Sex workers unite! May Week Labour Arts Festival

Scott Harris /

It may be the world’s oldest profession, but when it comes to organizing to fight for the rights and protections most workers take for granted, prostitutes lag far behind workers in other occupations. It’s a situation that Maxine Doogan, who has worked as a prostitute for 20 years, is hoping to change.

Doogan is the founder of the San Francisco-based Erotic Service Providers Union (ESPU), a national organization she started in 2004 with the lofty aim of organizing workers in all aspects of the sex trade—from prostitutes and strippers to porn actors and sensual masseuses, as well as the myriad industry support staff, including photographers, security guards and drivers—into one big union. She will be in Edmonton as part of this year’s May Week Labour Arts Festival to speak on a panel about her efforts.

“What we really need to do is we need to organize the sex industry on an industrial level,” explains Doogan over the phone from San Francisco, “because each of our particular situations, whether we’re dancers or we’re prostitutes or we’re porn actors and actresses, the certain labour practices in each of those different sectors are affecting those other parts of the industry—they’re affecting each other but nobody really understands that or knows about it or is talking about it.”

Doogan came to this realization when she discovered that at the same time prostitutes like her were being arrested on the streets for engaging in the sex trade, erotic dancers in clubs were being forced by club owners to engage in sexual acts as part of their job, even if they didn’t necessarily want to. It motivated her to look beyond her own profession and start thinking about the industry as a whole.

“I started attending the San Francisco Labor Council meetings and learning about the larger conditions of labour, started attending labour schools, and really started to learn what organized labour was about and how other kinds of workers—in teachers’ unions, postal workers’ unions, health care workers’ unions—they’re all being subjected to the same kinds of oppressions that sex industry workers are, and it’s just that we can’t really see that because we don’t talk about sex, we don’t talk about sex trade workers.”

Doogan says that despite the stigma that is still attached to people who make their living by providing what she calls “erotic services,” the basic concerns are the same as those of any other worker: having control over the terms of employment, being able to ensure appropriate health and safety on the job and being in a position to bargain for better conditions.

Unfortunately, in many sex trade professions, most notably prostitution, the law makes realizing those goals much more difficult.

“Our labour contracts exist in the criminalization of prostitution laws. They define how we get to work or not work, where it is that we work, and so they really create the negative work conditions that we are subjected to without our permission,” she explains. “So the voters, the people, the legislators, I call them our bosses—they have set the terms, they are the ones that are doing the enforcement.”

In San Francisco, the ESPU and other groups tried unsuccessfully to change some of these dynamics through Proposition K, which would have effectively decriminalized prostitution by barring police from investigating and prosecuting it. While the initiative ultimate failed by a 60-40 margin, Doogan says it did manage to change the debate about the sex trade, which is a major part of the union’s current work.

“The stage we’re at right now, it’s worker empowerment. It’s about gaining some esteem around the fact that you’re not a criminal, you’re a worker and you have rights.”

For other professions organized by ESPU—which has annual dues of just $25—labour relations can look more like the traditional union model.

“In the dancer’s situation a collective bargaining contract is going to look like dancers coming together and creating their own contracts and going to the owners of the dance clubs and the managers of the dance clubs. The workers want control over their work conditions and how much they’re paying for, they want that clearly in writing, but the dance clubs are always the ones who write the contracts and the workers are forced to sign it. Either you sign it or you can’t work,” she says.

“This is really a labour issue, this is a workers’ right to organize issue, the right to be in an association, the right to negotiate collectively so you can have some equal protection under the law, like everybody wants on their job.” V

Wed, Apr 29 (7 pm)
One big union for all workers
Featuring maxine doogan of the Erotic Service Providers Union, San Francisco
AUUC Ukrainian Centre (11018 – 97 St)
Free, childcare provided


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