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Elizabeth Boskey, Ph.D.

Running in Traffic

By February 27, 2013

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Last month, the Supreme Court agreed to hear a case arguing about whether the government can require HIV/AIDS programs to explicitly oppose prostitution and sex trafficking. To some extent this is a free speech issue, but those people who argue for the need for such policies claim that it is also a health and safety issue. However, unlike my feelings about the condoms in porn law suit that hit the news around the same time, I disagree. I personally feel as though having explicit policies against prostitution and sex trafficking can make it difficult for AIDS non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to access two groups of people who often need their services most.

Unfortunately, here in the U.S. we tend to do a terrible job talking about sex work. We tend to alternatively conflate it with sex trafficking - assuming that no woman could choose to do sex work for a living - and assume that the women who engage don't care enough about their bodies to want to protect them. Neither one of these assumptions is true, but I'm only going to address the first. Women can, and do, make informed decisions to engage in sex work, and those women have very different needs from the trafficked women who are forced into the industry against their will. Two of those needs are quality, compassionate health care and HIV education, and they won't be fulfilled if NGOs aren't allowed to work with prostitutes who have chosen to stay in the life.

Last year at the International AIDS conference in Washington, DC, there was a sex worker track. (There was also a separate conference for all of the sex workers who could not get visas to attend the main event.) The women, for they were mostly women, participating in the track had a pretty strong message for conference delegates, "Nothing about us without us." In other words, health workers and activists need to listen to sex workers about their lives, not make decisions without their input. They know what they need better than people outside the sex industry, and so outsiders need to listen first... and not act in ways that aren't wanted.

Don't get me wrong, sex trafficking is a real and horrible thing, but not all prostitution is sex trafficking. For some individuals, it's a viable career choice, and NGOs should be allowed to do what they need to in order to make that career as safe as possible -- rather than condemning it out of hand.

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