I am in Porto, Portugal’s second-largest city, to give a plenary talk at the opening of a conference on harm reduction called CLAT (Conferência Latina sobre Redução de Riscos in Portugese). I had rather sketchy notions of how harm reduction could be used as a framework for talking about sex work/prostitution, which is most often understood in relation to reducing the harms of injecting drugs. On top of that, the panel I’m speaking on is titled Human Rights and Harm Reduction, which found doubly confusing. So I have been asking around amongst academics and activists and now feel at least capable of describing the complexities. There are five panels addressing sex/sex work and several good activists will speak, mixed with outreach/academic folk.
Some people in the harm-reduction field don’t think sex work should be there; they want policy on drug injection to be the focus. And some people in the sex workers’ rights field don’t think it should be, either. But the conference has six streams:
1 Drugs on the Street
2 Parties: Pleasures Management and Risks Reduction
3 Alcohol and Harm Reduction
4 Sex: Pleasures, Risks and Sexual Work
5 Other addictions
6 Human Rights and Penal Control
So all kinds of ‘addictions’ and ‘excesses’ are potentially included. A broad definition of harm reduction in Wikipedia is as clear as any:
Harm reduction, or harm minimisation, refers to a range of pragmatic and compassionate public health policies designed to reduce the harmful consequences associated with drug use and other high risk activities.
Many advocates argue that prohibitionist laws cause harm, because, for example, they oblige prostitutes to work in dangerous conditions and oblige drug users to obtain their drugs from unreliable criminal sources. This usually involves softening punishments on risky behaviour, assisting people to stop the behaviour and addressing the reasons people engage in such behaviour.
Pragmatic sounds good, but compassionate sounds condescending. The emphasis on the harms caused by laws that prohibit and criminalise activities sounds good, while assisting people to stop is problematic.
It’s also true that some people who want to abolish prostitution and the sex industry hate harm reduction efforts, which they see as conspiracies to continue the enslavement of women. I’m told the term harm reduction is forbidden at some of their conferences. See interesting comments on this issue at Bound Not Gagged.
Both sex work and drug injection are widely criminalised: that’s the most important point to keep in mind. Prohibitions on activities often don’t succeed in stopping people from doing them, which leads to their taking place in hidden, more dangerous ways, including relying on dodgy if not criminal characters (drug/sex traffickers, for example). Decriminalisation is therefore a major demand of harm reduction.