Smarter U.S. Prostitution Laws Would Help AIDS Fight

Health care providers, human rights advocates, social workers and politicians should join forces with sex worker rights groups to create legislation and a movement to repeal laws that criminalize people engaged in sex work.
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World AIDS Day is this Monday, Dec. 1, and it provides an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV/AIDS. For social workers and academic researchers like us, one thing is clear: If we truly want HIV/AIDS prevention to succeed, Americans need to have a courageous conversation about decriminalizing prostitution.

Let's be honest. Paying for sex has been around a long time, and it's not going away anytime soon. Recent court cases have established sexual rights and privacy in protecting what consenting adults do behind closed doors, but those rights end for people who wish to exchange sex for money. In the U.S., sex workers' rights are mostly unprotected, and those who sell sex are usually arrested, charged and shamed in public. But this only adds to the HIV/AIDS problem and increases chances for unsafe sexual practices.

Discussions about sex work are often polarizing, at least in part because some people do not believe sex workers should have the same legal rights as other workers in society. A study recently published in The Lancet found that even partial criminalization -- such as the Swedish model now quite popular in the U.S in which the clients of sex workers rather than sex workers themselves are criminalized -- places sex workers at equal risk for human rights violations and exploitation. Trying to stop demand will not stop prostitution.

Laws that aim to prevent prostitution such as prostitution free zones, which allow police to ask any group of people who an officer believes are engaging in sex work to leave a certain area or face arrest, and condom seizures, which is a police practice of seizing unused condoms as evidence of prostitution, only exacerbate the problem. These types of laws disproportionally target transgender people and people of color; pose a significant threat to safer sex practices; and open the door to police harassment, extortion and abuse for perceived sex workers.

Health care providers, human rights advocates, social workers and politicians should join forces with sex worker rights groups to create legislation and a movement to repeal laws that criminalize people engaged in sex work. Too often Americans look at the moral issues of sex work too narrowly, missing the broader, positive implications of removing legal constraints.

Decriminalizing does have its limitations. Our conversations about sex work must include attention to sex workers' human rights, and these conversations must occur at the intersections of poverty, gender, race, class, employment/underemployment, ability, sexuality, desire, health and migration because even with decriminalization, certain people engaged in sex work would continue to be criminalized for their actual or perceived racial, class, gender, sexual orientation and citizenship identities.

Equally important is the need for Americans to appreciate the differences between sex trafficking and sex work. Sex trafficking inherently includes violence, force, fraud and coercion, whereas sex work does not. Although those engaged in sex work may experience violence, fraud and coercion while trading sexual services, it is important to recognize that those forms of exploitation are never a part of the sex worker-client contract.

Although the decriminalization of sex work wouldn't solve all the problems sex workers contend with, it could be a start. Decriminalization would eradicate laws that criminalize sex work, consequently creating spaces for sex workers to participate in the regulation of the industry, facilitating safer transactions between workers and clients, and allowing sex workers to report abuse and rapes without fear of prosecution.

By facilitating safer sex practices, decriminalization would also lead to a reduction of HIV/AIDS infection as predicted in recent research conducted at the University of California San Diego Global Health Initiative, and witnessed in New South Wales where sex work was decriminalized in 2009. It would also facilitate access to anonymous, nonjudgmental, free and voluntary HIV testing and more engagement in services when sex workers themselves are involved in the creation and delivery of those services.

Nearly every industrialized nation has made prostitution partially legal or outright legal. It's time America does the same thing. Doing so would be a large step in the prevention of HIV/AIDS.

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