St. James Infirmary Participates in Historic Human Rights Advocacy Success

In October 2010 the United Nations Human Rights Council evaluated the United States record on human rights through a process called the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). This review produced over 200 recommendations about how the US can improve its track record on human rights. In recommendation #86, member state Uruguay called on the Obama Administration to “undertake awareness-raising campaigns for combating stereotypes and violence against gays, lesbians, bisexuals and [transgender people], and ensure access to public services paying attention to the special vulnerability of [sex] workers to violence and human rights abuses.”

Our colleagues at Best Practices Policy Project began this advocacy work in its early stages a year ago. Once the recommendation was made the St. James Infirmary, along with several other organizations, was invited to collaborate in planning and carrying out an advocacy effort to get the recommendation accepted. On March 9th, 2011 we learned from the report put out by the U.S. State Department in response to their UPR evaluation that the U.S. adopted #86 saying: “…no one should face violence or discrimination in access to public services based on sexual orientation or their status as a person in prostitution.”

This news comes as a huge victory after a year long collaborative advocacy effort. Sex workers and our allies, including human rights advocates, anti-violence organizations, organizations advocating for gender and economic equality and many others came together to carry out three essential tasks: a.) Build a multi-faceted coalition of supporters, b.) Develop advocacy material supporting the adoption of Recommendation #86 and c.) Target policy makers and other state agents who influence these decisions.

It was amazing to watch this process unfold. We owe a huge thanks to many organizations and individuals who understood the significance of having sex work recognized in the UPR process, placed high value on community buy-in and were dedicated enough to navigate through a very confusing policy environment that sex workers aren’t often given access to. These shared values among organizers within this coalition, now known as Human Rights For All: Concerned Advocates for the Rights of Sex Workers and People in the Sex Trade (HRA), have made this effort successful. Not only has our success and progress been praised, but the organizing model that developed out of this constellation of organizations and individuals has been lauded as a model for human rights organizing.

To build a multi-faceted coalition, it was essential to get input from sex workers about what would reduce violence and human rights abuses. Four of the essential points identified among our network are:

1. Building capacity for states to address human rights violations through research and dialogue.
2. Modifying or eliminating existing federal policies that conflate sex work and human trafficking and prevent sex workers from accessing services such as healthcare, HIV prevention and support.
3. Investigating and preventing human rights abuses perpetrated by state agents, such as law enforcement officers.
4. Investigating the impact of criminalization, including state level criminal laws, on sex workers and other groups.

There was initially some confusion about how the US Government would be able to influence the daily human rights abuses that sex workers face, since most laws governing sex work operate at the state level. We know that there’s a problem with the conflation of sex work and human trafficking on a national and international scale. This conflation has resulted in federal funding intended to prevent and stop human trafficking being misdirected into arresting and incarcerating sex workers. There was a general consensus that the US would have to address this issue in order to prevent human rights abuses against both sex workers and victims of trafficking.

Addressing this conflation would not be enough, however, as state laws are at the heart of the stigma and discrimination that compromise the human rights of sex workers. This is why Human Rights For All recommended capacity building for states to better evaluate policies that affect sex workers. For example, many states use possession of condoms as evidence of an act of furtherance of prostitution to justify arrest. This is an obvious conflict with public health efforts to curb the transmission of sexually transmitted infection.

We also want the Obama Administration to investigate violence perpetuated by state agents, including law enforcement officers. The policy brief distributed by HRA discusses findings by two separate reports in Washington DC and New York City that show 50% of those surveyed were not taken seriously when they attempted to report violent crimes committed against them to the police and 27% of respondents in the other study have experienced violence at the hands of police. We must question the institutions and structures in our society that designate a particular group of people as easy targets for predators. And we must acknowledge co-factors of discrimination that make some sex workers more vulnerable to violence and discrimination than others, such as poverty, gender and race.

Most people believe that they don’t know any sex workers, or that one is able to identify a sex worker based on appearance. It’s commonly believed that discrimination against those identified as sex workers is acceptable, or even expected. While policy and institutional disenfranchisement are key factors in violating the human rights of sex workers, there are also deeply rooted misconceptions and prejudices that people carry in their hearts. I believe this is why Uruguay stated in its recommendation that the US needs to undertake awareness campaigns, to educate our public and minimize the fear and hatred many people have learned to feel when dealing with the sex industry.

At the St. James Infirmary we’re doing our part this year to educate the public and present a more human image of sex workers. Stay tuned for our upcoming public service announcement soon to be on billboards around San Francisco! We’ll be posting more about this campaign here soon.

You can also look out for our coalitions on March 18th, 2011 as we will be staging art actions called “86 THE VIOLENCE” in cities around the country. These demonstrations will mark the United States’ formal adoption of #86 at a hearing of the UN Human Rights Council on Geneva that morning. Sex workers and allies are demonstrating to let the world know in one solid, united voice, that violence and human rights abuses will no longer be tolerated in our community.

For more information about the UPR and human rights for sex workers please visit:

HRA’s UPR Site
Policy Brief
Media Kit