St. James Infirmary  has been providing free, non-judgmental medical and social services for sex workers since 1999. This week, it’ll take the next step. The clinic is putting ads up in Muni buses throughout the city this month meant to educate and inspire Muni riders throughout the city.
But the campaign, entitled “Someone you know is a sex worker,” won’t be seen on a billboard near you. The ads, which feature actual sex workers, were rejected outright by both Clear Channel and CBS Outdoor before transit ad company Titan 360 agreed to the bus campaign.
You can preview the controversial images -- as well as mingle with fabulous people who work for the health and safety of Bay Area sex workers every day -- at an exhibit and launch party on Sun/16.
Artist Rachel Schreiber -- who created the campaign with photographer Barbara DeGenevieve, and whom the Guardian reached by phone yesterday -- thinks advertisers may be hesitant to seem aligned with sex workers rights.
“The anti-trafficking community has such a monopoly on the voice of the issue that I think people are afraid to speak out in another way. People are afraid of being perceived as not supporting that position. Anti-trafficking campaigns are really well funded, often overstated and under researched. Of course we are anti-trafficking and one of our big goals is to fight violence against sex workers”
“There are a lot of people who work in the industry by choice,” she continues. “And everyone deserves access to labor rights and health care and shouldn’t be stigmatized.”
The 27 individuals -- sex workers as well as friends and family members of sex workers -- who agreed to have their portraits and quotes displayed are taking a risk. It can be dangerous for sex workers to let their identities be known to the public. But Schreiber praised the participants for taking that risk for the good of the sex workers rights movement.
“There are a lot of activists in the community who are willing to go out on a limb…one impressive feature of this community is their support for one another, their willingness to go public to make the topic less secretive and stigmatized,” she says.
Campaign slogans include “sex work is real work” and “sex workers rights are human rights.” Those are central tenets of the sex worker rights movement, which strives to gain respect and rights for everyone from legal workers like adult film performers and dancers to people who work illegally, including those who exchange sex for survival or sustenance.
Most sex workers go to great lengths to separate their sex work from the rest of their lives. Schreiber notes a case where a high school teacher in Berkeley was outed, and lost her teaching job as a result.
“We have a really intense social and cultural taboo against the notion that people trade sex for any kind of money,” says Schreiber. “It’s really deeply ingrained.” She says other, legal occupations, present similar challenges.
“Agricultural workers, they’re using their bodies and their bodies are in harm’s way. Same with construction workers,” she goes on to say. “Sex work, yes it’s a form of labor that uses the body, but just because it involves sexuality its taboo is blown out of proportion.”
“Someone you know is a sex worker” campaign launch
Sun/16 5-8 p.m., $10 suggested donation
Intersection for the Arts
925 Mission, SF