Sex Worker Awareness: St. James Infirmary Takes Message to WHO

It's rare that an advertisement cuts through the clutter and chaos of a San Francisco commute. But last fall, as Muni buses staggered along, these words plastered to the sides stood out: "Sex workers are mothers, school teachers, and social activists." An accompanying photo showed a smiling woman, and a tagline read, "Someone you know is a sex worker."

That memorable campaign was the product of St. James Infirmary, a clinic at 11th and Mission streets offering free counseling, HIV testing, needle exchanges, and more to sex workers and their families. Now, that campaign has moved from the streets of San Francisco to the global stage.

Stephany Ashley, programs director at St. James Infirmary, recently traveled to Montreux, Switzerland, to present the campaign at a conference organized by the World Health Organization. Sex worker groups from around the world gathered on Jan. 30 and 31 to address the threat of violence to sex workers in the context of HIV.

St. James Infirmary was the only organization present from the United States, and the only one to approach the issue from a media outreach standpoint. Other groups emphasized state-based solutions — new legislation or law enforcement training — so a media campaign addressing the challenges facing sex workers stood out.

The idea was to "put a human face on a group of people who are often stereotyped and marginalized in the media," says Ashley. Even in libertine San Francisco, getting the message out was no easy task. St. James Infirmary first attempted to place the ads — which feature real sex workers — on billboards. Both CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel, the companies effectively controlling the billboard market, rejected the ads outright. Ashley says that CBS Outdoor scoffed that "'sex worker' is not a family-friendly word."

Muni, it turns out, has a more tolerant worldview. Titan Media, the company responsible for advertisements on Muni, accepted the ads and placed them on some 30 buses. "In a lot of major cities, bus stops are sites of shame campaigns, places where they post the photos of johns caught for soliciting prostitution," Ashley says. "We turned that on its head."

St. James Infirmary has converted the Muni ads into posters, and is working with sex worker clinics and advocacy organizations around the nation and internationally to find outlets for the message in the months ahead. As for the global policy arena, Ashley and a team of advocates are working on the next set of recommendations for the World Health Organization to approve and pass on to the United Nations.

 
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