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As the epicenter of the mythically lurid times of the Gold Rush, and the locus of free love in the s, San Francisco has inspired a long and impressive sexual mythology.
This mythology has its roots in the Amazon myth, articulated by popular 16th century Spanish author, Garcia Ordez de Montalvo. He wrote about California as a land of only women, strong and forceful and untamed. Spanish explorers brought these romantic notions about exotic women with them to California, giving birth to centuries of Golden State mystique. Gold rush San Francisco had its own version of this mythology: The suggestion conjures images of lavishly dressed women draping the arms of tough looking gamblers drinking whiskey and throwing bags of gold dust on the card table.
Indeed, some of this mythology rings true. Prostitutes occupied a privileged place in gold-rush society, with economic opportunity beyond that of any other working American females. And they certainly belonged to the pioneer, gold-miner elite, involved in legendary bar-fights and shoot-outs in the honor of their slighted lover. She married him a couple of hours before his execution. Still, prostitution quickly developed into one of the most degrading and subjugated professions in San Francisco society.
Whether its practitioners were indentured Chinese women , economically and socially oppressed Latina women, or kidnapped and enslaved white women, prostitution for some became a form of imprisonment and punishment as opposed to a profession. At the same time, the number of prostitutes multiplied and developed a hierarchical system in which many women were disempowered by the lack of economic opportunity.
From to the late s, prostitutes experienced an unprecedented ascension in power and a brutal fall from grace in San Francisco. Before the gold rush and the subsequent urban development , the Bay Area had no organized prostitution as such. The population was mostly Californios, with Native Americans at the bottom of the social hierarchy.