Workers in the sex industry fight discrimination, violence, and HIV

by Suzy Subways, Editor, Solidarity Project

SEP. 2007 • Issue 6

Many different types of jobs and trade can be defined as sex work. And many people around the world may call themselves sex workers, including people who work as escorts, prostitutes, erotic massage workers, exotic dancers, or hustlers; do phone sex, lingerie modeling, adult internet sites, or adult films; live with the support of a sugar-daddy or sugar-mama; or have sex for housing, food, clothing, drugs, or other things they need. In this issue of the Solidarity Project, we discuss ways that sex workers are building their power to protect themselves from violence, arrest, stigma, and HIV.

“Sex workers organizing as HIV prevention workers, especially in Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Canada, South Africa, and some Asian countries have, with funding for HIV prevention programs, fostered a thriving sex workers’ rights movement,” says Priscilla Alexander, longtime activist and researcher on sex work and HIV. “The best HIV prevention is designed by vulnerable communities themselves, so it’s essential that sex workers have a say. But the gag rule has damaged global organizing.” The gag rule is a policy requiring all organizations outside the United States to denounce prostitution in order to receive global HIV prevention money (see sidebar next page).

In this issue of the Solidarity Project, we spotlight activist groups, such as Davida in Brazil and EMPOWER in Thailand, that work creatively without U.S. funding. We also explore how arrest, deportation and police abuse, as well as the stigma and violence sex workers often experience from clients, in their workplace and in society, put them at risk for HIV – and how
organized resistance to these threats is an essential element of HIV prevention.

“The first reason for not using condoms is the fear of violence,” says Yaya Liem of Project SAFE, a street outreach program for sex workers run by volunteers in Philadelphia. “The rate and visibility of violence is sky-high.”

Research conducted by San Francisco’s St. James Infirmary, an occupational safety and health clinic for sex workers run by and for sex workers, has found that sex workers who have a history of arrest are more likely to test positive for HIV and that sex workers who work collectively have lower rates of HIV. Activists around the U.S. and internationally cite examples of HIV prevention workers being arrested in police sweeps while distributing condoms on the street, or police using condoms as evidence or justification for arrest of sex workers. The risk of arrest, deportation or sexual assault by police also increases the risk of violence in other ways, activists say, because it may force workers to hide in unsafe places or get into a car with a client quickly without checking him out first for warning signs that he may become violent. Police work that targets johns can also mean workers are pressured to leave public areas quickly with clients who are afraid of arrest.

Sex work is comprised of a predominantly female workforce, and the threats that some
workers face relate to the ways that society treats women. Male sex workers have to
contend with homophobic violence and heightened HIV risk. Transwomen risk transphobic violence and arrest on prostitution charges even when they are not doing sex work, simply because police assume they are on the stroll and are not, for example, waiting at
the bus stop.

Despite funding barriers and police repression, sex worker activists are developing creative
new ways to build power and protect themselves. “Take Action – What You Can Do”
offers ways to fight for sex workers’ rights, whether you are a sex worker activist yourself
or you have some time to offer in solidarity. Sex workers have taken their place among the
world’s leading HIV prevention experts. It’s time for the rest of us to listen and learn.

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Filed under Alternatives to 501c3, sex workers' rights, sexual violence, Solidarity Project, women

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