U.S. San Francisco Bay Sex Worker Film and Arts Fest

North America and the Caribbean Regional Correspondent

The 19 May is the start of the bi-annual San Francisco Bay Area Sex Worker Film and Arts Fest (SWFAF) taking place across San Francisco and Oakland, California. SWFAF was started in 1999 by Carol Leigh, also known as Scarlot Harlot. She is a film maker, archivist and activist who coined the term 'sex work' during a conference in 1979 or 1980 as an alternative to the phrase 'Sex Use Industry'. She wanted to place emphasis on the agency of the provider rather than the customer, and the term has become broadly used across the globe.     

The 10-day-long gathering brings together sex workers and activists from the Bay Area and beyond. It provides a wide range of programing focusing on an international film and short films. It also includes performances, workshops, visual arts, political organising, skills sharing and self-care events.

Events this year include performances and comedy by:

  • Gina Gold, Cinnamon Maxxine, Lady Monster and Sangria Red
  • Workshops and discussions on mental health, the prison industrial complex, centering black and brown ‘trans femme’ sex workers within the movement
  • Financial planning
  • Self care
  • ...and ‘whoring for dummies’.  

‘Fashion Whore’ presents the work of participants of a fashion design programme held through St James Infirmary in a runway show followed up by performances and a dance party for the community. The festival ends with ‘Whore’s Bath’ - a sex worker only day of spa treatments, healing modalities and a feast free to the community.  

In a politically ultra-conservative environment, Laure McElroy, who is a Film Curator, spoke about the importance of an event focused on the culture and creativity of sex workers. She recounted the first time seeing a picture of Carol Leigh in an article in the San Francisco Chronicle. The picture showed Carol in all her “fire engine splendor” with “big cleavage and even a bigger sign”. Laure said, “Before I saw that picture, I had no concept that something like a person's getting money to fuck could be a…cause. [T]hat picture instantly broadened my assumptions of what could be seen and talked about and acted on through a political lens, and did it more completely than any words could have given the same amount of time.”

The festival began with a desire to confront issues such as AIDS, consent and sexual freedom and stigma. Over the years the festival has widened the scope to bring in conversations about gentrification, condoms as evidence, and the policing of black and brown, street-based, and transgender sex workers. In 2013 the festival held a week of facilitated conversations to bring an intersectional lens into the sex work activist movement.  

Laure spoke on what events like SWFAF provide: ”When free to speak without apology or unhealthy limits imposed by shame, our stories remain compelling and ultimately instructive.  Sex work is the perfect storm of intersectionality; class issues, labor issues, poverty and underground economies, issues of sexual and gender freedom, racialized economic and aesthetic issues, queer, childrens' and women’s rights.”

A new addition to the festivals’ website is an archive section of films shown in past years, including several long movies. This database, which is a joint project of Carol Leigh and artist Katrina Fullman, is an attempt to make available many films and pieces of archival footage to the public. Carol spoke about how archiving holds ever more importance to her: “Having been present near the very onset of the sex workers’ rights movement in this country, collecting history has always been part of my focus on sex worker rights, as that pivotal point holds such strong implications. Now as I am older, approaching 70, I find that my focus leans towards assembling artifacts and documenting my own journey, which coincides with the development of the sex workers rights movement.”

Attendees to the festival can purchase tickets online and donations to the organisation provide stipends to the volunteers who run the event and create scholarship opportunities for those financially unable to attend.