Legalize sex work, ax the HIV rate

Researchers at the International AIDS conference say legalizing sex work is a human rights issue

By Jenny Kutner

Published July 22, 2014 3:40PM (EDT)

    (<a href=''>Slinky777</a> via <a href=''>iStock</a>/Salon)
(Slinky777 via iStock/Salon)

Decriminalizing sex work is the most effective way to reduce the worldwide HIV infection rate, according to public health researchers who recently published their findings in the Lancet medical journal. The researchers, who presented their findings on Tuesday at the International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, estimate that infection rates among sex workers in Canada, India and Kenya, as well as other nations, could be reduced by nearly half if the profession were legalized.

According to Kate Shannon, the study's lead author and an associate professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia, sex workers -- regardless of gender or sexuality -- are subject to violence, abuse and discrimination that leaves them highly vulnerable to contracting the virus. "Across all settings, decriminalization of sex work could have the largest impact on the HIV epidemic among sex workers over just 10 years,” Shannon said. “Governments and policymakers can no longer ignore the evidence.”

Shannon and her colleagues are urging global health organizations and governments to put sex workers at the center of HIV prevention programs, arguing that their rates of infection could be easily reduced should they no longer need to hide in remote areas or fear what will happen if they seek medical care. Additionally, because condoms are often used as evidence against sex workers in countries where prostitution is outlawed, many avoid using them -- which, obviously, thwarts efforts to contain the spread of HIV. Unsurprisingly, then, sex workers' rates of infection are significantly higher than the rest of the population, according to the World Health Organization. Female and transgender female sex workers face the highest risk, and are 14 and 50 times more likely to contract the disease than other adults, respectively.

But, in places like New South Wales, Australia, where sex work was decriminalized in 2009, workers have a lower HIV infection rate than the general population, according to the Washington Post. That's because, decriminalization proponents argue, legalization allows sex workers to access the stability and consistency required of HIV treatment, and they can seek out medical assistance without fear of going to jail or losing custody of their children. Canada, which recently struck down laws that target sex workers, seems be the next country to realize the effectiveness of decriminalization -- and could be the next country to stop punishing sex workers.

Jenny Kutner

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