Why Are Sex Workers Being Banned From Participating in the International AIDS Conference? A Call to Action on Sex Work and HIV

Part of RH Reality Check’s coverage of the International AIDS Conference, 2012.

In July, the International AIDS Conference is being held in the United States for the first time in over twenty years, after the successful repeal of the ban on HIV-positive foreign nationals entering the US. However, US immigration law still bars entrance to anyone who has engaged in sex work in the past 10 years — even if they have no criminal convictions or work in a country where it is legal. This exclusion will prevent many current and former sex workers from outside the US from attending the conference. Yet sex workers and their clients are two of the populations at greatest risk of HIV infection.

Without the input, knowledge, and resources of those most directly affected by the disease, there is no chance of stopping the AIDS epidemic. To hold the government accountable for its harmful policies and in solidarity with those unable to attend the conference, US-based sex workers and allies collaboratively drafted A Call to Change US Policy on Sex Work and HIV – in consultation with numerous sex workers and sex worker-lead organizations in the US and abroad. We invite all people committed to ending AIDS to endorse this statement.

Structural issues drive HIV within the sex sector — criminalization and stigma compound health disparities already affecting those on the wrong end of racial, economic, and gender inequality. But when sex workers design and lead HIV prevention efforts, receive services and resources, and are supported to address social injustice, sex workers have successfully curtailed the spread of AIDS. For example, a decade of research documents the Sonagachi Project in India as an HIV prevention success story. Indigenous in origin and locally-led, the project is successful because of its focus on principles of empowerment enacted in a multidimensional spectrum — on individual, group, and structural levels — and the underlying premise of sex work as a valid profession.

Such excellent rights-based efforts are undermined by US policies. SANGRAM is another Indian program working with sex workers — USAID even highlighted it as a best practices model. But SANGRAM has turned down USAID funding because of the Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath. This misguided requisite for US global AIDS funding stipulates that recipients condemn prostitution – and prevents them from using best practices such as peer leadership and empowerment programs with sex workers. The US imposes and continues to expand such harmful policies both domestically and abroad, putting sex workers at increased risk for HIV.

The removal of the Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath and other AIDS funding restrictions is one of the demands of the Call to Change. These four demands are based on research and the UN’s examination of the US human rights record via the Universal Periodic Review in 2011 – during which the US government agreed, “that no one should face violence or discrimination in access to public services based on… their status as a person in prostitution.”

  • We demand that the US repeal and eliminate restrictions on domestic and global AIDS funds (such as the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief’s Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath) and support evidence-based best practices for HIV prevention, treatment and care targeted at sex workers.
  • We demand that the US repeal the prostitution inadmissibility ground for immigration and provide non-judgmental social services and legal support for migrant sex workers, as part of comprehensive immigration reform.
  • We demand that sex workers not be subjected to arrests, court proceedings, detention, mandatory testing or government-mandated “rehabilitation” programs; the government must institute mechanisms that allow sex workers to find redress for human rights violations and implement rigorous training of law enforcement officials on legal and human rights standards.
  • We demand the US reorient anti-trafficking campaigns to be in line with the standards set by the United Nations and engage sex workers in helping stop exploitation in the sex sector.

These four action points address the different levels at which the AIDS epidemic can be disrupted – from the individual (access to prevention supplies and programs) to the structural (law reform). If the US government were to adopt these demands, it would be a game-changer – helping turn the tide in the fight against HIV.

Evidence-based best practices and human rights principles must inform the global response to AIDS. Please join us in calling on the US government to change its policies and save lives. Your endorsement will help build a movement for change.

Click here to read the Call to Change and endorse.

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  • maxine-doogan


    It’s too bad the organizing to use the International AIDS Conference to tell the US to stop its abusive policies and practices towards prostitutes both nationally and internationally didn’t ask actual US based prostitutes like myself about what we want and how to get it before you asked us to put our name on this statement. http://www.bestpracticespolicy.org/IAC_actioncall_20121.html



    Of course we all want the US to stop its harmful practices towards us.  And in fact we have organized with other groups both locally and nationally to stop bad US policies. Our last effort was to call on our US congressional members to end the ban on funding prostitution rights based groups that distribute HIV prevention and treatments.  These coalition partners act in support capacity and treat us with respect because we asked them to.  They see us at the center of any policy about us for us.  Organizers of this IAC statement need to be made aware of this mode of organizing.


    For the above reasons, as well as those listed below, we oppose the approach in this statement and the specific asks for several reasons.


    Be clear that we are in no way are calling for the US to exercise leadership over us and our issues.  We don’t want a daddy to act as a leader over us. 


    And I use with authority the word ‘we’ referring to those of us who are actual working prostitutes in association with each other at the Erotic Service Providers Union in California.


    We organize to be viewed by all, including those providing HIV services to sex workers in the US, to put us at the center of any discussions about us.  We have to be treated as actual leaders in creating policy instead of being objects of any policy or call to action.


    Its unclear who has created and distributed this statement and call to action on our behalf.   If you want us to put our names on something, then the authors can show leadership and put their name(s) on it.


    Yes we need a call to action for the IAC but this call to action isn’t clear  and it wasn’t created by all US sex workers.  Not endorsing it doesn’t mean we aren’t ‘committed to ending AIDS’.


    Since most US sex worker groups are funded through the HIV lobby and are not rights based organizations, they need to show some respect to us as actual recipients of their do gooding and put actual working prostitutes at the center of any policy creation or call to action regarding us.


    We invite the organizers to reconsider their statement and call to action and instead think about how to effect change from a rights based perspective that calls for putting actual working prostitutes at the table as primary stakeholders whose participation is fundamental to any policy creation as a priority.  We especially call on all HIV groups providing ‘services’ to sex workers in the US to put in writing specific policies supporting the complete decriminalization of prostitution so we can all act with confidence together in solidary so as to avoid the perception that of some of us are being subjugated in the process of demanding change in US policy.



    Maxine Doogan

    Erotic Service Providers Union

    San Francisco, California



  • andrew-sorfleet

    What a great photo!

    This picture was taken in Brussels, Belgium by Quentin Deltour (Espace P) during the “manifestion” (street protest) on October 17, 2005. The protest was part of the European Conference on Sex Work, Human Rights, Labour and Migration. Demonstrators marched with red umbrellas from Place de la Bourse (stock exchange) through the downtown streets to the red light district near Gare de Nord (train station), ending at the Mercure Royal Crown Hotel where the conference was held.

    The European conference ratified the Sex Workers in Europe Manifesto, endorsed by approximately 120 sex workers from 24 countries, which was presented to the European Parliament.

    The conference also produced the Declaration of the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe, endorsed by 200 delegates (sex workers and allies) from 28 countries.

    You can read the report from the conference, “Sex Workers’ Rights,” at: http://walnet.org//csis/groups/icrse/brussels-2005/SexWorkersRights.pdf (13.9 Mb).