HIV advocacy work often strives to have a workforce that mirrors the communities disproportionately impacted by HIV. And while there exist genuine efforts to increase diversity in the field, oftentimes we also see and experience tokenism—symbolic gestures to mirror diversity without genuine efforts to proportionately bring diverse voices to the decision-making table. Justin Davis—an HIV advocate working in Atlanta who is also well-known in the Black queer community under his porn alias, JD Blackstone—knows this form of tokenism all too well, having experienced firsthand how being a sex worker can create conflict while working as an HIV advocate. “It’s like I’m the trinity of what a HIV agency is looking for in a token,” said Davis. “I’m Black, a gay male, and I’m also a sex worker.”
Because Davis is open and honest about sex work, he said, agencies often reach out to him requesting he participate in panels and other speaking engagements. “Yet I’ve been told that I can’t be hired in leadership positions that I’m more than qualified for because my reputation as a sex worker makes me a liability,” explained Davis. “In reality, I can wear a suit and tie and be professional from 8 to 5, then clock out and be a freak hoe who likes to be tied down and gagged on camera. How can you tell me that I can’t be authentic, connect with my community, and still have a career?”
Success in Elevating Black Queer Sex Workers—and Some Setbacks
Davis’ journey into sex work began when he was kicked out of his home as a young adult. Resilient, he still attended and graduated from college, at first supporting himself working in retail and fast food. When these jobs failed to meet Davis’ financial needs, he decided to apply to work for the porn companies CocoDorm and Taggaz. He was soon called to Atlanta to shoot solo masturbation scenes, where he quickly learned that the companies paid well.
Keeping focused on his goal of completing college, Davis began volunteering with Muskogee County Health Department to complete his community-service hours. While volunteering, he accompanied his stepbrother to the health-department clinic for HIV testing. After his stepbrother received a positive result, he decided not to engage in HIV care because he did not believe the staff looked like, related to, or understood someone like him. In that moment, Davis, who is also living with HIV, knew it was important for young, Black queer men to see people who looked like him in HIV clinical and organizational settings.
So Davis began working in HIV advocacy, with both health departments and nonprofit agencies, while still maintaining a career as a sex worker through OnlyFans. Realizing that the voices of Black queer sex workers needed to be elevated in HIV advocacy, he was proactive about encouraging other well-known porn actors and sex workers to participate in community advisory boards and other related outreach efforts—but, unfortunately, he’s faced a number of disappointments.
“I would be asked to use my connections with the Black gay community and sex workers to facilitate community advisory boards, and we would brainstorm great ideas for engaging the community through HIV outreach,” said Davis. “The agencies would say how great the ideas were, but when it came time to implement, there would always be an excuse to shut ideas down.”
Davis eventually realized that diverse, inclusive community advisory boards were not there to actually advise, but to serve as a check box for funders’ requirements. “Ideas weren’t taken seriously,” recalled Davis. “The members of the advisory boards weren’t even taken seriously. They would let you know the day before the meeting that they needed you to come and give feedback on programs, even though they already had their minds made up on how the programs would be run.”
Too often, it has been the case in Davis’ work in HIV prevention that he’s run into situations where an organization, more concerned with “meeting numbers,” he said, loses interest in Black gay men after they test positive for HIV and link to care. “In some instances, I felt like I was just a connection to get people into the clinic and get tested,” explained Davis.
Although he was hired because of his connections to the community as a sex worker, the shame and stigma Davis has been subjected to in the workplace ultimately impacted his emotional and mental well-being. Employers, for instance, have asked him to refrain from appearances at clubs and social events for the Black queer community, or told him that he shouldn’t hold leadership positions in the HIV field because of his tendency to have condomless sex on camera. “I’m hired because I’m recognizable and I have a following to bring clients in,” he said. “Yet once I’m hired, you want me to stop being who I am. You want to bring me out of my community of Black and Brown peers. They follow me because they relate and they enjoy the same kinds of sex that I like to have. They feel comfortable reaching out to me with sexual-health questions or vent because they feel ashamed about their status.”
Using Non-Traditional Methods to Reach the Community
Social media has not only changed how we engage sex work, but it has also changed how sex workers engage the community. Many Black queer sex workers develop large online platforms that allow them to move into other forms of media and entertainment, such as becoming video bloggers, social media influencers, actors in web series, party promoters, and brand ambassadors.
“I’ve done several web series and a movie with Signal 23 (an online media company), I promote sex parties, I have a product line, and have participated in HIV-prevention social marketing campaigns,” said Davis. “I have a YouTube channel (Blackstone TV) to talk about different topics that are important to our community, and I’ve often used my social media following to raise donations of food and clothing to go out and feed and clothe the homeless.”
According to Davis, online sex work has helped him build strong brand recognition and marketing expertise. Because of Davis’ notoriety as a sex worker and porn actor, as well as his marketing knowledge, he has been able to use non-traditional avenues to reach people and encourage them to get tested for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections, including posting about testing on “Freak Twitter” (a Black and Latinx community on Twitter that discusses sex, shares nude pics and sex videos, and promotes porn), distributing condoms and home HIV testing kits at sex parties, as well as bringing in fellow sex workers to get tested and linked to PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) or HIV care.
As a person living with HIV, Davis also often promotes messages about the importance of status disclosure, undetectable equals untransmittable (U=U), and PrEP. “I can give people options,” he said. “They aren’t going to wear a condom or not wear a condom because I tell them to, but I can educate people about PrEP. I can educate people about U=U or making sure they’re being tested or in care, because when I acquired HIV, nobody in my community was there to tell me about PrEP, even though it had been around for years. I’m going to educate my community about all options.”
Despite Davis’ and many other Black queer sex workers’ ability to engage the community through their platforms, Davis admits there is still a glaring lack of diversity in HIV awareness. “It’s great seeing more sex workers in HIV awareness, but they are usually so polished,” said Davis. “Where are the sex workers in campaigns and on magazines who look like me? Where are the Black sex workers? Where are the guys with a bunch of tattoos? Where are the thick men? Where are the trans sex workers? Where are campaigns that will make people from our community pick up a magazine and read about U=U or PrEP because the person looks like them?”
When asked how we can make HIV advocacy work more conducive for Black sex workers, Davis replied, “We need to replace some people from the previous generations in this work.” Davis said that in many cases, the people in leadership positions responsible for leading us to reach the sex worker community, the trans community, and the gay community still have outdated language and ideas that offend and stigmatize the community. “They don’t even know what venues [to go to] to reach our population,” added Davis. “They’ll just keep testing at the same nightclubs.”
Sex Workers Deserve Intersectional Approaches
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a major funder of comprehensive HIV prevention programs, lists gay and bisexual men, Black people/African Americans, and sex workers as groups with an increased risk of acquiring HIV, warranting special consideration in outreach and prevention efforts. Yet, because of the competitive nature of receiving funding, agencies and health departments often find themselves prioritizing testing and linkage numbers without actually implementing systematic changes.
Homelessness, unemployment, substance use, discrimination, and lack of opportunities due to homophobia and transphobia are all socioeconomic factors impacting sex workers’ sexual health. Lack of sufficient population-level data on HIV risk for sex workers also presents barriers to developing effective programming for this population.
In order to adequately address and change these systems, it is vital for sex workers and their expertise to be centered in HIV efforts that target the sex worker community. It is also important that approaches be intersectional, recognizing that sex workers are not monolithic and that they belong to many different communities. Sex workers of different gender identities, sexual orientations, races, and ethnicities have to have voices elevated in HIV advocacy as well.
Sex workers face many issues that impact their sexual health beyond sexual risk, but very little work is done to address these systematic issues. It’s true that the HIV field cannot address the many issues sex workers face that impact their sexual health beyond sexual risk by simply doing outreach at a strip club, or hiring a token sex worker, or putting sex workers on an advisory board or focus group with no genuine intentions of listening to their voices or implementing their ideas.
Just like any community impacted by HIV, the sex worker community deserves equity and resources, and to have their voices elevated, their trauma met with empathy and understanding, work led with cultural humility, and a clear professional path to becoming leaders in HIV advocacy without being stigmatized for being their authentic selves. “You don’t have to be a part of the sex worker community,” said Davis. “But you should make efforts to understand the community, learn about the community, and have empathy for the community, or this work is no longer for you.”