Sex Workers React to the UN's 2016 Political Declaration on Ending AIDS

Derek J. Demeri
Derek J. Demeri
Selfie by Derek J. Demeri

At the 2016 High-Level Meeting on Ending AIDS on June 8, the UN General Assembly voted to adopt a political declaration On the Fast-Track to Accelerate the Fight Against HIV and to End the AIDS Epidemic by 2030 -- the latest iteration of a quinquennial process through which governments around the world pledge to respond to the HIV epidemic.

The 2016 Political Declaration, based around the theme of "Fast-Track, End AIDS," contains nice words from governments but is a joke to those who represent communities impacted by HIV. In fact, the Declaration is so bad that over 80 rights-based organizations have released a counter Civil Society and Communities Declaration to End HIV. Communities impacted by HIV around the world are calling for governments to recognize that we are our own experts in ending AIDS.

In the Political Declaration, the consensus approach was to focus on women and girls. "Women and girls" were mentioned 21 times in the document while "key populations" were mentioned twice, and only in reference to being disease vectors.

Counterfactually, in the Declaration governments reduced women and girls to a politically safe and imaginary monolithic group. How do governments plan on reaching young females, sometimes younger than age of consent laws, who run away from abusive family situations and must turn to the sex trade for survival? Is there an action plan to include mothers who rely on sex work to persevere despite the bondage of intimate partner violence, or transgender women who face blatant employment discrimination in the mainstream workforce? We see no plan or interest rooted in the real lives of women and girls, only rhetoric.

At the High-Level Meeting, it was Iceland who threw sex workers under the bus when its representative chose to dissent from global health experts findings by promoting the prosecution of sex worker clients, a policy known to increase violence against the community and that promotes the moralistic belief that the sex trade can and should be abolished.

Janet Duran (New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, USA), Samantha Carrillo (RedTraSex, Guatemala), Daughtie Ogutu (African Sex Workers Alliance, Kenya) and Maria Lucila Esquivel (RedTraSex, Paraguay) after a policy meeting with UN Women
Janet Duran (New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, USA), Samantha Carrillo (RedTraSex, Guatemala), Daughtie Ogutu (African Sex Workers Alliance, Kenya) and Maria Lucila Esquivel (RedTraSex, Paraguay) after a policy meeting with UN Women
PJ Starr

Iceland doesn't deserve all the blame though. The complacent and contradictory behavior of "progressive" countries such as Australia, Canada and the United States, which claim to be champions for key populations, is also responsible. Their superior, righteous approach to talking with low- and middle-income countries backfires when they call for the inclusion of key populations in international resolutions but fail to follow up in their own domestic policies. Take, for example, the United States President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which continues to force funding recipients to sign an "anti-prostitution loyalty oath" preventing them from advocating against sex work criminalization -- an oath exclusionary of sex worker-led organizations and far from evidence-based. When sex-worker rights organizations reach out to policy makers in Washington, only the sounds of crickets are returned.

In the United States, not only are sex workers ignored in HIV strategies, but also their organizing efforts are actively undermined. When we aren't being excluded from regional planning councils/groups, we are being forced to use precious resources and energy to fight for and demand the safety of our community from those who claim to be our protectors. Due to the culture of foundations, large HIV-service organizations that have become professionalized grant-seeking agencies tend to include sex-worker leadership only to the extent that its presence is useful for grant purposes. "In my experience with coalition-building," Janet Duran, a director at the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance told me, "it is agencies like Hyacinth or South Jersey AIDS Alliance that put on a front to include sex workers, but don't do enough to create safe spaces for our community and instead just end up reinforcing stigma." Money should be going to groups led by sex workers instead of institutions that perpetuate whorephobia.

After decades of stonewalling, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now conducting research on sex work that it conveniently forgot to mention to sex-worker rights groups until the research design was already settled on and rolled out. If it seems that sex workers are at the table, it is only because they are on the menu.

As U.S. sex workers continue to fight for representation, we see positive advancements in other parts of the world, such as Latin America. "For the first time, sex workers are working with chancellors and ministers and are officially part of the delegation representing our countries," Maria Lucila Esquivel of Paraguay and a director at RedTraSex, The Network of Women Sex Workers in Latin America and the Caribbean, told me via a translator. "Now the doors to the United Nations are opening for sex workers to be involved; it is historic," she emphasized.

With sex-worker leaders from around the world sitting in policy discussions on site, the numbness goes away and one can sense how far our collective movement has progressed. HIV is a social illness, and eradicating it takes the political will to build leadership among society's most marginalized and excluded populations.

For policy makers and funders, ending AIDS means exploring and honoring the "radical" notion that sex workers know what is best for our community. Governments will not stop HIV. Nonprofits will not stop HIV. Our communities will stop HIV.

A young, queer and proud sex worker activist native to New Jersey, Derek J. Demeri is co-founder of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, former chapter coordinator at the Sex Workers Outreach Project - USA and a lead researcher for "Nothing About Us, Without Us: HIV/AIDS-Related Community and Policy Organizing by U.S. Sex Workers." He is now exploring his talents in the world of union organizing with UNITE HERE in Atlantic City.