Friday, 21 December 2012

New research publication looks at HIV and sex work

This is a guest post by Laura Agustín

Dr Laura Agustín has edited the 13th edition of R4SW (Research for Sex Work), published by the Global Network of Sex Work Projects.  The focus this time is on how HIV affects sex workers and the role played by official moves to regulate, restrict or further stigmatise prostitution.


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.

The new 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.

Research from the China Sex Worker Organisation Network Forum 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.

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.

The new issue, together with previous editions of R4SW can be downloaded free from this site. Laura Agustín's own blog, The Naked Anthropologist, focuses on issues surrounding migration, trafficking and the so-called rescue industry, while her groundbreaking book, Sex at the Margins, is now available on Kindle.