It is a great moment for evidence and the voices of sex workers swaying decision-makers, but we also should not pretend that this decision by Amnesty International materially changes anything on the ground for our communities around the world facing the daily harms of criminalization. The struggle to protect the rights of those most harmed by criminal laws and police abuse continues. As the anniversary of the uprising in Ferguson, Missouri, reminds us, ending the violence of criminalization goes beyond eliminating laws targeting sex work. This piece of good news energizes us to keep up that long fight.
An important part of the mission of the Best Practices Policy Project is to hold the United States accountable for sex worker rights. And in this debate, we note that many of the instigators of the hysterical backlash against the sober policy discussions at Amnesty International are based in the United States. These groups are primarily anti-sex work non-profit organizations that are heavily bank-rolled by anti-trafficking funding from American billionaires, who cynically tap into a desire to “save women and do good” amongst less informed but otherwise well-meaning people and organizations. Given the debate it is now the responsibility of those–such as celebrities Lena Dunham, Kevin Kline, Lisa Kudrow and Meryl Streep–who inadvertently allied themselves with what boils down to be nothing more than ongoing support for the policing and incarceration of people in the sex trade, their families, their customers and anyone the police may profile as a ‘client’ or sex worker such as transgender women, to look behind the rhetoric and distance themselves from this. It is especially important for celebrities and anti-violence groups alike to call for an end to the policing of sex workers and their communities at a time in the United States when all are aware of the role of police in the killing of people of color as part of “routine policing” and the deaths of numerous people–including many young women such as Sandra Bland and April Brogan–in custody.
Rather than arrest and incarceration, sex workers need rights including the right to work and provide for themselves and their families. “We have this narrative of ‘victim,’ ‘pimp,’ and ‘john,’ which I think are all really derogatory, racist, classist terms,” noted Savanah Sly a board member of SWOP-USA, “I stand firm that this is business. We call ourselves sex workers for a reason, and we want to be recognized as such. We need to be recognized as a labor force.” J, an advocate with New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance who has experienced violence at the hands of the police and domestic violence, explains, “sex work enabled me to go to school, it enabled me to get my child out of an abusive situation, it got me out of a domestic violence situation.” J is adamant that those opposing Amnesty International’s policy should be awakened to the realities of the lives of sex workers and support what sex workers need. “Do we really have to weigh in on the moral values of that? Which is the bigger crime, an act of domestic violence or sex?” she said to address a NY-based domestic violence organization that is opposing Amnesty’s policy of decriminalization, “I was not going to tolerate being with a man who believed he could beat me whenever he wants. I would rather go out there and take care of my own.”
Today, the Office of National AIDS Policy (ONAP) released the “National HIV/AIDS Strategy for the United States (Updated to 2020)” and once again fails to address the needs of sex workers. The rights of sex workers and the movement to fight HIV are interconnected in very real ways, yet government agencies continue to erase the needs and rights of sex workers by excluding them from community consultation sessions and refusing to hear what sex workers have to say. When ONAP sought community consultation to update the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, not one word was mentioned to sex worker advocates. They asked leaders in the fight against HIV/AIDS to give their opinions about various topics related to addressing the HIV/AIDS epidemic, but somehow failed to find sex workers important enough to hear out their opinions. In response, the recently established research team directed by Best Practices Policy Project and Desiree Alliance to author “Nothing About Us, Without Us: HIV/AIDS-Related Community and Policy Organizing for US Sex Workers,” the nation’s first report on HIV and sex work with a particular focus on people who are transgender, sent a letter to ONAP to voice our concerns.
In our letter we noted that the 2010 National HIV/AIDS Strategy makes no mention of sex workers, despite the fact that sex workers have been organizing for decades around these very issues. The updated policy is almost the same in this regard, taking a tiny step to mention the term “sex work” once, but nothing regarding the systematic exclusion of sex worker organizations from HIV policy decisions has changed. Cris Sardina, the director of Desiree Alliance, viewed the live streaming of the release of the policy today. “They mentioned over and over that stigma needs to be removed, yet one of the most vulnerable populations were excluded from these discussions,” she concluded. “Sex workers are stigmatized within stigmatized populations. Sex workers affected by HIV/AIDS didn’t have a voice in the national discussions today. That these voices, so important a component to these policy-making platforms, were merely an afterthought on a couple of pages is disheartening.” Our joint letter to ONAP already expressed our disappointment to policy makers that the very communities they claim to be helping are left out of the consultation process. Finding barriers to preventing the spread of HIV are impossible to find without working with communities living with and affected by HIV. Despite this, sex workers are continually left out as a community partners and transgender women are continually misgendered by the Centers for Disease Control as being classified as “Men who have sex with Men” – an inappropriate classification that ignores the profound sociological (and biological) differences between transgender women and gay, bisexual, or questioning men.
The letter also addresses concerns about the continued criminalization of the sex trade, as it has caused numerous health consequences for those involved and perceived to be involved as sex workers. Undoubtedly, the President’s goal to reduce HIV incidence is hindered by law enforcement policies across the nation to continue using condoms as evidence of prostitution and human trafficking related cases. Without proper labor rights and working conditions, sex workers may make decisions that affect their health. When accessing health care, sex workers face open discrimination and poor medical counseling due to their status for working in the sex trade. These are serious health considerations that impact addressing HIV in the United States, but apparently not relevant enough to be included in the United State’s National HIV/AIDS Strategy. Sex worker organizations that engage in grassroots harm reduction–often entirely without funding to do so because of the erasure of our communities as leaders in prevention strategies–have long recognized the gulf between what is said in the national policy and the lived experiences of sex workers. A representative of SWOP Maryland and harm reductionist working with migrant sex workers and survival workers who are often homeless, read over the new policy this afternoon. “They said the word ‘sex work’ in the policy, I liked that. I jumped up when I saw it,” she said, “but the policy is contradictory and fails to analyze the implications of certain interventions for criminalized groups. They are talking about testing people and their partners, but if you are a sex worker, what does it mean that you are going test me and my partners? How will that work since we are criminalized and stigmatized?”
Thanks to Derek Demeri and NJRUA for this blog post with input from Penelope Saunders (BPPP), SWOP MD and Desiree Alliance
Dear Director Brooks:
We are writing to you to ensure that the perspectives of sex workers and sex worker-led organizations are included in discussion of HIV/AIDS policy nationally, specifically in terms of updating the National HIV/AIDS Strategy. The Best Practices Policy Project is a national organization dedicated to supporting rights based approaches to policy and harm reduction work with sex workers, people in the sex trade and related communities in the United States. We produce materials for policy environments, address research and academic concerns and provide organizations and advocates with technical assistance. Everything that we do is guided by principles that protect the rights of people who engage in commercial sex in all its forms. The Best Practices Policy Project works with a wide network of organizations across the United States. This letter was written in consultation with the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance (NJRUA) and Desiree Alliance. NJRUA is a sex worker led group that has a focus area of preventing HIV among sex workers in New Jersey, and Desiree Alliance is a national sex workers rights organization dedicated to the decriminalization of sex work and elimination of ineffective HIV policies by empowering those most impacted to have a voice in the decisions that directly impact them.
We are pleased that the National HIV/AIDS Policy will be soon updated this year and would like to provide our input into the process and be included in forthcoming processes. The current National HIV/AIDS policy makes no mention of sex workers at all, despite the fact that sex workers in many different locales across the country have organized together for years in order to address factors that can increase their risk of HIV/AIDS.
Background and barriers: Across the United States, the harsh policing of anyone assumed to be, or profiled as a sex worker, directly undermines the ability of sex workers to protect themselves from HIV and, in a broader sense, alienates these communities from the support they need to defend their health and rights. Sex workers, and people the police assume to be sex workers, are harassed, assaulted, sexually assaulted, extorted, and falsely arrested by police. The law enforcement practices of using condoms as evidence and/or destroying condoms, confiscating medication(s), and seizing safe sex materials directly contravenes efforts to halt the spread of HIV in the United States. People of color, transgender people, immigrants, homeless people and youth of color are disproportionately affected by these law enforcement activities. People living with HIV who are profiled as being in the sex trade are subject to additional harassment, harsher policing and intensified legal sanctions (including felony convictions) in many jurisdictions across the US.
Different forms of U.S. anti-trafficking legislation and policies affect sex workers in the United States and globally. Federal U.S. anti-trafficking policies undermine the health and rights of sex workers both domestically and internationally by requiring that many organizations seeking funding adopt a policy against sex work (“Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath”). This requirement is applied to many seeking funds from the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). Organizations within the U.S. have also been subject to the pledge under the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. These restrictions mean that many organizations are confused about what kinds of services they can provide to sex workers and have, in some situations, lead to shuttering of excellent harm reduction services. New forms of state level legislation to end “domestic trafficking” focusing on “ending demand” for prostitution have been proposed and/or adopted in many U.S. States, intensifying policing of sex workers and their clients. Instead of improving working conditions for sex workers and people in sex trades, these laws lead to more arrests and imprisonment of sex workers, and erode their abilities to utilize tools and strategies they need to keep safe.
1 – In terms of how to reduce new HIV infections in this context, we recommend:
addressing the root causes that marginalize sex workers–such as criminalization, stigma, and police violence–from treatment and prevention services.
ending the criminalization of condoms for sex workers, trafficking victims and those profiled as such, and ensuring adequate access to condoms for all
providing funding for harm reduction and rights-based health care services for sex workers of all genders (including men and women, those who are transgender, and gender non-conforming people,) and all ages
Lifting all restrictions on federal funding for harm reduction programs, including the ban on syringe exchange programs, and expanding funding for evidence-based health approaches to drug use, including harm reduction and drug treatment.
2- In terms of how can we increase access to care & improve health outcomes for people living with HIV, we recommend:
training healthcare professionals to end stigma and discrimination against those who are involved in the sex trade
providing funding for harm reduction and rights-based health care services for sex workers of all genders and all ages
encouraging states to remove laws and enhancements to standard sentencings that criminalize people living with HIV; expunging the records of those arrested and charged under such laws that mandate sex offender registration; and removing people charged under these laws from sex offender registries. In addition, the U.S. Government should adopt a bill such as H.R.1843/S.1790 REPEAL HIV Discrimination Act, in order to bring the U.S. in line with international law standards to end criminalizing based on HIV status
Encourage dialogue between national borders and migrant sex workers to ensure HIV-related health care is provided to those detained in ICE facilities, with a view to ending their detention and ensuring post-release treatment
3 – In terms of how to reduce HIV-related disparities & Health inequities, we recommend:
providing support for community mobilization of sex workers to respond to violence and discrimination and urging states to work toward the decriminalization of commercial sex
eliminating policies that prevent and hinder individuals with commercial sex- and drug-related convictions from applying for and/or receiving student loans public housing or housing assistance, public assistance, or other government-funded social services.
4 – In terms of how to achieve a more coordinated national response to the HIV epidemic, we recommend:
including sex workers as a priority in the National HIV/AIDS Strategy, clearly describing the barriers faced by sex workers and people in the sex trade, and listing these groups in prevention and treatment priorities
clearly stating in all policies the needs and priorities of the transgender community and ending the practice of misgendering transgender women as “men who have sex with men” (MSM)
improving communications between government agencies working on HIV and communities affected by HIV (recognizing sex workers and drug users in this dialogue), paying particular attention to meaningfully including voices of people impacted by these policies
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
repealing and removing “anti-prostitution pledge” requirements entirely for U.S. global AIDS funds and anti-trafficking funds.
Thank you for your leadership and consideration of these important matters. We look forward to working with ONAP to expand access to treatment, care and prevention for sex worker communities. We are committed to reducing the number of HIV infections across the United States through prevention and education initiatives. We urge you to adopt these policy resolutions to advance the objective of reducing the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Best Practices Policy Project
New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance