Dynamics of Polk Street Sex Work Change

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Text by Joey Plaster. Copyright (©) by C. Joey Plaster, 2009. All rights reserved.

A 1981 government-funded study had characterized male hustling as an opportunity for self-discovery that was part of an upwardly mobile entrance into the gay world. “Many adolescent males involved in hustling exhibit positive self-images, imagining themselves to be entrepreneurs, entertainers, and sexually desirable partners,” it read. “Many also see hustling as an appropriate way of exploring their homosexuality.” Clients “are men exploring their homosexual feelings, coming to terms with their homosexual identities, struggling to find fulfilling gay male relationships or convinced that the relationships they enjoy with hustlers are perfectly appropriate and mutually satisfactory.”[1]

The emergence of AIDS and speed inverted this relationship. “All the boys that were pretty, and happy, and partying and having a good time, just the flick of a switch you would see them totally strung out, sitting on the street, no shoes, talking to themselves, picking themselves raw,” Rob Bennett recalled. “And it also attracted a different kind of John at that point where it was mostly guys looking to give drugs to the boys to make them freaky and have sex.”[2]

“The johns became different,” James Harris recalled. “They became the predator, almost. They preyed on these young boys, and they knew that they could probably get them not for much money, all they had to do is get a bag of speed,” he said. “And as you saw this sort of deterioration of respect for these kids, you saw a more increased use of speed with these kids, and you saw a more desperate type of youth.”[3]

Rob Bennett left the street in the early 1990s. “I realized I didn’t want to be on the street as much,” he said. “It wasn’t exciting anymore. It was too much violence, and too many creepy drugs, and the boys- they didn’t have it anymore.” He instead advertised in the back pages of the Bay Area Reporter, along with many of his friends from the street. In June 1981, the B.A.R. carried 6 ads for massages and 12 for models and escorts, compared with 66 and 86 in June 1987.[4]

Ethnographer Toby Marotta found that the sex workers who posted advertisements tended to be older, more highly educated, gay-identified, and based in the Castro neighborhood. The erotic masseurs, who became especially popular after AIDS, “took this primitive notion [of sex work] that you found in the Tenderloin and carried it to this really most sophisticated stage of being erotic massage with an understanding of religion, spirituality, the role of body work, the role of sexuality in a healthily functioning psyche and body,” he said. The clients “were equally sophisticated.”

Sex work on Polk Street increasingly became a vehicle for supporting drug habits. One hustler, who asked to remain nameless, came to the street in 1990, after he heard people talking about the easy money there while in line for General Assistance. “As soon as I hit Polk Street, within 20 minutes I was already making money, and that kind of kept me there.”

“I’ve always had other options, but it was the quick easy money, and plus being a drug addict, I constantly need my drugs, so hustling was constant money comin’ in….You’re a drug addict, you need money, and waiting for a check once every week or once every two weeks just wasn’t doing it. You know, I’d be broke the next day when I was getting paid, I mean, I need constantly, I need money every day, all day long. So hustling was the way to do it.”[5]

In the mid 1990s, Mark Zupancic first came to Polk Street to buy speed, only later beginning to hustle to support the habit. Zupancic became increasingly territorial and competitive. “I was very physical, I punched out a few people on the street, make sure people see that I mean business,” he said. “There were so many different divisions.”

The shattered community seemed to open the area to other street economies. Around 1997, a group of heterosexual pimps and female prostitutes “took over” the street by force, Zupancic said. The remains of the Polk Street scene were hardly a match. “We were strung-out junkies, kids, tore up people, we’re all speeded out, we have low self-esteem,” he said. The pimps carried guns, saying “you fuckin’ fags get out of here.” He remembers a couple stabbings. “It was raw, it was dirty, there was a lot of violence,” Zupancic said. “You’d see people get stabbed, shot, beat up. Just chaos. Chaotic.”[6]

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  1. Toby Marotta papers, GLBTHS. “A study of Juvenile Prostitution: Executive Summary,” US Department of Health and Human Services, October 1981.
  2. Interview with Rob Bennett by Joey Plaster, 2008.
  3. Interview with James Harris by Joey Plaster, 2008.
  4. San Francisco Chronicle, Monday Oct. 9, 1989.
  5. Interview by Joey Plaster, 2008.
  6. Interview with Mark Zupancic by Joey Plaster, 2008.