Sex, work, life and HIV
Across the world, sex workers continue to face high levels of violence, stigma, discrimination and other human-rights violations. These factors contribute to sex workers being 21 times more vulnerable to acquiring HIV. Today, on International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, current and former sex workers discuss their personal experiences of sex work, how they navigate the challenges of HIV and their individual journeys towards empowerment. Here are their stories...
Mama G | Aunchanaporn Pilasuta | Miriam Edwards | Luca Stevenson
Mama G is a male sex worker and gay rights activist from Kenya who has been living with HIV for the past 10 years. Before moving to Nairobi, he lived in Kisumu in western Kenya and had limited knowledge of HIV and LGBTI-related issues. This is his story...
I was abandoned by my family because of being gay and my HIV status. I shared my status with a close cousin and he shared it with them. This is when I had to start earning a living from sex work. The situation for male sex workers in Kenya is challenging. Many of us have been abandoned by our families or physically and verbally harassed. The majority are still going through mental health problems. If you are living with HIV, you already face stigma and if you are gay as well, it doubles. The limited institutions available where you can report your case or receive psychosocial support make the matter worse.
It has been a long journey for me. I was depressed and, at one point, I wanted to commit suicide. For nearly two years, I stopped taking my medications as I was overwhelmed by all the stigma and discrimination, coming even from within the LGBTI community. This was because I was open about my HIV diagnosis when people were still quiet about it and when nobody wanted to associate themselves with people living openly with HIV.
I am still experiencing stress, but I don’t want to go back to the situation I was in before. It still isn’t easy, especially when it comes to relationships. Even some people in my community will go behind my back and tell my boyfriend to stop talking to me or to stop having sex with me because of my HIV status. I am also active on social media and I have been on TV, so if he walks with me, people will know he is also gay. But in spite of the hardships, I have learnt how to manage the negativity and I have joined support groups.
Today, I feel empowered and I am receiving good feedback from the people I work for, especially the LGBTI community. Seeing that rates of HIV are going down also in part because of my work and empowerment really inspires me. When I decided to be open about my diagnosis, it was not just for my benefit, but also to help people in my community come out and know more about HIV. Seeing more people living openly with HIV, being proud of who they are, and seeing my community happy is what gets me going. Additionally, last year, I became the head of the peer-to-peer support group for people living with HIV; that was one of the best moments for me. These are the things that make me sit down and think, “Wow, Mama G, you have made it.”
However, changes must happen for the male sex worker communities. We need more economic empowerment. We need to have psychosocial support institutions where people can walk in and get the services and counselling they need. We also need help concerning harm reduction. We, as LGBTI communities and sex workers, often face issues related to alcohol and drug use, and unless you have money, there is no access to psychosocial support. Often, people don’t use the money they earn from sex work for counselling sessions as their priorities are paying rent and buying food and sadly, many commit suicide.
Aunchanaporn Pilasuta, known as Anna, is a transgender sex worker from northeastern Thailand who is challenging perceptions of sex work and encouraging health and dignity above all else. This is her story...
My work is a means to survive and every human-being deserves respect and dignity, not be judged or looked down. I am a 33 year old transgender sex worker, originally from Loey in northeastern Thailand.
Working in this industry requires you to be mindful at all times, especially when it comes to protection. Often, my customers don’t want to use protection. Just one mistake could have serious negative effects on your life and health. Regardless of how much money I am offered, I always refuse clients who do not agree to use protection. Health is the most important and if we are not healthy it is impossible for us to earn money. In Thailand, there are many sex workers and HIV affects several, some of whom may not be aware of their status. To address that, I believe there should be a space where sex workers can access HIV testing services and additionally, equally important is access to holistic counseling. We need healthcare workers and providers we can trust, who are empathetic to our needs and who do not judge us.
I have experienced a great deal of stigma due to the nature of my work and it follows me everywhere, beyond healthcare settings. When I return to my hometown people always talk behind my back and tell me that the work I do lacks dignity. I try not be affected by them. My family, unlike others in my hometown, are my biggest source of support, they mean everything to me and they help me deal with the challenges I face.
I want people to understand that sex work in just another kind of work, that it also has dignity. It remains my biggest hope for the future for sex work to be decriminalized in Thailand and that a law protecting us and our rights will be put in place. Decriminalizing sex work would be a tremendous stepping-stone in helping sex workers accessing HIV prevention and treatment. It will make us feel like our work is normal and as a result the society will cease seeing us as outcasts and the stigma will also decrease. Alongside this, I also hope that infection rates among sex workers will go down and that everyone in the industry will prioritize their health and regularly access health services for HIV testing, counselling and support.
Miriam Edwards, from Guyana, knows first-hand how sex workers are stigmatized and discriminated against in her country, even more so if they are living with HIV. She decided to do something about it. This is her story...
I am the founder of two organizations that advocate for the rights of sex workers: the Guyana Sex Work Coalition and the Caribbean Sex Work Coalition. With my organizations, we advocate for the rights of all sex workers, regardless of gender, race, HIV status or social status. We carry out sensitization campaigns with healthcare workers and armed forces and also organize capacity-building activities with sex workers and represent them at regional, national and international forums.
I was myself a sex worker on the streets when I was younger. This is what drives me in life – my past. My life is my work and I know the challenges that sex workers face every day. In Guyana, sex workers are highly stigmatized, especially by healthcare workers, police officers and churches. The problem worsens if the sex worker is also living with HIV. I have a personal connection to HIV as I lost my sister to the virus. That motivated me to work in this field, which I knew little about prior to that. I cared for her until she passed away, and after that, I continued going to the hospital to care for people with HIV because the nurses themselves were discriminating against people living with HIV.
In the community, there is still a lot of stigma and discrimination against people living with HIV. This has resulted in many people refusing to get tested or adhere to treatment. Sex workers, in particular, fear accessing health and HIV services. Because of the nature of my work, I often experience stigma and discrimination myself. For example, when my daughter died of an aneurysm, many people were convinced it was HIV and some started spreading false information, and the police had to get involved. I was very distressed and felt helpless.. But despite the stigmatizing nature of my work, I am determined to help sex workers and work with them to come up with solutions that would benefit them.
The best memory I have in relation to my work is when I got my first funding to work with sex workers in Guyana. I was very excited as I was able to open a safe space for sex workers. They felt appreciated and they could access services that benefit them. Sex workers need a single space where they can get tested, seek medical care, get treatment and get psychological support – a safe place where they can just come and be comfortable and not feel alone.
My biggest hopes for the future are that sex work will be decriminalized, that there will be no more new HIV infections and that people know their status and seek treatment without fearing stigma and discrimination. I believe that decriminalization will bring about a decrease in the rate of HIV infections and sex workers will begin seeking health services and treatment more. Most importantly, they will not hide, and they will be drastically less vulnerable to human rights violations.
Luca Stevenson is a sex worker, activist for sex workers’ rights and coordinator of the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe. The network advocates for sex workers’ rights from an intersectional and social justice perspective. Luca has engaged in many types of sex work over the past 20 years and has been privileged to work with sex worker communities in many European countries. This is his story...
Sex workers are among the strongest people I know and are mobilizing globally, often in very difficult contexts of violence, stigma and isolation. I am truly inspired by sex worker activists and allies who work in solidarity with other social groups and call for social change beyond legal reform. When I feel defeated, I get re-inspired by seeing new sex worker activists speaking up and fighting for their rights.
This year, I was privileged to join the first protest for sex workers’ rights in Bucharest, Romania, co-organized by the first sex worker-led organization in the country, SexWorkCall. The work it is doing without funding is impressive. It inspires and energizes me to keep fighting. Their work allowed me to reflect on how sex work cannot be seen in isolation. Sex workers face repressive migration laws, which are problematic considering that the vast majority of sex workers in France and other European countries are migrants.
Another powerful moment for me was when I attended the biggest global LGBTI conference, which was organized in Aotearoa, New Zealand by the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA). The ILGA members took a stand against violence, criminalization and human rights violations against LGBTI and sex workers. When members voted for a resolution that opposes criminalization and legal oppression of sex work, sex workers and their allies cheered, hugged and embraced each other. It might seem like a small victory, but for us, this was the culmination of many years of pushing for greater recognition of issues faced by sex workers. We also remembered members of our communities who were murdered or fell victim to violence, and we reflected on the difficult challenges that remain to be overcome before all sex workers are safe. I believe community-led initiatives are crucial to protecting sex workers and ensuring HIV-related care and support. Judgmental attitudes and openly discriminatory practices can create serious obstacles to sex workers’ access to HIV services.
Community-led initiatives empower sex workers to better understand their right to health and to be treated as respectfully and compassionately as other patients. I am confident that sex workers will increasingly be involved in all decisions that concern them. And I hope that that the HIV movement will not forget the structural determinants of HIV vulnerability, including discrimination, marginalization, poverty, human rights violations and criminalization.
Decriminalization of sex work is a first and necessary step to address some of the key injustices faced by sex workers. Without it, we remain at high risk of attack and violence, unable to access justice. Police can continue to confiscate our condoms, clients can continue to demand unprotected sex, and aggressors can continue to attack us, rob us and rape us in a climate of impunity. Decriminalization will not solve all the issues related to sex work and sex workers, but it will allow us to start being treated like other citizens and empower us to access our rights.