Sex Work on the Barbary Coast: Anatomy of a Final Group Project

Posted on May 17, 2010


How do students develop an outstanding final group project? My example here is from spring 2008, research culminating in a video made by the students in the section as they walked through San Francisco’s Barbary Coast, locating buildings that served as brothels and streets that were once centers of sex work.

San Francisco’s Historical Society maintains a website delineating a walking tour of the district, but you will be hard-pressed to know that Waverley Place (stop #5), the “Street of Painted Balconies”, was one site of brothels, or that Maiden Lane was another. A PBS documentary, Madams of the Barbary Coast, provides a good starting point for visuals and biographical information. Herbert Asbury’s 1933 popular book The Barbary Coast: An Informal History of the San Francisco Underworld gives a sense of the exoticization of this history.

This project was developed by a group of students whose interests I described as follows:

Your group members expressed interest in a number of aspects of women’s sexuality in the past, from the well-documented situation of sex workers in western US in the 19th century to the more elusive questions of same-sex relations in the ancient world of Mesopotamia and its neighbors. Your late scheduling is intended to ensure you have time to work through the various new readings you will need to find to say something coherent about these diverse topics.

The online forum where this group developed their project shows the way they arrived at their well-focused, well-researched, and original presentation. First, one group member suggested that

I thought it might be interesting to make a “documentary” film to present to the class rather than just reading something along with a powerpoint. This way we could work in the material by filming on location (like in the museums, etc) and work in quotes, images, etc without “pointing” to a bland image or text. I did something like this once before for a theater class and it really took the pressure off of “presenting” and was a creative alternative to the norm.

A second student replied agreeing to the format, an outlining what her proposal had been:

My proposal was about breasts as phallic symbols…how body parts have been socially/culturally constructed, oh and fluids…the existence of “noble” fluids, and weak fluids (semen/milk) and how they have thus been determined by different social contexts. I have also read a bit on the female orgasm in literature outside of this class. However, as a group of women, I think it would be interesting to do a cross-culture, cross-time, break down/survey of how female erotic zones/body parts (outside of the standard genitalia as the only possibility) have been understood/constructed as well as the female orgasm— and then deconstruct them.

The first student replied:

I’d also like to throw out what my proposal was. I was interested in historical documentation of and feeling about lesbianism. I would really like to dabble around in that, so maybe we could come up with a topic than encapsulates all of our inklings.

A third student agreed that the format would be worthwhile, and added

I’ll throw out my proposal as well (even though the other topics I’ve read about on here sound fantastic). I was interested in learning about prostitution during the Gold Rush, particularly in San Francisco. I was interested in the archaeology from brothel sites. I read an article in my Soc 135 class on this topic and it talked about how the women involved were making their own money, were independent, and had a fair amount of respect from some people in town. But that in the end it would be harder for them to get married or be seen as completely respectable ladies to the greater society, even if they left the job.

The final video project developed rapidly, as group members realized that there was significant historical literature and visual information on Gold Rush sexuality that they could explore. The project led them to go into San Francisco and locate buildings visible in historic footage and photographs. The video was envisaged as having three “Acts” that also incorporated some of the other interests mentioned by the first two participants:

Act I: Parlor houses, Brothels, cribs, and the opportunities of the more self-sufficient prostitute

Act II: The economics of the Barbary coast sex industry

Act III: Sexual enslavement, forced prostitution and the disembodiment of desire

The resource list this group developed included a wide range of materials, from popularizing websites to up-to-date journal articles and scholarly books. Even a sampling demonstrates how they built on but went beyond what they were introduced to in the course:

Barnhart, Jacqueline Baker.  1986. The Fair But Frail: Prostitution in San Francisco 1849-1900. Reno: University of Nevada Press.

Hurtado, Albert. “When Strangers Met: Sex and Gender on Three Frontiers.” Frontiers: A Journal of Women’s Studies, Vol. 17, No. 3, 1996.

Hurtado, Albert. “Sex, Gender, Culture, and a Great Event: The California Gold Rush.” The Pacific Historical Review, Vol. 68, No. 1, Feb 1999.

Riley, Glenda. “Feminizing the history of the Gold Rush.” The Western Historical Quarterly, Vol 30. No. 4, 1999.

The in-class presentation was dynamic, engaging, and linked the project to core themes of the course, and drew in other students.