Tag Archives: hiv

Stigma and disqualification not the same as hatred and fear

I wrote Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores for Jacobin (A magazine of culture and polemic) to reach a different audience, perhaps some left-leaning folks who don’t know it’s possible to talk about prostitution, sex work, trafficking and migration in interesting ways.

The piece was very hard to write, not only because I was shocked by the death of someone I knew but because I wanted to bring together many themes without going too deep into any. The exception was perhaps the idea of stigma. I said

Many people have only a vague idea what the word stigma means. It can be a mark on a person’s body – a physical trait, or a scarlet letter. It can result from a condition like leprosy, where the person afflicted could not avoid contagion. About his selection of victims Sutcliffe said he could tell by the way women walked whether or not they were sexually “innocent”.

Stigma can also result from behaviors seen to involve choice, like using drugs. For Erving Goffman, individuals’ identities are “spoiled” when stigma is revealed. Society proceeds to discredit the stigmatized – by calling them deviants or abnormal, for example. Branded with stigma, people may suffer social death – nonexistence in the eyes of society – if not physical death in gas chambers or serial killings.

I won’t be creating a hierarchy of who suffers stigma most but do believe stigmas vary in how they manifest and feel to those involved as well. There are diverse views amongst people who study the subject. For me in studying the stigma that goes to women who sell sex, there is an extra element not present in other stigmas (HIV, homosexuality, drug use): the impulse to control women sexually, keep them in separate categories of Good and Bad based on their sexual behaviour. This doesn’t mean they ‘suffer more’, that’s not my point. I’m simply interested in the contribution a longtime social impulse makes to the belief amongst so many that women who sell sex are actually (and deplorably) different from women who don’t.

I also am interested in a consequence of stigmatisation more than the mark itself – the mechanism of disqualification. For those who believe the stigma is real, women who carry it are considered not able to speak for or even know themselves, which provides the excuse to disqualify anything they say about how they feel and what they want. Helpers, saviours and police choose to believe – not disqualify – statements that tally with their own views of what women (must) experience. It is distressing to watch so much disqualification of women’s words and deeds, and why I ended the piece with the call that we assume that what all women say is what they mean.

Salon ran the same piece under The sex worker stigma: How the law perpetuates our hatred (and fear) of prostitutes. Of course this title is catchier and better for a more mainstream audience. But I did not write either word, hatred or fear, in the piece itself, so for me the change is jarring. Under the title, Salon wrote Our society turns a blind eye to the murder of sex workers, deeming them less than human. Why is that? I never said stigma makes people less than human, so here we have an editor who may or may not have actually read the essay imposing ideas not held by the author herself. Fear-and-hatred are not a synonym for stigma; there are many more fears and hatreds in the world than stigmas.

The photo Salon ran shows a woman standing in a pose associated with street prostitution but not wearing the uniform that I called ‘the outward sign of an inner stain’. Perhaps that move is in line with their progressive use of sex workers in the title. But what about the caption underneath it? A worker in prostitution who goes by the name Violet in downtown San Francisco. I polled many people afterwards and all were unfamiliar with the term worker in prostitution. In the sex wars, those who denounce prostitution refuse to think of it as work and sex workers often reject the term prostitution.

One way to try to destroy the stigmatising distinction between Good and Bad women proclaims that all women are whores, which I like better than whores’ insisting they are Good, but I guess they come to the same thing. Here are two recent photos showing the first strategy, one in Germany (Wir sind alle prostitutas-We are all prostitutes, where the Spanish prostitutas indicates solidarity with migrant sex workers, and another in Perú (Todos tenemos algo de puta – We all have a bit of the whore in us).

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

HIV and Sex Work: The View from 2012

Sexual-health outreach, Machala, Ecuador, Photo Rosa Manzo

Research for Sex Work #13 is out, and as its editor this year I am happy with it. This journal was first published by Vrije Universiteit Medical Centre in Amsterdam in 1998 and since 2004 is published by the NSWP. Writings by sex workers and research that centre their words and concerns have priority for publication.

The NSWP has five official languages: English, French, Spanish, Russian and Chinese. Each issue is published in English plus one other of these; this edition is bilingual English-Chinese. Articles come from all over the world.

The call for submissions went out last June. Some editions are general, but most have a special theme. This year’s theme is HIV and Sex Work – but hold on before you click away because that sounds uninteresting, disease-oriented, victimising or too technical – the view from 2012 is different! Read my introduction to the edition below to hear why; the table of contents follows.

HIV and Sex Work – The view from 2012 Issue 13, December 2012

Not so long ago a journal issue called HIV and Sex Work would almost certainly have focused on epidemiological studies of female prostitutes. More sensitive authors might have said sex workers and acknowledged that men and transgender people also sell sex. They might have stopped calling sex workers vectors of disease and begun calling them a high-risk group, and when that term was recognised to be stigmatising they might have switched to talking about at-risk populations. In discussing efforts to diminish the spread of HIV, researchers might have talked about harm reduction, and they might even have invoked the need to ‘involve’ sex workers in health promotion. But sex workers would rarely have been the protagonists in research, the writers of published critiques or the strategists of campaigns. HIV and AIDS as topics were the terrain of institutions. This issue of Research for Sex Work reflects a small shift. Here HIV and Sex Work doesn’t mean an array of epidemiologically-oriented studies but the frame for critiques of and questions about policy, laws and programmes. Articles not written by sex workers themselves base their conclusions on what sex workers say. Here no one tells sex workers how to run their lives.

CSWONF at IAC 2012, Photo Hou Ye

Research from CSWONF in China shows how policing is a central issue for HIV-prevention. In her speech at the International AIDS Conference Cheryl Overs highlights how technological fixes threaten to push aside sex workers’ rights. Brendan Conner exposes how the Global Commission on HIV and the Law erases problems of male sex workers by using epidemiological-style ‘populations’. Empower Foundation tell how they were ousted from the Global Fund’s HIV programme for sex workers in Thailand when they criticised priorities. Matthew Greenall and Abel Shinana propose research that foregrounds local sex workers’ needs. And Tiphaine Besnard shows how stigma against women who sell sex has been behind discriminatory policy since the 19th century.

Condoms from St James Infirmary, Photo PJ Starr

Audacia Ray and Sarah Elspeth Patterson describe how activists have brought such critiques into the world of political lobbying through a campaign against the use of condoms as evidence against prostitutes in New York State. The concept of outreach takes on new meaning in Ecuador, as sex workers from Asociación ’22 de junio’ and Colectivo Flor de Azalea educate men about sexual health. Not all the news is good. Nicoletta Policek’s study reveals how HIV-positive women not involved in selling sex refuse to accept sex workers as equals. But even in the more repressive settings described by Kehinde Okanlawon/Ade Iretunde and Winnie Koster/Marije Groot Bruinderink, sex workers resist stigma and subvert discrimination. Diputo Lety tells Elsa Oliveira the story of how one sex worker empowered herself after testing positive for HIV. And although the fragility of African sex-worker networks is noted, this Research for Sex Work has no fewer than four contributions from Africa. Numerous high-quality images enhance our understanding of HIV and Sex Work. Thanks to everyone who contributed to this issue.

Table of Contents

  • HIV and Sex Work: the View from 2012 (Laura María Agustín)
  • Anti-Pornography Crackdowns: Sex Work and HIV in China (China Sex Worker Organisation Network Forum)
  • Living With HIV: How I Treat Myself (Told by Diputo Lety to Elsa Oliveira)
  • Men At Work: Male Sex Workers, HIV and the Law (Brendan Michael Conner)
  • Blaming Disease on Female Sex Workers: A Long History (Tiphaine Besnard)
  • Working With the Global Fund to Fight Aids, Tuberculosis and Malaria (Empower Foundation Thailand)
  • Sexual-Health Outreach in Machala, Ecuador (Asociación ‘22 de junio’ and Colectivo Flor de Azalea)
  • Promoting Sex Worker-Led Research in Namibia (Matthew Greenall and Abel Shinana)
  • The Tide Can Not Be Turned without Us (Cheryl Overs)
  • Gay Parties and Male Sex Workers in Nigeria (Kehinde Okanlawon and Ade Iretunde)
  • No Condoms as Evidence: A Sex-Worker Campaign in New York (Audacia Ray and Sarah Elspeth Patterson)
  • ‘The Space Which Is Not Mine’: Sex Workers Living With HIV/AIDS in Venice and Edinburgh (Nicoletta Policek)
  • Female-Condom Use in Zimbabwe, Cameroon and Nigeria (Winny Koster and Marije Groot Bruinderink)

Direct link to the pdf of HIV and Sex Work – The view from 2012.

Angela Villón at the Kolkata Freedom Festival, Photo Luca Stevenson

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Sex-worker group in Sweden, Rose Alliance, in the news

Rose Alliance in Stockholm Pride Parade

A few weeks ago a flurry of Swedish media articles purported to ‘reveal’ that the national development agency, Sida, gives money (3,611,092 euros) to Mama Cash, a Dutch foundation that, among many women’s causes, supports sex workers’ rights and has funded Rose Alliance, a sex-worker group in Sweden. This wasn’t even new news, but some anti-prostitution folks tried to whip up indignation and manufacture a scandal.

The first story appeared on a news site hosted by Sida itself on 4 December. The same day, another article repeated the news, with a headline saying the money goes to lobbyists for commercial sex. Still on the same day one of Sweden’s delegates to the European Parliament, and a member of the abolitionist European Women’s Lobbydemanded excitedly that Sida stop giving the money (she’s holding up the Say No to Prostitution sign in her photo). The next day saw replies from RFSU (Sweden’s big sex-education organisation) and Louise Persson, defending the financing of groups supporting vulnerable women/prostitutes/sex workers. Then there was another piece from the parliamentarian, followed by another on the Sida site. Neither Mama Cash nor Sida made any reply.

At Rose Alliance we decided to write a short statement acknowledging the flurry and, instead of defending or counter-attacking, presenting the basic facts about the organisation on a news site called Newsmill. It got delayed in the pre-Christmas rush and was published 23 December as Vi sexarbetare kan föra vår egen talan. Here is the English version, just as dry and unexcited as the original Swedish.

Sex Workers Can Speak for Ourselves

Annelie Eriksson, Pye Jakobsson and Laura Agustín

Rose Alliance was recently in the news when it was reported at OmVärlden that Sida gives money to a foundation that has given us two grants. Rose Alliance (Riksorganisationen för sex- och erotikarbetare i Sverige) is an organisation for current and former sex workers in Sweden. We began in 2001 but started expanding about three years ago.

The most important things to know about Rose Alliance are:

We promote economic, labour and individual rights for people of any gender identity who sell sex.

  • We recognise that sex workers have a wide variety of experiences and value all of them.
  • We believe in the theory and practice of harm reduction.
  • We assist and advise each other on legal and self-employment issues and dealing with social and police authorities, on a voluntary basis.

Rose Alliance works on health-promotion projects with HIV-Sweden financed by Smittskyddsinstitutet, and participated in a project funded by the European Commission’s Leonardo da Vinci programme. We are members of the European Harm Reduction Network, an RFSL-coordinated network on male and trans sex work and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (these do not involve receiving money). Last week we took part in the World Conference of ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) in Stockholm, and we have had our own float in Stockholm Pride for the past two years (video clips here).

We received our first core funding in 2011, from Mama Cash, to strengthen our internal organisation. We now have funding for two more years, which we will use to

Some Rose Alliance members blog and publish articles as individuals: Greta Svammel, Petite Jasmine, the Naked Anthropologist are examples. Some members receive invitations to visit, speak and consult both inside and outside Sweden. Host organisations reimburse the usual expenses for this travel.

Political lobbying is not our main focus. But for the record, we advocate self-determination and rights for sex workers – the right to sell sex as well as the right to stop selling sex. The law criminalising the purchase of sex aims to deprive sex workers of the right to run their own lives, so we oppose it.

Here’s the original Swedish

Vi sexarbetare kan föra vår egen talan

Annelie Eriksson, Pye Jakobsson och Laura Agustín för Rose Alliance

23 Dec 2012, Newsmill

Rose Alliance var nyligen uppmärksammade i media när det rapporterades på OmVärlden att Sida ger pengar till en stiftelse som har gett oss två verksamhetsbidrag. Riksorganisationen för sex- och erotikarbetare i Sverige (Rose Alliance) är en intresseorganisation för nuvarande och före detta sexarbetare i Sverige. Vi startade 2001 men började växa som organisation för ungefär tre år sedan.

De viktigaste att veta om Rose Alliance är:

  • Vi arbetar för att främja ekonomiska, arbetsrättsliga och individuella rättigheter för alla sexarbetare, oavsett könsidentitet.
  • Vi inser att sexarbetare har en stor variation av erfarenheter och värderar alla lika mycket.
  • Vi tror på skadereduktion, både i teori och praktik.
  • Vi stödjer och rådgör med varandra i juridiska frågor, frågor kring egenföretagande och hur man hanterar kontakt med sociala- och polisiära myndigheter. Allt på en volontär basis.

Rose Alliance arbetar med ett projekt om sexuell hälsa i samarbete med HIV-Sverige finansierat av Smittskyddsinstitutet, och deltar i ett projekt finansierat av Europeiska Kommissionens  Leonardo da Vinci programme. Vi är medlemmar i European Harm Reduction Network, i ett RFSL Stockholm koordinerat nätverk om manlig och transsexarbete och i Global Network of Sex Work Projects (dessa projekt ger inte organisationen något ekonomiskt bidrag utöver ersättning för eventuella kostnader).

Förra veckan deltog vi i World Conference of ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) i Stockholm, och vi har haft en egen lastbil i Stockholms prideparad under de senaste två åren.

Vi fick vårt första verksamhetsbidrag 2011, från Mama Cash, för att stärka vår interna organisation. Vi har sedan juli 2012 verksamhetsbidrag för ytterligare två år, som kommer att användas till att:

Vissa Rose Alliance medlemmar bloggar och publicerar artiklar som individer:Greta SvammelPetite Jasmine, the Naked Anthropologist är några exempel. Vissa medlemmar blir inbjudna att besöka, föreläsa och konsultera såväl inom som utanför Sverige. Värdorganisationerna ersätter då kostnader i samband med dessa resor.

Politisk lobbyverksamhet är inte vårt främsta fokus. Men för tydlighetens skull: vi förespråkar självbestämmande och rättigheter för sexarbetare – rätten att sälja sex såväl som rätten att sluta sälja sex. Sexköpslagen bidrar till beröva sexarbetare rätten att styra över sina egna liv, därför är vi emot den.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Research for Sex Work: Edition on HIV and Sex Work out soon

Earlier this year I distributed the call for contributions to the journal Research for Sex Work, published by the NSWP. The new edition, whose theme is HIV and Sex Work, will be available online late this year. Print-copies are offered to sex-worker groups.

If you received copies of the last (2010) edition and your address is the same, you do not need to ask to be on the mailing list. If you did not receive copies and want them or have a new address, write to R4SW.Editor [a] nswp.org, supplying your full postal address.

  • NSWP member groups may order up to 10 copies.
  • Non-member groups may order one copy. Please note we have a limited print run so may not be able to fulfil all requests.

The journal will be permanently available for free download as many times as you like from our website.

Before ordering paper copies, please familiarise yourself with the journal, which focuses on ideas, experiences and research results on the subject of sex work in a framework of health and human rights. Writings by sex workers are given priority. Although this is not an academic journal, we do send articles out for review. Readers and authors come from sex-worker groups, support organisations, HIV-prevention projects, local and international NGOs, universities, research institutes. The journal covers all geographical regions. This year’s theme is HIV and Sex Work. You may download previous editions.

If you write for a copy to R4SW.Editor [a] nswp.org, be sure to supply all necessary postal details.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Against sexual fundamentalism: harm reduction, condoms and sex work

This hiv-prevention sign (from Ghana) offers three options: don’t have any sex at all, have it with only one other person forever or have the sex you want but use condoms. The choice is in your hands, meaning no authority figure is proclaiming which choice is right; you have to decide for yourself. I know some people dislike this ABC strategy because they don’t want abstinence to be there at all; I also know some critics think this approach neglects the realities of sex workers, gays and drug users. And I am sure some people dislike Love Life as smarmy. It’s a slogan, that’s all, and I put it here because it represents a humanistic way to think about sex and risk. Note that if you opt out of choosing, police are not mandated to force or rescue you from whatever you are doing.

I remember when I first heard about AIDS, in a radio news report in 1982, and I remember when public-health entities began to offer programmes to help reduce the spread of the virus. I don’t remember when I first heard the term harm reduction, but the approach seemed obviously right. I particularly recall when it was realised that many people who really needed them were not showing up at public clinics to get condoms and tests. This might be when I started to understand what margins mean. Going out to where people hung out, at times good for them rather than for health workers, was a breakthrough idea: Outreach. Haranguing people about their promiscuity or bad habits was understood to be useless. This pragmatic worldview was in the air. Disease prevention was the goal – avoiding human suffering if it could be avoided. Reducing harms.

This once obvious way to view illness, suffering, harm and risk has been eroding for some time. Now we hear about zero tolerance and other hard-line policies that prohibit people from behaviours considered wrong. To choose to take risks is often considered suspicious behaviour. My own tolerant ideas about migrants who undertake undocumented travel and jobs, particularly if they sell sex, gets me called amoral: apparently believing what people say themselves about their lives is the act of a heartless bitch. To me it all seems quite illogical.

For a long time mainstream policymakers were only interested in sex workers as disease-spreaders, so AIDS conferences were places where they were talked about, as objects. The question was How can we get them to practice safer sex? That is still of course the prevalent view amongst doctors, pharmaceutical companies and policymakers: stigma towards prostitutes dies very, very hard. But in the last decade or so the presence of sex workers at these conferences has significantly strengthened (bolstered by outside funding), and the events become sites of activism to promote human, sexual and workers’ rights, empowerment and protagonism in hiv prevention. This coincides with the opening up of a space for considering sex-work policy within the harm-reduction movement, which I first thought about when asked to speak at a conference in Portugal a few years ago.

Condoms are the obvious protection for everyone involved in commercial sex – right? That’s the harm-reduction approach. Yet in the US, where prostitution is prohibited, police can use the carrying of multiple condoms as proof that people are prostitutes and arrest them. The result? People don’t carry them. That’s the harm-enhancement approach detailed in this video from Human Rights Watch.

For the next week the International AIDS Conference is going on in Washington DC, and because US immigration policy is hostile to drug users and prostitutes – even when they are sponsored visitors spending the whole time in a conference venue – a lot of international participants won’t be there. An alternative event taking place in Kolkata, the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, is being attended by workers from dozens of countries. I had expected to go myself but finally couldn’t make it. Here is a calendar of events on sex work at both conferences, which will be video-linked for certain sessions. Good luck to all.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist