Sarah Patterson (photo by Tara Israel)
In January 2012, Sarah Elspeth Patterson and a group of other sex worker activists in NYC went to work offering health care and social services to sex workers. The much needed outcome, Persist Health Project, is the 2nd sex worker only health clinic in the United States, after Saint James Infirmary in San Francisco.
While there is limited funding for it as of yet, the Persist team are diligently working on their labor of love and helping to put an end to the lack of non-biased services for sex workers. Sex workers have a history of being subjected to discrimination, stigma, and forced hospitalization and testing in the mainstream healthcare system. NYC’s Persist strives to be a safe space where sex workers can be open and receive the care they need. You can help contribute to the growth of Persist by donating here. Every little bit helps!
I got a chance to speak with Sarah about the project upon her return from this year’s Desiree Alliance conference.
How would you describe Persist and it’s work?
Persist Health Project (Persist) is a peer-led organization that connects folks in the sex trade in New York City with providers who are either from the community themselves or awesome allies. In addition to coordinating care for people —people can call us and have a provider hand-picked for them, based on their needs —we also offer workshops on health topics, such as burnout, sexual health, and general health. To keep enhancing our network of providers, we offer trainings for health care professionals on how to work with folks in the sex trade better.
Persist was co-founded in January of 2012 by a group of sex worker activists, nurse practitioners, and social workers who are also current workers, former workers, or very committed allies. I brought together people I knew were valuable members of sex worker organizing groups, who were either interested in health for sex workers because of their own experiences with sex work or had transitioned from sex work to health or social services. Many of us had been doing organizing together, were friends or peers, and saw a collective need. Others had dreamed for a long time of opening a clinic space just for sex workers.
What was your motivation for working on this project?
I didn’t give my health a lot of thought until I became a healthcare professional and was expected to be an “expert” on these things. After I got my degree, I found myself doing sexual health education and thinking, what about my own personal health decisions? Am I really being “safe” all the time, or do I do things that are “risky?” Are there better ways to think about this, outside of thinking about everything —drugs, alcohol, smoking, sex, food, so on—as a “risk”? What’s realistic for my life, rather than what is generally taught as the “best” thing to do? Of course, the concept of making health choices that fit your life is one the fundamentals of harm reduction. But it was only after getting the “right” answers from education that I wondered about the value of what I already knew from my own life experience, and how that might be useful to others.
I think it’s incredibly valuable to be offering positive, affirming peer support to one another from within communities involved with or impacted by the sex trade. In addition to creating communities and shared life experiences, trading sexual services can also be very competitive, anxiety-inducing and isolating. So part of Persist’s goal is to break the feeling of isolation in health care by shifting ideas of what support can look like.