A Call to Change U.S. Policy on Sex Work and HIV

Cross-posted in partnership from the HIV Human Rights blog and part of RH Reality Check’s coverage of the International AIDS Conference, 2012.

The International AIDS Conference (IAC) presents a golden opportunity to engage with those that have been most affected by the global AIDS crisis. Sex workers worldwide have been deeply affected by HIV and AIDS, and have shown self-determination by running successful HIV prevention programs, taking action through peer-based teaching and education, and educating their clients. The U.S. law that prohibits sex workers and drug users from attending the IAC from abroad is a frightening sign of the times. As co-directors of two U.S-based sex workers rights organizations, we stand with sex workers in their global fight for rights.

The immigration bar on sex workers is a disaster for the International AIDS Conference, and it is also a policy that furthers the AIDS crisis. Every day, immigrant women, men, and transgender people who have engaged in commercial sex are barred from seeking immigration status in the United States. This affects even immigrants with green cards, as well as those who qualify for immigration status because they fled persecution in their home countries, survived violence and/or rape, or are married to a U.S. citizen. This enormous barrier drives undocumented immigrants underground, as many are forced to work in unsafe conditions or without protection. When sex workers have no agency, how can they initiate the power to engage in safe sex and stop the spread of HIV?

Damaging U.S. policies have disastrous results in a global context. In addition to the immigration bar, another example is the Anti-Prostitution Pledge, part of the U.S. President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR). By requiring all recipients of PEPFAR funds to adopt a position opposing prostitution, this law leaves those best placed to dramatically lessen this epidemic by reaching sex workers potentially without funds to provide effective solutions for prevention. We have allowed the United States to infringe the rights of people highly vulnerable to HIV for far too long.

The immigration bar and the anti-prostitution pledge are two of the harmful policies the US government imposes that put sex workers at increased risk for HIV. While many sex workers from outside the U.S. will be unable to attend the conference, U.S. sex workers and their allies will loudly remind the conference delegates about those who are absent from the table. We must demand that the U.S. ensure all people, including sex workers, are afforded the inherent right to live with quality medical care, safety, and dignity.

Over the past year, we have worked collaboratively with US-based sex workers and organizations to draft “A Call to Change U.S. Policy on Sex Work and HIV.” Our demands include:

  • Repeal and eliminate restrictions on domestic and global AIDS funds
  • Support evidence-based best practices for HIV prevention, treatment and care targeted at sex workers
  • Repeal the prostitution inadmissibility ground and support migrant sex workers
  • Ensure that sex workers are not subjected to arrests, court proceedings, detention, mandatory testing or government-mandated “rehabilitation” programs
  • Institute mechanisms that allow sex workers to find redress for human rights violations
  • Implement rigorous training of law enforcement officials on legal and human rights standards
  • Reorient anti-trafficking campaigns to be in line with the standards set by the United Nations
  • Engage sex workers in helping stop exploitation in the sex sector

We invite all people committed to ending AIDS to stand with global sex workers, and endorse this statement.

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