Rejected Ads for Sex Workers Find Venue

After being rejected by two billboard companies for failing to meet community standards, an ad campaign advocating sex workers’ rights is running on 50 Muni buses in San Francisco.

The campaign, which runs through Nov. 11, is sponsored by the St. James Infirmary, a comprehensive health care clinic in San Francisco run by and for sex workers and their families. The clinic was founded by Margo St. James, the prostitutes’ rights activist, in 1999.

The ads feature cheery photographs of local sex workers (from the shoulders up), their family members and health care providers, images that include a woman in a fur coat, a man with a dog and a couple touching heads. The tagline “Someone you know is a sex worker” accompanies the images.

“This is about humanizing us,” said Naomi Akers, the clinic’s executive director and a former sex worker who is one of 27 people photographed for the campaign. “We’re not just the stereotype of sexual deviant. We’re everyday people.”

The St. James Infirmary turned to Muni after two major advertising firms, CBS Outdoor and Clear Channel Outdoor, rejected the ads for billboard placement earlier this year.

“Sex workers” is “not a family friendly term,” Barbara Haux, a CBS Outdoor senior account executive, wrote in a rejection e-mail to the clinic. The company said it would reconsider, but only if that phrase was not used.

In a statement to The Bay Citizen, a representative of Clear Channel Outdoor defended its choice not to run the ads, saying that local managers review all content to make sure it meets “standards of the local community.”

The St. James Infirmary did not alter the ads and eventually secured an agreement with Titan 360, a transit-advertising company, to run them on Muni.

According to Ms. Akers, it is impossible to know how many active sex workers there are in San Francisco, but the medical clinic serves over 500 individual patients annually.

The term sex work encompasses a wide variety of activities, including prostitution, escort services, phone sex, Internet webcam sex, erotic dancing and pornography.

A measure in San Francisco to decriminalize prostitution, Proposition K, failed to pass in 2008, with 41 percent of the vote.

Sex workers “are deserving of rights and of health care and of housing and anything that any of us believes that anybody in our society deserves,” said Rachel Schreiber, an artist and associate professor at the California College of the Arts who volunteers at St. James and was creative director for the ad campaign. Barbara DeGenevieve, a Chicago-based artist, was the photographer.

Ms. Schreiber said that some supporters had urged them to put the ads up informally as part of a street art campaign, but she believed that would not have had the same impact. “When you’re on the side of a bus,” she said, “that brings a kind of legitimacy to the work of the clinic.”