Category: Policy Updates

Letter to ONAP, 2015

Douglas M. Brooks, Director
Office of National AIDS Policy
The White House
Washington, DC 20502
Re: Policy Recommendations

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

Desiree Alliance

New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance

Ill-informed legislation under consideration in Maryland

BREAKING 11:45am, March 25, 2015: We just learned that the Senate Bill has been withdrawn and the hearing cancelled. This is a great victory for human rights!

While lawmakers at the federal level are battling over a largely bad piece of legislation allegedly meant to address human trafficking, a proposal in Maryland to increase criminal penalties related to trafficking and prostitution will have a hearing on March 25. In the name of making human trafficking-related crimes felonies rather than misdemeanors, the Maryland Senate will hear testimony on Senate Bill 904. This is the counterpart to House Bill 241, which had a hearing last month. Aside from the fact that a criminalization approach is not effective in addressing coercion or exploitation, Maryland’s human trafficking law is even more problematic than many others. In 2007 lawmakers essentially amended the state’s pandering laws and renamed them “human trafficking” laws–meaning that human trafficking in Maryland only covers force, fraud and coercion in the sex sector, and trafficking in any other sector is not covered.

The proposed law would make the following, among others, into felony crimes:

  • take or cause another to be taken to any place for prostitution
  • place, cause to be placed, or harbor another in any place for prostitution
  • persuade, induce, entice, or encourage another to be taken to or placed in any place for prostitution

As noted by advocates like Power Inside who are speaking out against these bills (as well as those who have spoken out against similar legislation in other parts of the country) such a law would increase dramatically the criminal penalties associated with important harm reduction practices such as sex workers working together. A friend giving a ride to a sex worker, a boyfriend or a girlfriend acting as a lookout when a sex worker takes a date, or an older sex worker giving advice to a younger sex worker could all be liable for felony crimes under such a law, which would include up to 25 years in jail, a $15,000 fine, and no possibility to expunge the conviction.

If Maryland lawmakers are truly interested in helping people who experience force, fraud or coercion in the course of their work, whether in the sex sector, domestic labor, agricultural sector, or elsewhere, they should revise the law to properly define human trafficking. Even more importantly, they should focus on structural reforms that would make people less vulnerable to exploitation, such as increasing labor protections, raising the minimum wage, ensuring a strong social safety newt, promoting worker organizing among migrants and other vulnerable groups, and removing criminal laws associated with sex work.

Power Inside, Best Practices Policy Project, Sex Worker Project, and other groups are sending the letter below to the Maryland Senate and General Assembly encouraging them to table this bill and reconsider their approach.

TO: The Hon. Bobby Zirkin, Chair, and members of the Senate Judicial Proceedings Committee; Hon. Joseph Vallario, Jr., Chair, and members of the House Judiciary Committee

FROM: The Undersigned Organizations

DATE: March 25, 2015

RE: Opposition to Senate Bill 904 and House Bill 241

As service providers, human rights advocates, and experts working on behalf of victims of human trafficking across the country, we appreciate the zeal with which the Maryland legislature has taken on the fight to end human trafficking. However, we believe strongly that SB 904 and HB241 are misguided and we oppose increasing penalties under subsection (a) of Maryland Criminal Code § 11-303 and urge the committees to release an unfavorable report on each of the respective bills.

Firstly, it is important to recognize that trafficking adults with the use of force, fraud, or coercion is already correctly a felony under MCC § 11-303(b)(2). This is in line with the definition of trafficking used by the federal government, and accepted as a model law by the American Bar Association, the Uniform Laws Commission, the United Nations, and experts in human trafficking. SB 904 and HB 241 are unnecessary to protect adult victims of human trafficking.

As it stands, MCC § 11-303(a) criminalizes activities that fall far beyond the widely accepted definition of human trafficking. If the amendments pass, basic safety techniques that those in the sex trade, including victims of human trafficking, engage in as a means of harm reduction would be considered felony human trafficking. For instance, two trafficking victims driving to and from jobs together would be considered felony human trafficking. This increased criminalization of an overbroad definition of trafficking will inadvertently escalate harm to adult victims of trafficking, as well as homeless and otherwise vulnerable adults involved in prostitution who rely on their peers for basic survival.

The increased penalties of these common harm-reduction activities have far-reaching consequences beyond longer and more costly sentences. Many Maryland residents who enter into prostitution have been disproportionately impacted by the criminalization of homelessness, health conditions, and survival related behaviors such as trading sex for shelter. As such, they may have lengthy criminal records for crimes that may eventually be expunged or sealed.  Human trafficking is not eligible for sealing or expungement. As such, anyone arrested and convicted under MCC § 11-303 for prostitution-related activities that fall short of the commonly understood definition of human trafficking will face life-long stigma and discrimination when seeking employment, housing, and education. This is especially true when considering that most employers, landlords, and other gate-keepers will not understand the broad range of survival activities that are considered “human trafficking” under Maryland state law. This unfortunate consequence of criminalization forces people to rely on the sex industry, even when seeking to escape it. This problem is only compounded if non-violent trafficking charges are increased to felonies.  Passing this law could wreak havoc on the lives of the most vulnerable, and we are deeply concerned about the implications.

We, the undersigned, oppose SB 904 and HB 241.

Update on the United Nations’ UPR process

Best Practices Policy Project and other groups working for the human rights of sex workers and people in sex trade has been engaging with the latest round of the United Nations’ Universal Periodic Review (UPR). This is a continuation of excellent grassroots community organizing around the last round of the UPR in 2010/2011. We submitted a shadow report along with our friends at Desiree Alliance and SWOP-NYC.

You can view the United States’ assessment of its own human rights record as reported to the Human Rights Council here. Now that the government has submitted their report, the next steps for grassroots advocacy are to contact the US government about our shadow reports, as well as contact the diplomatic missions of other countries to encourage them to submit recommendations to the US to support the human rights of people in sex trades. We are participating in several upcoming opportunities for these activities

If you would like to contact policy makers in the US or in the diplomatic missions of other countries, this one-page summary may be helpful.

Washington, D.C. passes bill to repeal discredited “Prostitution Free Zones”

On October 7, 2014, the District of Columbia Council voted on a bill to repeal the District’s “Prostitution Free Zones” law as well as the “Drug Free Zones” law that it was based on. After an initial unanimous vote, the Council revisited the topic at the request of Councilmember Yvette Alexander (D-Ward 7) who claimed that the Prostitution Free Zones (PFZs) were an important tool to address concerns about sex work in neighborhoods she represents, despite testimony from police that the PFZs have not been used for over two years. “The Prostitution Free Zones have had a major impact on prostitution,” said Councilmember Alexander. The Metropolitan Police Department had stated at previous hearings that police were no longer using the law due to the concerns about its constitutionality as well as lack of evidence that the PFZs were effective in reducing street-based sex work in areas where the zones were declared. While acknowledging the constitutional concerns regarding the PFZs, Councilmember Alexander asked her colleagues to vote against repeal on the grounds that she felt there are reasons to implement the zones.

The D.C. Council passed the law authorizing police to declare PFZs in 2006 over objections from community members who said the zones would legitimize long-standing discriminatory police practices. Community-based research by the Alliance for a Safe and Diverse D.C. revealed the negative effects of D.C.’s approach to sex work, and a more recent review of police-community relations by the MPD-appointed Hate Crimes Response Task Force found high levels of distrust of police among transgender communities in the city, due to patterns of discrimination and abuse. Councilmember David Grosso (I-At Large) introduced the bill to repeal the PFZs in response to the Task Force report and accompanying recommendations by community groups.

Chairman of the Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety Tommy Wells (D-Ward 6) pointed out that the zones are not being used by the police, and that to say to constituents that the zones would help address prostitution would be a false statement. Councilmember Jack Evans (D-Ward 2) asked why Councilmember Wells wanted to repeal the law, “Why do you want to repeal this? We have a lot of laws that we don’t use, why do you want to remove this one?” Councilmember Wells pointed out how the PFZs discriminate against trans communities or people based on what they are wearing and being with two people or more. Despite evidence to the contrary, the Chairman of the Council, Phil Mendelson (D-Chairman), claimed that the PFZs were effective, but that the law must be repealed because of the constitutional concerns. “As much as some of us would like for them to come back,” said Chairman Mendelson, “because I think there was value in the police using it to disrupt prostitution markets, it cannot be used. It is unconstitutional.” But Councilmember Grosso noted that the constitutional concerns are not the only reason for repeal. “This is also about human rights in the District of Columbia,” said Grosso. “These zones were used not necessarily to address prostitution or sex work, but to discriminate against people walking down the street that we didn’t want walking down the street.”

After a period of debate which rehashed stigmatizing arguments regarding sex work, the Council voted 10-2 to repeal the Prostitution Free Zones law. All laws under consideration by the full Council must be voted on twice–a second vote on the bill will be taken on October 28th, but in light of the vote tally, it is likely to pass. Although a largely symbolic gesture, since the police have already acknowledged not using the zones for the past two years and no plans to use them in the future, the debate over the bill shows the importance of removing laws targeting sex workers, and those profiled as such, for increased criminalization. Best Practices Policy Project, which assisted the Alliance for a Safe and Diverse D.C. in its community-based research in 2007 and 2008, applauds this step forward for D.C. and encourages the D.C. Council to consider implementing other recommendations from that report.