Beyond “Victim-Criminals”

by Samantha Majic

This article presents a case study of the St. James Infirmary in San Francisco, CA., the world’s only occupational health and safety clinic developed and run by and for sex workers. Drawing from many years of research that involved participating in the SJI’s activities and conducting interviews with the SJI’s staff, clients, and interested groups, I argue in this article that the SJI can help us understand how nonprofit organizations may challenge gender ideologies—that is, dominant ideas about masculine and feminine behavior.

Gender ideologies come from many places, but I focus here on how institutions such as the criminal justice system create and produce these. When it comes to sex workers—individuals who exchange sexual services for cash or other trade—the dominant ideology is that they are criminals and victims. In the article I show that even in liberal San Francisco, the tendency to arrest sex workers casts them as criminals, while organizations and advocates that suggest that they are always forced in to this activity by the a third party also feeds perceptions that they are victims.

Enter the SJI, funded mainly by the local health department to offer occupational health and safety services to sex workers, their partners, and their clients. What role could this organization possibly have in challenging the victim-criminal ideology? I argue that it has a large one. If we look closely at the language it uses, the way it configures its space, and the way it raises public awareness about sex workers and their health and safety, it becomes clear that it is playing an important role in challenging gender ideologies.

For example, the SJI has a mission that acknowledges sex work as legitimate work, not an activity someone must be rescued from or arrested for. As result, they do not require anyone to leave the sex industry to get services, and this allows sex workers to feel safe. Additionally, the SJI provides opportunities for sex workers to gain occupational skills in the health care field, such as phlebotomy certification, or peer counselor training. By doing this, sex workers can show the community that they are not simply dangerous criminals, but active in and responsible for their own health care. And finally, the SJI tried to educate the public that sex workers can be anyone. Through a public awareness campaign titled “Someone You Know is a Sex Worker,” they have tried to educate the wider community that sex workers deserve our respect, not criminalization or pity.

Certainly not all nonprofit organizations can challenge gender ideologies in the same way, but the SJI provides one example of how this is possible. Although there is no guarantee that the SJI will change the victims-criminal ideology in the short or long run, it provides an important example of how this may be done, and as a result, it provides important lessons about nonprofits, gender, and institutional change.

Samantha Majic is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at John Jay College-CUNY. Her article, “Beyond ‘Victim-Criminals’: Sex Workers, Nonprofit Organizations, and Gender Ideologies,” is published in the June 2014 issue of Gender & Society. Click here to view the article. 

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