Sex workers bear a disproportionate burden of HIV. The difficulty in reducing HIV disparities among sex workers further heightened by the interact of multiple afflictions including incarceration, mental health problems, substance use, trauma, poverty, and stigma and discrimination rooted in sexism, transphobia, and/or homophobia. These afflictions interact with each other and potentiate the HIV epidemic among sex workers. The complex nature of interacting afflictions requires going beyond behavioral and biomedical approaches that focus on individual-level risk factors and necessitates addressing the syndemic effects of social and structural factors among sex worker. A syndemic is “two or more afflictions, interacting synergistically, contributing to excess burden of disease in a population.”
An example of a recent criminal reform is an Alaska immunity statute for sex workers. On July 11, 2016, Alaska Governor Bill Walker signed into law Senate Bill 91, a major criminal law intended to reduce the state’s prison population and its associated costs. The reforms introduced by SB 91 addressed a number of important issues, including expansion of diversion programs, capping prison stays for parole and probation violations, and making drug possession a misdemeanor offense. SB 91 also altered Alaska’s prostitution statute to offer immunity from prosecution if a sex worker is a victim or witnesses of certain, mostly violent, crimes and reports the crime to law enforcement.
Second, SB91 further leaves open the door for law enforcement to arrest and charge sex workers with the offense of prostitution as immunity only applies to prosecution. Immunity also does not prevent prosecution for future acts of prostitution. Finally, in order to bar prosecution, the person needs to cooperate with law enforcement, a term that is not defined. This requirement has the potential to put sex workers in a difficult position if they are reluctant to cooperate or law enforcement perceives them as being uncooperative.
O’Neill Institute is committed to advancing the policy dialogue around the health and rights of sex workers. With support from the Elton John AIDS Foundation, we recently have established a collaborative project with Whitman-Walker Health and HIPS to explore how sex workers in DC access health care, how they interact with law enforcement, and how laws, policies, and practices designed to disrupt commercial sexual activity impede access to HIV prevention and care services. Through this project, we will investigate the impact of laws and policies on sex workers’ access to clinical care and social services and recommend potential criminal law and policy reforms to better support sex workers in Washington DC. For more information about the O’Neill Institute project, check out our webpage.
The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.