Wednesday, January 20, 2010

Sex Worker Protection and Needle Exchange: Safety or Morality?

As of today, there is no known medical cure for HIV/AIDS, though various sources seem to indicate there are plenty of untapped social cures. In this context, cure implies a means intended to lessen the impact and prevalence of HIV/AIDS globally. After stumbling across an article entitled “Neither Victims Nor Voiceless: Sex Workers Speaking for Themselves” through RH Reality Check, I became interested in sharing a few related finds and observations. The article and accompanying film discuss sex workers in India who are tackling sky-high HIV rates by employing HIV-Peer Education and condom distribution. The community-based organization which leads these efforts is called SANGRAM; it aims to prioritize the voices of sex workers to better understand the best strategies for effectively assisting these women.

While this specific organization focuses its efforts mostly within India, there are many other similar organizations that aim to decrease the prevalence of HIV/AIDS in other parts of the world. Condom distribution is certainly not the only means of contributing to this effort. In fact, while watching a travel show on PBS a few months ago, I was struck by a needle exchange program employed in many parts of the world. According to, this program basically works by providing “access to sterile syringes and other injecting equipment such as swabs and sterile water to reduce the risk of IDUs coming into contact with other users’ infected blood.” Such programs have been shown to significantly reduce HIV/AIDS rates, and a study by the WHO found no evidence that they increased usage of illicit drugs. Moreover, needle exchange programs view drug use as a medical condition rather than a criminal activity. As a result, they teach drug users about safe disposal techniques, safer sex practices, and how to access treatment. The U.S. finally lifted the ban on government funding of these programs in 2009.

Having not been directly involved with the sex industry or intravenous drug usage, I can only speculate as to what is feels like to be pushed to the edges of society as a result of something that may be entirely out of your control (i.e. resorting to sex work or drug usage). Since both sex workers and drug users typically resort to such measures out of economic desperation, it is frustrating to see that much of the resistance to previously mentioned reform programs is based on misunderstood conceptions of how and why these people live the way they do. The assumption that sex workers and drug users have only themselves to blame for their condition is an uneducated, individualistic viewpoint that fails to consider the broader structural conditions that contribute to their wellbeing, such as institutionalized racism and the feminization of poverty. I also feel it is naïve and unrealistically utopian to assume our world exists without money for sex or illicit drugs.

Only true economic, racial, and gender equality can ensure that all individuals are given the same opportunities to pursue a potentially drug-free, prostitution-free and/or HIV-free life. As stated in the article published by RH Reality Check: “The exercise of human rights should not be contingent on whether or not you think a person’s choices or circumstances are a good way to live or be. Entangling morality with a conversation about rights…only perpetuates their disempowerment.”


  1. I almost find it funny that this is still an issue. Shouldn't simple Humanism demand that we do what is necessary to reduce human suffering? HIV spreads fastest among the uneducated and lower class, in otherwords: addicts and prostitutes. Yes, we can moralize about how drugs and prostitution are bad, how drug addiction runs rampant in urban poor areas, how prostitutes are generally of the working class, yet the men who buy their services are middle class or upper, but this does nothing to reduce suffering. We can not be blind to the issues, but we should not allow our dogma, religious or not, stop us from reducing suffering. As i said almost funny.....


  2. Well put, thanks for the comments!