Sex Worker Clinic Set To Open South of Market
Twenty-one years ago, America’s first and only sex worker occupational health and social clinic opened in San Francisco. Soon the St. James Infirmary will host a Grand Opening party in their biggest space yet, located South of Market at 1089 Mission Street.
Sex workers have had it hard the past few years. In 2018, anti-trafficking legislation FOSTA-SESTA had a devastating impact on the industry. The bill’s dubious language indicted online platforms and branded sex workers as conspirators to trafficking. Without the safety net of web advertising, many began to work the streets. Some left the business altogether. Outdoor sex work brings with it more prospects of danger as workers lack access to client screening tools and become vulnerable to arrest.
To help as many as possible, St. James Infirmary conducts community outreach via their Naughty Nursemobile. Every weekend, a team of volunteers navigates the Polk and Capp Street strolls. In their vehicle, an abundance of safer sex supplies and safety information for outdoor workers. Still, new challenges present themselves. Amid waves of COVID-19 and now monkeypox, many in-person sex workers saw a decline in revenue. St. James provides free COVID-19 vaccines as well as food assistance to those in need.
In March 2022, St. James Infirmary launched the Taimon Booton Navigation Center, San Francisco’s first shelter to specifically serve unhoused transgender and gender non-confirming people. Outside of the shelter, St. James Infirmary has offered therapy, harm reduction supplies, HIV testing and support, hormones and peer-based care to San Francisco sex workers since June 1999.
Sex Work and the City
The city has a long history of sex workers’ rights and advocacy movements. Boomtowns are magnets for people seeking fortunes and San Francisco was no different. In 1917, sex workers occupied the Tenderloin’s Central Methodist Church, demanding Reverend Paul Smith to end his crusade against local ‘vice’ industries. This event is widely recognized as the first sex worker-led protest in United States history. Before the Stonewall uprising in New York City came the Compton Cafeteria riots of 1966. Police stormed the Tenderloin diner, arresting trans sex workers who frequented the place. Their crime: female impersonation. That night, like the patrons of Stonewall would three years later, San Franciscans fought back.
It was in San Francisco that local feminist activist Carol Leigh (also known as Scarlott Harlot) coined the term “sex worker.” The nomenclature has since been universally adopted as an umbrella term referring to those who engage in erotic labor.
That slight shift in language is important. It’s not just a move away from the dehumanizing “prostitute.” It reaffirms a long-ignored truth that conversations about protections for sex workers belong in the larger discussion of workers’ rights.
Margo St. James, founder of St. James Infirmary, was a pivotal figure in the global sex workers’ rights movement. Margo came to San Francisco somewhere near the tail-end of the Beatnik era. After police wrongfully arrested her for prostitution, she faced extensive social and professional discrimination. This signaled Margo’s entrance into sex work activism.
In the 1970’s she hosted San Francisco’s now-legendary annual Hookers’ Ball at the Cow Palace. At its height, the ball saw twenty thousand party goers. St. James’ activism extended beyond the city. In the eighties she co-founded the International Committee for Prostitutes’ Rights and organized the international Whore’s Congress. In 1999, in partnership with the city of San Francisco, she founded America’s first and only peer-based clinic for sex workers. Her wish for the full decriminalization of the sex trade did not come to pass in her lifetime. Margo died in 2021 from complications of Alzheimer’s disease. We still feel her impact today, and America’s sex work decriminalization movement is stronger than ever.
All are welcome at St. James Infirmary’s Grand Opening night on Wednesday, August 24th, 2022 at 5:30 PM. The event is open to sex workers of all trades, members of the community, the clinic’s new SoMa neighbors, and any allies wishing to learn more about the services St. James provides.