that it would have more success with its grant- seeking if it returned to its original name, and did.


There have been other, more substantive successes. Perhaps the greatest prize has been the organizations’ freedom to provide medical services to clients without requiring them to forswear sex work. Many if not most organizations that offer services to sex workers are required by their sponsors to insist that their clients commit to leaving sex work and to cut them off from services if there is evidence they have not kept this commitment; but CAL-PEP and the infirmary have succeeded in resisting all efforts to force them to conform to this model. Both have also been able to favor sex workers and former sex workers as employees—thus providing a benefit in the form of alternative work for those they hire, as well as taking advantage of the street-level expertise of individuals who understand the health and other challenges of sex work, and creating an atmosphere of acceptance for clients who are still in the life. Moreover, as Majic shows us, many of these employees have acquired important skills and a taste for civic engagement in the course of their work for the organizations.


Still, there are countervailing pressures, as she acknowledges and documents. Grants from agencies such as the CDC, which were always predicated in part on the nonprofits’ ability to gather and provide information about their client populations, have become more and more demanding of vast amounts of data, precisely formatted and promptly reported; some staff have come to feel that they are required to spend time servicing numbers when they could be helping clients. Required technical reporting and accounting processes have at times pressed the groups to neglect their preferences for hiring former sex workers in favor of recruiting more educated and professionalized staff. But although nonprofits have been changed by their uneasy partnerships with various governments, they have proved that change can flow in the other direction as well: for example, the infirmary successfully campaigned for the city’s Department of Public Health to create and staff a hotline on which sex workers could report complaints about their treatment by police or health workers.


How is it, then, that CAL-PEP and the infirmary have avoided the trap of cooptation that so many observers have documented for other social movement-borne nonprofits? Majic suggests that the trap is not nearly as unavoidable as social science would have us believe, and that the key is the recognition of an organization’s strengths—the features that give it bargaining power in any negotiation with its sponsors. Often these are the same assets that CAL-PEP and the St. James Infirmary exploited successfully: expertise that is not easily duplicated elsewhere; a connection to the population of interest, especially if it is one that would mistrust an offer of services from a governmental agency or resist being a source of data if directly approached; and an emotional sense of mission toward the work and the clients. The confidence that comes from these assets and achievements, coupled with a strong dose of courage, may be enough to enable the most controversial grassroots upstart to flourish in an era of devolution.


Glowing steadily in the background of Majic’s story is a tension that she acknowledges, and occasionally incorporates into her strong analysis, but that she plainly does not wish to foreground: the persistent division among feminists on the subject of prostitution. Toward the end of the book she mentions the work of SAGE (Standing Against Global Exploitation), a Bay Area nonprofit that believes exploitation and human trafficking are the inevitable consequences of prostitution and strongly opposes decriminalization. She appears to take no side in the disagreement between SAGE and her main subjects. But it is the barely obscured premise of Majic’s admiration for CAL-PEP and the infirmary that their political objectives—normalizing prostitution and making it a safer and more attractive occupation—are worthy ones, and thus their sustained negotiations with governments that criminalize their clients’ work are praiseworthy feats of strategy. I do not criticize Majic for failing to address this subject in greater depth—that is not the book she wanted to write—but the tension is there, still with us after all these years.


Mimi Wesson is professor of Law emerita at the University of Colorado. Her most recent work of creative nonfiction, A Death at Crooked Creek: The Case of the Cowboy, the Cigarmaker, nd The Love Letter, was published in 2013. She is working on her next novel, The Last Execution. 

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