- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 2, 2012

Pro-prostitution groups are latching onto the global AIDS epidemic to push for worldwide legalization of the world’s oldest profession.

The effort, being sold as a way to prevent HIV/AIDS infections, got a boost from a report backed by the United Nations that says selling sex should be legal and from speakers at last week’s world AIDS Conference in Washington, including a member of Congress who vowed to open U.S. anti-AIDS funds to groups that support the legalization or practice of prostitution.

“We need a law that gets commercial sex work out of dangerous places and into safe ones,” Cheryl Overs, senior researcher at Australia’s Monash University and a leading advocate of sex-worker rights, told the 19th International AIDS Conference.

The Global Commission on HIV and the Law recently called for an end to “punitive” laws that are “stifling” efforts to prevent HIV transmission.

The commission of global leaders and specialists, backed by the United Nations Development Program and Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, spent 18 months discussing sex work, drug use and laws criminalizing HIV status.

Its report concluded that laws against prostitution should be repealed because they fail to protect women and instead drive at-risk people away from health care services.

“Rather than punishing consenting adults involved in sex work, countries must ensure safe working conditions, and offer sex workers and their clients access to effective HIV and health services and commodities,” said the commission’s report. It added that laws against all forms of child abuse and human sex trafficking still should be enforced.

Skeptics of legalization

Conservative, religious and anti-pornography groups aren’t buying it.

Relabeling “prostitution” as “sex work” and then creating government regulations for it doesn’t work, said Janice Shaw Crouse, senior research fellow at Concerned Women for America.

“Prostitutes themselves don’t want to be regulated because they don’t earn as much money,” she said. Thus, even in places where it’s legal, “illegal prostitution flourishes.”

One fight in Bangkok

The Bangkok Post in Thailand also rejected the commission’s report as “muddle-headed.”

“Legalizing and trivializing prostitution as just another job passes numerous problems on to government and society. Who will care for the health of the workers? How can society accept brothels as neighbors to schools?” the editorial asked Tuesday.

“No doubt, society and government must deal better with the HIV/AIDS epidemic,” the newspaper added. “Unfortunately,” the U.N.-backed report “is difficult to take seriously when it demands major, outrageous changes to laws without even a discussion of the effect on society at large.”

U.S. funding for sex work?

At AIDS 2012, advocates of sex-worker rights, often carrying red umbrellas, the symbol of their crusade, chanted, “Sex workers’ rights are human rights” and “Sex work is work.”

They cheered Rep. Barbara Lee, California Democrat, because she introduced a bill to remove “anti-prostitution” language from the President’s Emergency Plan For AIDS Relief. Those funds currently cannot be used to promote or advocate the legalization or practice of prostitution or sex trafficking, and groups funded by the plan must have policies explicitly opposing such “abusive and dehumanizing” practices.

Ms. Overs told the conference that even new HIV “treatment-as-prevention” efforts, which nearly everyone else at the conference hailed, put prostitutes at risk by preventing them from insisting on condom use.

She said condoms also protect prostitutes from pregnancy and diseases other than HIV, but the anti-AIDS policy of providing people who engage in high-risk behavior with daily anti-HIV pills has resulted in potential clients writing happily on the Internet that “the HIV pill will liberate them from rubber.”

A video posted Tuesday shows advocates of sex-worker rights telling leaders of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law that legal and safety provisions would protect them from police, who, under the cover of law, strip-search, rob, rape and torture them.

“We want to be recognized as human beings,” said Miriam Edwards of the Guyana Sex Work Coalition.

“Let’s stop being hypocrites and start doing what we have to do,” said Elena Eva Reynaga, who represents Latin American sex workers.

U.S. immigration law prohibits foreign sex workers from entering the country. But Ms. Overs said the next AIDS conference, to be held in 2014 in Melbourne, Australia, will be much more welcoming of sex workers.

Sex work is legal in Melbourne and more reforms are under way, she said, so “Australia’s in a very good position to decriminalize sex work without any of the backlash that you get in other countries.”

• Cheryl Wetzstein can be reached at cwetzstein@washingtontimes.com.

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