It’s a story built for headlines: Monied men in Silicon Valley create a demand for highly compensated sex work that can easily be coordinated using the same apps and services they create at their desk jobs. As a narrative, it contains the holy trifecta that has come to replace sex, drugs, and rock ’n’ roll: sex, tech, and the hollow optimism of neoliberal capitalism. There’s just one problem: It’s not exactly true.
For the last two years, the media has been fixated on the idea of a mutually beneficial arrangement between Silicon Valley employees and sex workers. The reports follow a familiar pattern: Time-crunched Silicon Valley employees have a large amount of disposable income and the tech-savvy, Square-enabled sex workers who provide services for them are reaping the rewards, potentially earning upwards of a million dollars. Even after the FBI raided and shut down the escort advertising website MyRedbook.com last June, citing child trafficking as the rationale, tabloids and high-profile media outlets alike continued to promote the image of a “prostitution boom” driven by Silicon Valley’s money.
It’s undeniable that the tech industry has had an economic impact on sex work in the Bay Area. But between scrutiny from law enforcement and the tech-driven gentrification of San Francisco, sex work in the Bay Area is currently caught between a rock and several hard places. News outlets showed up last year for the sexy headlines about an FBI raid, but the economic fallout of that raid has proven to be far less titillating. To learn more about the situation on the ground, I checked in with three current and former Silicon Valley sex workers who painted a much different picture of the state of their industry than the image the media circulated last year.
Siouxsie Q is a journalist and sex worker who runs the popular Whorecast podcast and pens a column, called The Whore Next Door, for SF Weekly. In a phone interview, Siouxsie Q tells The Daily Beast that the economy for sex work has been shifting since the MyRedbook shutdown:
“Can you imagine what would happen to small business if the FBI seized Yelp? That’s essentially what happened with the sex industry here in the Bay Area. A very simple, free, accessible tool for many people in the industry was gone overnight.”
Siouxsie Q made the same comparison on CNN last summer following the arrest of Alix Tichelman. At the time, MyRedbook had already been offline for a few weeks. The overly optimistic headline accompanying her interview—“Tech’s booming prostitution trade”—likely belied the precarity of sex work in the Valley given those recent events.
In our interview, Siouxsie Q makes it clear that San Francisco continues to be a powerful force in the sex workers’ rights movement—led by organizations like the Bay Area chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) and the St. James Infirmary—but she is also honest about the struggles that sex workers have faced since the closure of MyRedbook. The advertising website wasn’t always a pleasant environment for sex workers because it allowed men to leave scathing and sometimes insulting reviews. One former escort who requested to remain anonymous told me that she was “basically date-raped” and then her client “went on to write an online review of my performance as if I wasn’t even a human.” But as flawed a tool as it was, MyRedbook nonetheless served as a central economic hub for Bay Area sex work and its absence has been felt palpably within the industry.
“It has been difficult,” Siouxsie Q says. “My community, the folks that I interact with, have really had to struggle to rebrand, reevaluate how they do their business, and how they advertise. The fall of MyRedbook definitely affected my business and the business of folks that I know in the Bay Area.”
Sex worker and public-health educator Maxine Holloway adds that the elimination of MyRedbook has also had consequences for the safety of sex work in Silicon Valley. In an email interview, she writes that the shutdown “had a very negative effect on how we referenced, referred, and screened potential clients.”
But even setting the impact of MyRedbook’s absence aside, the rapidly gentrifying Bay Area is becoming an increasingly inhospitable environment for sex workers. The median home price in San Francisco is estimated to be over $1 million and Bay Area rents are continuing to climb year over year—they are now the highest in the entire country. As a result, cities like Oakland and San Jose have become points of temporary refuge across the bay for lower and middle-class San Francisco residents—a category that includes the vast majority of sex workers.
“What we really want to have a conversation about here is the economics of the Bay Area,” Siouxsie Q points out. “People want to talk about the sex industry because it’s sexy but, at the end of the day, we’re talking about the working class and that’s a much harder conversation to have.”
Siouxsie Q does not deny that the tech industry has had an effect on the sex industry. “As an industry booms in a local economy, that industry is going to affect the other industries in that economy,” she says. But she also raises the crucial point that the fate of sex workers is not always considered in conjunction with the effects of the gentrification of Silicon Valley. The tech industry may have brought plenty of overworked men with disposable income to the Bay Area, but not only is that new wealth failing to trickle down, it’s also putting tremendous pressure on the working class—sex workers included—to either take on more work or move out.
As the anonymous former escort told me: “It feels like an exclusive society filled with spoiled children who up our rents.”
Holloway adds that there is a painful irony to the way in which income inequality is transforming the historically diverse San Francisco from “the perfect location to create movements for social-justice issues such as queer, trans, and sex worker rights” into an economically homogenous space.
And Siouxsie Q recalls: “In my career as a sex worker, the cost of living in San Francisco has gone up double or more. Have I doubled my prices? No.”
In Siouxsie Q’s view, too, most sex workers in the area are continuing to work in the face of this economic pressure—she says she doesn’t personally know anyone who has given up in the last eight months for financial reasons—but they are being forced to take on more work. Members of her community, for example, have “started webcamming once a week or started driving Uber, or many of the things that people do to survive in the Bay Area.” The tech industry isn’t exactly throwing Pretty Woman levels of cash at Silicon Valley sex workers but it is making San Francisco into a city-size version of Rodeo Drive. And at this point, the mythical figure of the sex worker-turned-Silicon Valley millionaire should probably replaced with the much more realistic image of a sex worker driving tech men around in an Uber during the day and sleeping with them at night, all to make ends meet.
It’s not the case, however, that tech industry clients themselves are spectacularly awful compared with other clients. When asked about her clients in the tech industry, Siouxsie Q responds: “Some of them are great and some of them are… [laughs] regular.” She further notes that she has many clients who “see themselves as allies in the fight for sex workers’ rights” even if they are “not able to be out about their allyship.”
Holloway adds, “I have not found tech clients to be more or less respectful, or more or less entitled. It really depends on the person.”
The anonymous former escort I spoke with did acknowledge that “they were still totally clueless about their economic and male privilege,” recalling that a client once told her, much to her chagrin: “If I was a woman, this would just be my perfect job!” But when asked if they were generally good clients in terms of respect, payment, and behavior, she eagerly replied, “For the most part, yes!”
But they don’t have to be particularly stingy clients on a personal level for their industry as a whole to make sex workers’ lives more challenging on a systemic level. The disposable income that tech executives spend on sex work, after all, comes from the same corporations that are driving San Francisco’s record levels of income disparity.
The criminalization of sex work, too, only compounds the economic difficulties that sex workers face in the Bay Area. It’s hard enough for people with legal professions in the Bay Area to make even half as much as a Silicon Valley intern; imagine what it’s like when one’s very occupation is considered to be a misdemeanor.
For many members of the working class, too, moving across the bay to Oakland could bring financial relief but, for a sex worker, Oakland could mean eviction thanks to an update to a local ordinance passed late last year that can require landlords to evict tenants who are suspected of sex work in order to avoid citation from the city. As Oakland North reported at the time, this “nuisance” ordinance previously put pressure on landlords to evict tenants who participated in “violent activity” or who had “illegal weapons” in their possession, but its purview was expanded to cover “prostitution, pimping, pandering, and solicitation activity.”
Siouxsie Q outlines how this updated ordinance could be implemented: “Say some new fancy tech industry folks move into West Oakland and they don’t like the neighborhood and they may see something that, to them, looks like sex work or a ‘nuisance.’ They can call the city and put into motion ways to get those people evicted.”
The Oakland ordinance is just one example of the legal obstacles that sex workers in Silicon Valley continue to face. MyRedbook.com was shut down as part of the FBI’s Operation Cross Country, an anti-trafficking initiative that, in practice, reportedly targets more adult sex workers than trafficking victims. And the same tech that, according to the buoyant reporting of yesteryear, is supposedly facilitating a sex work boom is now being used by law enforcement nationwide to target sex work and conduct sting operations over the Internet.
So forget what you may have heard about the simultaneous boom of startup culture and sex work. The economic reality of sex work in the Silicon Valley is far messier than a clean-cut symbiotic relationship between lonely tech men and eager call girls. Sex workers are among those hit hardest by the gentrification of a once diverse city. And tech is proving itself to be less of a tool in the hands of sex workers and more of a dangerous double-edged sword.