Dec. 17 marks International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, an observance started by the Sex Worker Outreach Project USA to call attention to violent crimes committed again sex workers around the world. Additionally, this day raises awareness of the need to eliminate the criminalization, social stigma and discrimination which often results in violence against sex workers.
On this day of somber recognition, we as HIV advocates must recommit to uplift and advance sex workers’ rights and well-being, with the recognition that stigmatizing legislation and regulation is structural violence.
But as Christa Daring, former Executive Director of SWOP-USA, stated, violence experienced by sex workers extends beyond interpersonal and has a significant influence on how we will be able to end the HIV epidemic.
Daring notes that sex work criminalization and stigmatization “harms all of us and makes it harder for already vulnerable populations to access health care, housing and community. Structural racism and transphobia compounded with anti-sex work stigma make it that much more difficult for sex workers to have open and honest conversations about possible HIV risks and exposure … The criminalization of HIV and sex work are inherently linked and both stem from a system of respectability and violation of bodily autonomy.”
We as HIV advocates know of the impacts of legal and political stigma all too well — from specific HIV criminalization laws to blood donation restrictions and much more. We recognize the criminalization of sex work is intertwined with the criminalization of HIV that our communities have long endured and actively opposed. HIV criminalization compounds the risks of violence and incarceration faced by sex workers, just as sex work criminalization disproportionately burdens the communities most impacted by HIV. People of color and people whose gender presentations or sexual identities fall outside of societal norms are most likely to be arrested or subject to violence for perceived engagement in sex work.
Sex worker safety is a critical issue that must be addressed in efforts to end the HIV epidemic and achieve racial, gender and sexuality justice.
“The central cause of violence is institutional alienation of sex workers from law enforcement protection and a justice system that leads most sex workers to distrust and fear law enforcement officials,” according to SWOP-USA, “ Sex work decriminalization and the support of sex workers is an immediate, urgent tenet in ending the HIV epidemic. On this day of somber recognition, HIV advocates must recommit to uplifting and advancing sex workers’ rights and wellbeing, with the recognition that stigmatizing legislation and regulation is structural violence.
AIDS United has long been proud to stand in solidarity with our partners working to end violence against sex workers and to support the dignity of sex workers. As an organization committed to ending the HIV epidemic, we know we cannot look away when a key community most vulnerable to and impacted by HIV is not meaningfully involved in our federal HIV response — namely, the National HIV/AIDS Strategy.
On World AIDS Day this year, the White House released the latest iteration of the National HIV/AIDS Strategy. Sex workers have been routinely excluded in previous versions of the federal plan. This year, as a result of sex workers’ impactful advocacy, the federal government made substantive commitments to more meaningfully include sex workers in developing and implementing the national HIV response.
AIDS United has been pleased to collaborate with organizational partners Positive Women’s Network-USA, Reframe Health and Justice and the Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center. Together, we have worked to highlight both the progress made and amplify sex workers’ calls for further inclusion in the National HIV/AIDS Strategy.
If you work with an advocacy or clinical organization supporting sex workers or working to end the HIV epidemic, please consider joining our efforts to address the historic structural violence against sex workers in this bureaucratic exclusion today.
AIDS United will continue to answer sex workers’ calls to action, uplift their advocacy, support legislation to decriminalize sex work and center the voices of sex workers in the formation of policies that impact them not just this International Day To End Violence Against Sex Workers but all year long.