Listen to me, not the prostitute. I said: Listen to ME!

You can't say that here: the rejected billboard

The question of UK aid linkage concerns me because of what I’ve always taken as an issue basic to activist politics: representation. Who speaks for whom? Why should people in London be accredited as honorary consuls for movements thousands of miles away? Against the interwoven obstacles of distance, borders, money, and power, how can those movements make their voices heard?

The borders are psychological, not just political, and there’s as much silence in LA as London.

Mention “prostitution” in Los Angeles and you’re likely to hear of local hero Ashton Kutcher, who campaigns against any form of sex work as human trafficking. (On the other coast, he tried to get American Airlines to pull its advertising from the Village Voice because the latter ran ads for sex work: “Hey @AmericanAir are you aware that you are advertising on a site that supports the Sale of Human Beings (slavery)?”, ran a barrage of tweets.)

Meanwhile, when a sex workers’ rights project called SWAAY (Sex Work Activists, Allies, and You) tried to buy space around LA for a text-only billboard contending that consensual sex work is not the same as trafficking or slavery, nobody would sell. “Any variation of the group’s message was banned by Clear Channel, CBS, Lamar, Regency, Van Wagner, Avant Outdoor, LA Transit Authority, and Outdoor Solutions.” This week, instead, the group is running a mobile billboard, travelling the Los Angeles streets. (Trafficking in sex? No. Sex in traffic.)

It’s not as though those big communications companies are averse to controversial subjects — prostitution included. Clear Channel already runs this sensational anti-sex-work billboard, warning johns that the morally sterling LAPD will get them:

calling all cars: sex for sale

— as well as this militaristic ad against immigration:

CBS is perfectly fine with giving space to these anti-abortion messages warning of a genocide against black fetuses:

(Of these ads, one feminist historian said: “To use racist arguments to try to bait black people to get them to be anti-abortion is just disgusting.”)

St. James Infirmary, a San Francisco comprehensive health clinic run by and for sex workers, recently faced the same problems with its own ad campaign.

“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 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 ads eventually appeared on San Francisco city buses.

stop that bus before it enslaves someone

Southern Africa is way more progressive than San Francisco.  Botswana’s ex-president Festus Mogae recently called for decriminalizing sex work (as well as homosexual conduct) to enable effective anti-HIV/AIDS campaigns. His words gave support to out and vocal activists pressing for liberalization across the region.

In response, the Botswanan press has begun featuring the voices of sex workers in ways that would appall California corporations. This article in the Botswana Gazette still tends toward the patronizing, but is far more honest than Clear Channel could stand:

These women in their thirties have become friends; Barbara from Zimbabwe is the bubbly one who says she has been a sex worker for about five years, having fled Zimbabwe in search of a better life. …

The police and nurses are their enemies; they say they are harassed by the police and nurses; sometimes policemen take advantage of them because they cannot report them because sex work is illegal. “The police are always after us; they arrest us, sometimes we sleep with them to let us go. Nurses will not treat us because they say we deserve to be sick because we trade in sex. Our job puts our health at risk and this means we seek medical attention more than any other individual due to sexually transmitted infections (STI),” said Pretty.

The women cannot open bank accounts to save what they earn. “Usually we spend the cash on cosmetics to beautify our selves so that we attract more customers,” Sethunya noted. …

The women want their trade to be legalised and fully support  president Festus Mogae’s call at the recent National Aids Council that prostitution should be legalised as a way to fight the spread of HIV/Aids. …

The Botswana Council of Churches with  Kgolagano Most at Risk Populations (BCC/MAPS), consisting of approximately 1000 commercial sex worker-members have already set the pace; they help the sex workers with advice and provide them with condoms to emphasise protection at all times. (BCC/MAPS) say they are willing to help the women to quit the trade, but would only be able to do so if they had money to help the women to start up new business that can sustain them….

The women, though, sound like they’d rather organize than quit: “The sex workers believe that decriminalisation of their work would help them to be organised, and afford them with protection from the law.”

One thought on “Listen to me, not the prostitute. I said: Listen to ME!

  1. Pingback: SPW – Sexuality Policy Watch » Blog Archive » WE RECOMMEND

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