The Criminalization of Sex Work Means a Lot More New Cases of HIV

  • August 13, 2014
  • News



At this year’s XX International AIDS Conference 2014 a study was presented whose authors concluded that the decriminalization of sex work would lead to a reduction in HIV infections of at least a third in the three countries examined. The researchers concluded, after completing their study in India, Kenya and Canada, that the decriminalization of sex work would result in a decrease in new infections of between 33% and 46% in those countries. “Across all settings, decriminalization of sex work could have the largest impact on the HIV epidemic among sex workers over just 10 years,” said Kate Shannon, an associate professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia and the lead author of the study. “Governments and policymakers can no longer ignore the evidence.”

Five high risk groups, men who have sex with men, transgender people, people who inject drugs, prisoners and sex workers, account for about half of all new HIV infections worldwide according to the World Health Organization. High risk groups contract HIV at astoundingly higher rates: female sex workers are 14 times more likely to have HIV than other women, and trans women are almost 50 times more likely to have HIV than other adults. According to the study, there are several factors that lead to higher risk for sex workers when the work is criminalized: high rates of violence, police harassment, poor working conditions and a lack of access to prevention and medical care. The fear of being mistreated by authorities, arrested, being treated as criminals by authorities even when they’re the victims, and being constant victims of violence all lead to a greater number of infections in sexual workers; when having condoms is used as evidence of prostitution (as is the case in countries like the US and Cambodia), they stop carrying condoms; when they are scared of the police, either of being arrested or harassed, then sex work takes place in hidden, and hence less safe, places; when seeking medical care can result in coming under police notice, or in mistreatment by medical staff, then there is an increase in risky behavior and therefore more infections.

In the last few years, several governments have decriminalized sex work, and today, sex workers in some of those places have a lower prevalence of HIV than the general population, showing the lifesaving difference made by such a change in policy.

The evidence and the studies performed all make it very clear that the criminalization of sex work means violence, a lack of safety, abuse, and more people with HIV.

We ask governments to, having the responsibility to protect their citizens, do just that by taking the obvious and only acceptable course of action: decriminalize sex work.