Sex workers like to work together because it’s safer for them. A co-worker who knows where they’re going and who they’re with can intervene if necessary. Now, a new Canadian study has found that working together or what the researchers call “social cohesion” enhances the ability of street walkers to practice safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms). Yet anti-prostitution and trafficking laws make it much more difficult for sex workers to work together or feel connected to their peers.
In fact, law enforcement in a number of states including California, Alaska and Ohio have used anti-trafficking statutes to arrest sex workers who work together and charge them with trafficking. In 2013, for example, Karen Carpenter, the owner of an Anchorage massage parlor (where she worked with two other women) was charged with and convicted of sex trafficking, according to the Alaska Native News, even though the other women were working with her by choice.
In the most recent study, researchers at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS interviewed 645 Vancouver sex workers over a three-year period. They found that sex workers who reported feeling more “social cohesion” were more likely to say no to having sex without condoms, according to the Globe and Mail. The researchers determined the level of social cohesion sex workers felt by asking them to rate statements such as, “You can count on your colleagues to accompany you to the door.”
The study, which was presented last week at the International AIDS Society conference in Vancouver, also found that under Canada’s criminal laws, many of the sex workers felt pushed to engage in riskier behavior like rushing transactions or jumping into vehicles before negotiating safe sex out of fear that they would be arrested. Having sex without condoms increases sex workers’ risk of contracting and transmitting HIV; indeed, 12 per cent of the participants in the Vancouver study were HIV-positive.
Laws that prohibit people from engaging in commercial sex work in Canada and the United States essentially penalize sex workers for paying a friend to protect them by doing things like writing down client license plates or shadowing them during a transaction. And as I discovered when researching my forthcoming book, Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, prostitutes who are assaulted by violent clients or witness an assault are afraid to go to the police for fear of being arrested themselves.
So while many anti-trafficking advocates will tell you they view sex workers as “victims” and are only trying to protect them, the laws they promote create the exact opposite effect. Such laws (and the way they are enforced) harm the very people they say they want to help and endanger everyone’s health in the bargain.