No CBS, Clear Channel Billboards for Sex Workers

SAN FRANCISCO—After Clear Channel Outdoor and CBS Outdoor rejected billboard ads submitting to them by the St. James Infirmary, which has provided full-service health care to sex workers and their families since 1999, the Mission Street clinic found a transit advertising company that would put them on 50 Mini-buses in the city.

Now, more people may end up seeing the safe-for-work ad (pictured) that feature photos of sex workers, family members and healthcare professionals and ideas the leading billboard companies find threatening. The copy on the ad states:

“Some of us are sex workers.”

“Some of us provide health care to sex workers.”

“Some of us are family members of sex workers.”

“Someone you know is a sex worker.”

One of the points of the ad, of course, is to make it clear that you often can’t spot a sex worker on sight. They don’t have tattoos on their faces screaming “sex worker,” at least not the ones pictured.

The ad,” said St. James executive director Naomi Akers, “is about humanizing us.” A former sex worker and one of 27 people photographed for the campaign, she added, “We’re not just the stereotype of sexual deviant. We’re everyday people.”

According 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.’”

More pointedly, Barbara Haux, a CBS Outdoor senior account executive wrote in an e-mail to the clinic that the ad was rejected because “sex workers” is “not a family friendly term.” The ad would be reconsidered if the phrase “sex worker” were not used, however.

To its credit—though it could hardly have made any other decision—St. James refused to delete the term and instead contracted with Titan 360 to use the ads on the Minis, but the refusal by CBS and Clear Channel to run the ad only underscores the purpose of the ad, which is to bring attention to institutional bias against sex workers. The rejection is a perfect example of that bias, especially since CBS' and Clear Channel's reasoning is so weak.

It is in fact almost impossible to understand the irrational explanation by CBS Outdoor. What could be more family unfriendly than not wanting to help the families of sex workers or the sex workers themselves by making sure that they have access to good health care?

If the presumption by CBS Outdoor, or Clear Channel Outdoor for that matter, is that only illegal prostitution qualifies as sex work, they are sorely ill-informed. Adult entertainment professionals are also sex workers, of course, and are often dependent upon clinics such as St. James for the testing and health care for keeping them safe in their professional and private lives (as if each is completely independent from the other.)

But it’s not just porn and prostitution that encompasses sex work, but also work done in gentlemen’s clubs, for phone sex and webcam services as well as for escort services, which may or may not involve actual sexual interaction. In some counties, scantily clad coffee baristas are now also being defined as sex workers.

Because the list just keeps getting bigger and bigger, the argument that running such an ad might be construed as condoning illegal behavior becomes less viable, which might be one reason CBS Outdoor expanded its objection to include the “not family friendly” rationale.

They do not mean all families, of course, or even any specific families, but just families in general, though apparently not any of the families connected to the people pictured in the ad. Their families do not count.

That exclusion might even extend to the family of Rachel Schreiber, an artist and associate professor at the California College of the Arts, who was the creative director for the ad campaign. She told The Bay Citizen that 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.”

If it were possible to boycott a billboard, this would be a great reason to do so. Both of these companies need to be slapped upside their corporate heads for taking such an inhospitable (and hostile) stance toward this increasingly broad class of people. That CBS Outdoor would use such a pitiful excuse deserves something extra-special.