“This Is the New War on Drugs!”

By Rob Banaszak on December 3, 2012 in Harm Reduction

By Shannon Wyss, AIDS United Grants Manager

What are the intersections between harm reduction and sex work?  Should the harm reduction community get involved in the struggle for or against sex trafficking?    These were a few of many questions addressed by one of the panels during the 2012 Harm Reduction Conference in Portland, OR.

“Trafficking Wars,” held on the conference’s second day, addressed many of the issues raised by the fight against sex trafficking and examined how this fight affects sex workers, men of color, and youth. Two of the four panelists declared the anti-sex trafficking movement “the new war on drugs,” and the arguments presented by the four panelists and the moderator stemmed from independent research, work with clients in non-profit organizations, and studies into the potential impact of the newly-passed anti-trafficking Proposition 35 in California, as well as similar, already-implemented laws in Illinois and Washington, DC.

Why anyone would be “for” sex trafficking was not, of course, the crux of the discussion. No one on the panel argued that individuals who are forced into sex work against their will should be left unaided. The first panelist, however, did offer a detailed analysis of how and why many estimates of persons trafficked are wildly overblown.

Rather than supporting trafficking, the panel’s focus came from a critical feminist analysis of anti-trafficking work – work that, they acknowledged, has involved many other feminists who come from a very different perspective. Using a specifically anti-racist, anti-ageist framework, the panel’s conclusion was clear:  harm reduction work is under attack through the fight against sex trafficking.

The panelists pointed out that, while feminists have spent decades fighting for women’s reproductive rights and the right of teenagers to access abortion services without parental consent, anti-trafficking statutes take direct aim at these hard-fought victories. By denying youth the capacity to consent to selling sex under any circumstances, young people are disempowered and infantilized.

Furthermore, teens who are caught up in anti-trafficking sex stings are often placed under the surveillance of family courts until the age of twenty-one and may be forced back into the unsafe family or foster care situations from which they had originally escaped.

Organizations that take a harm reduction approach to working with youth on the streets are also directly impacted. For example, anyone caught working with a young person who is engaging in sex work can be charged as a trafficker.  This includes harm reduction workers who give their clients meals, rides home, bus tokens, or clothing. It also includes youth who assist other youth on the streets, whether by merely hanging out together or by helping each other find clients. And yet one of the first harm reduction methods taught to young sex workers is to work in pairs. So any caseworker who helps a teenage sex worker – or any young person who aids another – can potentially be arrested, charged, and imprisoned as a sex trafficker.

Anti-sex trafficking laws also feed directly into the racist prison industrial complex, according to the panelists.  Not only do police departments receive increased funding for anti-sex trafficking work, but these statutes empower police to increase their surveillance and targeting of men of color for arrest; similar actions have not been concentrated in white communities.  Furthermore, many of these laws have increased the severity of related crimes:  what used to be misdemeanors are now felonies.  So men of color are being targeted by police, arrested more frequently, and convicted of more severe charges with more required time behind bars, thereby exacerbating a system that is already stacked against non-white men.

And, of course, from a harm reduction perspective, prison is not a safe place for anyone. Being stuck in a system where inmates face increased risk for HIV, hepatitis, harassment, and rape is hardly an environment in which an individual can easily reduce her/his risks and stay healthy.

All the panelists agreed that the harm reduction community has not been fully engaged in the fight to end anti-sex trafficking statutes and the deleterious impact that they have on so many individuals.

By extension, the HIV community stands to benefit from the end of anti-sex trafficking laws:  the amazing organizations that do such critical HIV outreach and prevention work will be able to continue fully engaging youth and others involved in sex work; men of color, already at astronomically increased risk for HIV, will be less likely to end up in prison; and we can continue to make inroads in stopping the spread of AIDS and keeping those who already are infected healthy and in care.

To get involved, contact your local sex workers’ rights organization or an agency that provides supportive, non-judgmental, harm reduction-based services to individuals involved in commercial sex work.

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