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Outdated Fear: Criminalizing HIV+ Sex Workers

(Image via the Stigma Project)
(Image via the Stigma Project)

With thanks to members of SWOP-USA

Laws that criminalize HIV exposure are supposed to benefit public health, but in practice are extremely harmful to public health and to the targeted HIV-positive individuals. Sex workers are highly vulnerable to these laws, which sometimes target HIV-positive prostitution specifically. Many require forcible HIV testing, and sometimes they simply criminalize HIV but in reality are applied to sex workers more frequently than to other populations.

The criminalization of HIV-positive sex workers and mandatory post-arrest HIV testing arguably violates international human rights treaties signed by the United States. Treaties with applicable provisions include the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (ICERD), specifically their provisions on privacy, rights to equality before the law, and sanctions against inciting hatred and racial bias. Recent forced HIV testing in Greece provoked outrage among international human rights organizations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch. WHO/UNAIDS (World Health Organization/the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS) made a statement opposing forced testing. It is widely accepted that best practices for HIV testing, with the best public health outcomes, involve three key principles—consent to testing, the provision of counseling before and after testing, and confidentiality of results. The imposition of felony offenses on individuals who are said to be engaging in sex work while living with HIV punishes members of already vulnerable communities. They are prosecuted even when they use condoms and engage in less risky forms of sex with their partners, sometimes even if they have disclosed their status to their partner. Information about their HIV status, sometimes accompanied by photographs, is often distributed widely by the media in their communities, placing arrestees at risk of retaliation and other abuse. This incentivizes avoiding testing and does nothing to encourage treatment or safer sex practices.

A Tidal Wave, Not A Fire Hose: Access To Condoms In New York And Why It Is Important To Decriminalization Struggles

(Image from the film: Advocating in Albany, (No Condoms as Evidence), Red Umbrella Project)
(Image from the film: Advocating in Albany, (No Condoms as Evidence), Red Umbrella Project)

I’m a community organizer for Red Umbrella Project, and for the past year and a half I’ve been one of the leaders in the struggle to ban the use of condoms as evidence of all prostitution-related offenses in New York. We recently had a great victory in this campaign with a NYPD directive issued that bans the use of condoms for three misdemeanor offenses: prostitution, loitering for the purposes of prostitution, and prostitution in a school zone. Unfortunately that still excludes most prostitution-related offenses which, while targeted at clients, managers of the sex trades, and human sex traffickers, all too often are an initial charge filed against those doing sex work, especially transgender women of color. So our battle continues. But I feel it is important to clarify for people in the sex trades around the world why it is that we as a peer-led group by and for people in the sex trades place such great importance in this issue. While some may say that advocacy of any goal short of the decriminalization of all prostitution laws is selling out, the decriminalization of condoms opens the door for greater possibilities in organizing around other decrim efforts both in New York and elsewhere.

Handcuffs empower no one. Red Umbrella Project knows, from the arrests and incarcerations of our comrades, family, and friends, that the criminal justice system is toxic to the lives of people in the sex trades, especially those most marginalized within it. All too often sex work criminalization goes hand-in-hand with the criminalization of trans women and queer youth of color, undocumented people, and low-income women of color. Believing strongly that a peer-led model personally empowers the lives of people in ways that even the most progressive justice system cannot, we oppose the tearing apart of our communities by arrest and incarceration.

Romance & Relationships: (Call) Girl Meets (Rent) Boy

This year, I’m spending Valentine’s Day with a guy who’s not my boyfriend (though I wouldn’t say that to him). I’ll be spending my evening at a stuffy French restaurant in Las Vegas, with a married, submissive man who’s several decades older than me, listening to him ramble endlessly about mergers and acquisitions while I pretend to care. Back home, my boyfriend, Tom, will be spending Valentine’s Day not dissimilarly, at a stuffy restaurant in San Francsico’s Castro District, with a gay, submissive man, who’s several decades older than him, listening to him ramble endlessly about mergers and acquisitions, while he pretends to care. Throughout the day, my real boyfriend and I will send each other funny texts about the weird things our “boyfriends” might do to impress us. He’ll pick me up from the airport tomorrow; we’ll both laugh and complain and commiserate about the tedious fake-romantic evenings we spent with our clients. We’ll talk and talk until one of us inevitably says, “oh my god, we have to stop talking about these people,” and then sex work will fade into the background again for a couple days, until one of us has to work again.

The State Is A Trafficker: Why Alaska Arrested Amber Batts

Anchorage, Alaska (via Flickr user paxson_woelber)
Anchorage, Alaska. (image via Flickr user paxson_woelber)

On April 4, 2014, Anchorage Police Department officers responded to a report of a “hysterical female.”  The woman reported that she had lost her purse and she believed her coworker had taken it.  In response, she’d threatened to tell the police about the “prostitution ring” they were involved in, and her coworker had threatened to assault her if she did.  Three months later, officers with the Alaska State Trooper’s Special Crimes Investigative Unit decided to follow up with that “hysterical female.”  They did so by flying to the town where she was then working independently and booking an escort session with her.

“Oh baby,” an officer can be heard moaning in a recording of the encounter,“I’ve never had that before.”

Moments later, other members of the Special Crimes Investigative Unit can be heard entering the room and putting the woman in handcuffs.  Under Alaska state law, which has redefined all prostitution as sex trafficking, the woman is a sex trafficking victim.  In the incident report, she is listed as a victim.  She called 911 and reported that she was, by their definition, a sex trafficking victim, and they chose to follow up on that by what sounded like having sexual contact of some sort with her during a prostitution sting operation.

The Emperor’s New Clothes: Swedish Model Edition

atheemperor
The Emperor’s New Clothes. (Illustration via Commons, by Helen Stratton)

Once upon a time, there was a cold little kingdom in the north—we can call it Swedala. Now, you might not believe in magical spells, frogs that turn into princes, or other imaginary things. But believe me when I tell you that in this kingdom people were living in two parallel worlds so different they might as well have been different universes.

The emperor who ruled the country had, for the longest time, tried to erase any individual forms of expression among the people, aiming for a kingdom where each and every person lived the exact same life as their neighbor. Now, you might think that the emperor was an evil man, but he was actually a simple soul, worried about receiving love and worship from his constituency. To achieve that, he hired a stable of advisers. They assured him that in order to receive the approval of the people as well as the admiration of neighboring kingdoms, it was necessary to repair the very fabric of society. They told him that magic rules to control the population were the only way that could be achieved. Sometimes the rules seemed unnecessary, complicated, or harsh to the emperor. But the few times he questioned them, it was insinuated that he might not understand the brilliance of the golden rules, for only smart men could truly grasp their innovative greatness.

Those who learned at a different pace were locked up and denied the right to have children. Others who chose to use gold dust to enjoy life were left to die in the streets, and alternative ways of expressing what it meant to be a human being were punished severely. So all those who wished to stay the way they were had to hide in the parallel world of shadows where no one could hear them—even though they could be seen, people knew to ignore them as if they were invisible. At times, the emperor had doubts about this being the right way to treat the kingdom’s citizens, but he was afraid that the advisers would find him a simpleton, and quickly pushed away his doubts.

A particularly evil adviser, the adviser of state feminism, had decided that yet another group should be sent to the shadows of the parallel world. This time. it was those who provided pleasure in exchange for gold. Pleasure was seen as something that only had value if it was provided for free. The adviser of state feminism assured the emperor that if he banished these people, all the neighboring kingdoms would not only admire but eagerly line up to emulate his magic rules. The people in Swedala applauded this new idea, as they never questioned the emperor’s wisdom, but in the shadows the pleasure providers feared for their very existence.