Anti-Trafficking Initiatives Hurt the Fight Against HIV/AIDS

By Kerry Porth

Recently, Washington DC hosted the 19th International AIDS Conference.  This was the first time the conference had been held in the United States since 1990 as the US had barred entry to any HIV-positive visitors for 22 years – this ban was lifted by President Obama in early 2010.  Sadly, the US chose not to lift two other immigration bans which precluded the involvement of two of the three “high-risk” groups, namely sex workers and drug users. Regardless, many sex work and drug policy activists managed to attend the 5-day conference and protested the US immigration ban and other ideologically-driven policies that are harming the fight against HIV/AIDS.

They found many opportunities to raise awareness of the harms that US policies, anti-trafficking initiatives, and stigma are having on sex workers (protest starts at 1:30).


In this video, protesters start by shouting “repeal the pledge, reform PEPFAR!”  PEPFAR is the President’s Emergency Plan For Aids Relief and provides funding at an international level to combat HIV/AIDS. Sounds great, but what about this “pledge” the protestors were shouting about?  The pledge or Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath (APLO) requires that organizations receiving PEPFAR funding agree to enact policies that explicitly oppose prostitution and sex trafficking. The APLO is based in a moral structure that posits that all prostitution is violence against women and that no woman would willingly choose to be a sex worker – more about this later.  Sex work support organizations around the world have demonstrated that peer-led HIV/AIDS programs are the most effective way to reach a population that continues to face enormous stigma and criminalization. These organizations must either take a principled position to refuse the APLO and thus lose critical funding, or comply, which frequently results in organizations ceasing to work with sex workers at all.  So sex workers, correctly identified as a high-risk group, find their access to live-saving HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment restricted or eliminated altogether.

A growing concern for sex work activists and the fight against HIV/AIDS is the unparalleled growth of the anti-trafficking or “rescue industry”.  Human trafficking is a serious global problem but if media representations of it were anything to go by, one could assume that global sex trafficking has reached epidemic proportions when in fact, only 1 in 10 cases of trafficking is for commercial sexual exploitation and 9 in 10 cases are for labour trafficking in industries such as agriculture, fishing, and the garment industry.  The modern anti-trafficking movement bears a great resemblance to the white slave panics of the past.  Many of the players are the same: faith-based groups and radical feminists have figuratively jumped into bed together, and shocking, salacious stories of young girls being ripped from their homes and forced to service 20, 30, 50 men a night are eagerly printed in the media. Many readers may by now have become familiar with the wandering band of 40,000 trafficked sex workers that arrive at large sporting events – except they don’t.

The problem with this new global hysteria is that it obliterates nuance and all kinds of sex workers – adults who are male, female and transgender, who are doing sex work by choice and may have migrated illegally to another country specifically to DO sex work – are being harmed by policies, laws, and rescue programs that push sex work further underground and push sex workers away from HIV prevention and treatment.  It conflates human trafficking with sex work so that all sex workers, regardless of their circumstances, are viewed as victims of trafficking.

For example, the US publishes an annual Traffic in Persons (TIP) report which rates other countries’ performance in their efforts to eliminate human trafficking. Countries like Cambodia which rely on USAID funding can have their funding reduced if they do not achieve a good TIP score. This leads to raids on brothels in Cambodia, where egregious human rights abuses are committed by the police, to increase their numbers of arrests for the report. Furthermore, in the US as in other countries around the world, condoms are now being used as evidenceto charge individuals with prostitution, forcing sex workers to engage in risky sexual practices.  Huge enforcement nets are cast in the hopes of identifying victims of trafficking and arresting and prosecuting traffickers, and thousands of sex workers end up being negatively impacted.

But by far, the most serious problems associated with anti-trafficking initiatives and HIV/AIDS prevention and treatment, are the enactment of new laws and policies that further criminalize and stigmatize sex work and sex workers. This has led me to the conclusion that the modern campaign against sex trafficking is, in fact, a cynical use of a serious crime and very real concern for very real victims, to promote an entirely different agenda and that is the abolition of prostitution itself. Anti-trafficking organizations, and there are a myriad of them, tend to work within an ideological framework that suggests that prostitution is a form of violence against women and that no woman would willingly engage in sex work.

The fact that sex workers around the world do not share this ideology is disregarded by these groups in a variety of ways. For sex work activists like myself, I am dismissed by anti-prostitution campaigners because they describe people like me as privileged, white supremacist activists and my experience in sex work is considered unrepresentative. And, while many sex work activists are indeed white, we are by no means unrepresentative as our experiences in sex work run the spectrum from street-based or survival sex work, often complicated by serious addiction issues as was my own experience, up to and including independent sex workers, brothel workers, and those who work for escort agencies.

These statements also erase the many international sex work organizations representing male, female, and transgender sex workers of colour such as the Women’s Network for Unity in Cambodia representing 6400 sex workers, the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers who represent over 50 organizations from 17 countries, or SANGRAM in India. In fact, Kolkatta hosted a parallel AIDS Conference entitled the “Sex Worker Freedom Festival” where sex workers from over 40 countries converged to protest their exclusion from Washington and to ensure that their voices were heard. But, of course, the anti-prostitution folks have an answer for these sex workers too – they are simply too poor, too uneducated, too backwards, and too brainwashed by patriarchy to truly understand that they are victims.

It is bitterly ironic that the anti-prostitution movement is comprised primarily of powerful white, educated, feminists, and Hollywood stars. Hollywood actors seem to be rushing to jump on the anti-trafficking bandwagon in record numbers, raising millions of dollars to fight trafficking without any real understanding of the issues at stake or the harms that the conflation of trafficking with sex work cause.  These celebrities come up with some interesting, if ineffective, campaigns such as Ashton Kutcher’s “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls” (perhaps Demi is thinking “real men don’t cheat on their wives” in this picture) or this misguided outburst from Ashton Kutcher and Mira Sorvino at a debate on trafficking held in Luxor, Egypt (keep in mind, this was a DEBATE).  And, if you are struggling to understand the difference between human smuggling, informal migration, and human trafficking, you would do very well to visit Laura Agustin’s site as she has been researching and writing about these issues for many years.

The criminalization of sex work tends to push sex work underground, contributes to the stigma associated with sex work, and results in human rights abuses against sex workers. The Global Commission on HIV and the Law released a report just prior to the start of this year’s International AIDS Conference calling on governments around the world to “repeal laws that prohibit consenting adults to buy or sell sex, as well as laws that otherwise prohibit commercial sex, such as laws against ‘immoral’ earnings, ‘living off the earnings’ of prostitution and brothel-keeping. Complementary legal measures must be taken to ensure safe working conditions to sex workers.” Unfortunately, anti-prostitution activists and radical feminists vehemently oppose the decriminalization of sex work and, I would argue, any form of harm-reduction initiatives to assist sex workers. As Lee Lakeman of Vancouver Rape Relief (an organization that is active in the campaign to abolish prostitution) states: “Today, there are those who want to tolerate prostitution or sexual slavery by decriminalizing the sex industry, not just those prostituted. They think they can tame it or soften its horrors with local health regulations.”  This is a strong indication that the negative impacts of criminalization and lack of harm reduction services for sex workers are simply viewed as acceptable collateral damage in an ideological war.

If you need further evidence, look no further than Melissa Farley whose research is so driven by her personal beliefs that it was given little weight by the Ontario Superior Court and her loathing for sex workers is amply evident in this sarcastic and cruel piece from her website.

Furthermore, some anti-prostitution activists have taken the position that any organization that offers support and programming to sex workers, academics doing research about sex work, or sex work activists are actually pimps or are in some way contributing to the exploitation of women in the sex trade, including Terri Jean Bedford who was one of the courageous plaintiffs in the Ontario charter challenge to Canada’s prostitution law.  Recent information has come to light about this blogger suggesting that her experience of sexual exploitation may be a complete fabrication.

Sex work activists strongly value the concept of “nothing about us, without us” but it is becoming increasingly difficult to assert ourselves when a dominant and powerful lobby group, like the international anti-prostitution industry, continually ignores, denigrates and obliterates our voices.  Sex workers must be centrally involved in the fight against HIV/AIDs to ensure that policies do not cause harm.  Our expertise is essential in an environment where HIV transmission continues to be criminalized. In her plenary speech at the 2012 IAC, Cheryl Overs, founder of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, “the (AIDS) epidemic is not driven by the lack of a pill or a gadget, the epidemic is driven by repression.”  I urge you to listen to her entire speech which starts at 31:00.

One thought on “Anti-Trafficking Initiatives Hurt the Fight Against HIV/AIDS

  1. ESPLERP says:

    […] Mountain of Evidence Against Prop 35 Anti-Trafficking Initiatives Hurt the Fight Against HIV/AIDS […]

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