Our Bodies, Our Business. 1989. Reflections on a film.



George Stamos and Andrew Sorfleet are owed a debt of gratitude for making Our Bodies Our Business, a film about sex workers rights activists at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal in 1989. It is wonderful to re-live these amazing moments, although for me they were still pretty vivid because they were so momentous. I still remember meeting Carol Leigh in a bathroom as she was putting the final touches to her amazing costume.  Carol invented the term ‘sex worker’ and as Scarlet Harlot she went on to use her creative genius and boundless positive energy to struggle for sex workers rights for the next three decades. I remember Diana Alan, transwoman and nurse fantastico, striding toward the microphone in a huge conference room to take down a panel of eminent epidemiologists and trailing in awe behind Val Scott and crew as she advertised blow jobs at the top of her voice among the stands of governments and pharmaceutical companies. Having come from the Prostitutes Collective of Victoria, which had existed for some years as a small lobby group meeting in my living room until we received sexual health funding in 1983, linking up with these like minds was truly unforgettable.

What had faded in my memory was how angry and scared we were in 1989. The film, and the longer footage it’s taken from, captures some of the many kinds of anger and fear taken to Montreal that summer. Everyone had deaths on their minds – our friends, and our own if we slipped up. ACT UP New York came by bus, fearing they wouldn’t get over the border and worried about people getting sick. For sex workers in the Global North much of the fear was grounded in the ugly history of disease control and prostitution. This was compounded by the fact that many of the epidemiologists who were at the conference warning that female sex workers now posed an enormous threat to the future of humanity were from the very same institutions who had in the past recommended human rights violations and tortured sex workers in the name of venereal disease control. Danny Cockerline called the scapegoating of sex workers in the least ambiguous language I’d heard then or have since – ‘that jerk Jonathon Mann…talking about the number of female prostitutes infected.’ Sadly, Danny didn’t live to see that Mann was the least jerky we were going to get.  I also loved Danny’s speech about why he was pleased that male sex workers were not paid much attention at the conference. That’s a position I bet you’ve never heard.

I had also forgotten how marginalised we were. We were not invited or subsidised and as you can hear, sex workers’ abstracts were not accepted. Andrew Hunter reminded us that he sold the car his Dad had recently bought him to drive to university. 18 year old George heard about the conference from Danny who had recruited him to distribute condoms in the working alley, in Toronto’s gay village. We were on the outside demanding a ‘seat at the table’. It’s fun to see scientists seeing the ‘nothing without us’ principle at the session on female sex work dominated of male scientists (and their apologists – get Judith Cohen’s line about being pleased that men were interested in researching sex workers!) We had no plans for careers in the as yet unformed AIDS industrial complex. As Val and I reflected recently – ‘we had nothing to lose, absolutely nothing, we really didn’t give a shit.’

I had a front row seat on the process of being ‘bought in’ because I organised sex worker delegations at many subsequent International AIDS Conferences. Protests continued but changed. In 1994 we protested Japan’s ban on sex workers entering the country and successfully demanded that an abolitionist scheduled to deliver a keynote speech on sex work give over half her time to sex workers. In 2002 in Barcelona we protested mandatory testing and co-ercive HIV prevention. Over the years panels increasingly included a sex worker or, more likely, an ally from a sex work project and eventually a sex worker would give a plenary speech. The organisers gave us a space in an exhibition hall and ended the rabble rousing by specifying where and when each interest group could protest. The ‘protests’ became set pieces and of course the fear and anger subsided with effective treatment. What we didn’t anticipate was that the price of inclusion would be losing some of the heady autonomy of 1989. Sex workers would increasingly be recognised as legitimate participants via health NGOs and once ‘inside’ they would be agreeing with dominant AIDS discourses rather than challenging them. And large public health NGOs would increasingly influence the ‘sex workers networking zone). Empowerment Lite. ( Scott Long’s recent article about this process in the context of LGBT advocacy is well worth a read)

The arguments for decriminalisation and recognition of sex work as work had been freshly articulated not long before at the first global meeting of sex workers in Brussels organised by the International Committee of Prostitutes Rights (ICPR). What we did see perfectly well in 1989 was that HIV would provide us with an opportunity to take the campaign for decriminalisation of sex work to a broader audience. Our hopes were fulfilled to some extent (not least because aforementioned ‘jerk’ was actually a human rights visionary who supported us!) and over time more and more health agencies joined our calls for law reform.  We soon discovered that governments don’t care what UN agencies or liberal public health agencies say. And we would be in for a long wait for any country to decriminalise sex work while dozen of countries increased penalties; conflated sex work with trafficking; extended criminalisation to clients and introduced mandatory HIV testing and severe penalties for sex workers living with HIV.

I watched the film in 2 minute grabs interspersed with breaks to shed tears for lost loved ones or recover from excruciating embarrassment. (OMG my accent) It took time for more detached reflection. Perhaps the most shocking thing about the fifth AIDS conference was the quality of the research, which Val described as shoddy. That was  generous. This was obvious even to someone like me who had, at the time, done no more than few classes on research methods at university. We heard research bound up in stigmatising and flawed assumptions, lacking control groups and decent sample sizes, and blind to clients and broader social and economic factors.That’s changed. But not much.

Another interesting point which Andrew Hunter raised in the film was that we heard peer outreach, needle exchange and safe sex education for sex workers presented as the innovative new strategies of health experts fully three years after sex workers had already articulated and implemented them. We must have been too busy doing it to write it up in the Lancet. Oh, hang on…I doubt I knew what the Lancet was then.

Much could be said about the history of the sex worker rights movement and its entwinement with the AIDS industry over the years. But an issue this film clearly throws up is that the sex worker activists who went to Montreal were white people from countries that were destined to provide the prevention and eventually treatment that would minimalise HIV epidemics in their countries. Seeing Our Bodies Our Business bought some into focus that those minimalised HIV epidemics in rich countries would be known as  ‘concentrated’ meaning that ‘only’ high risk people such as sex workers, gay men and injecting drug users would suffer. Nevertheless this exclusion of people of colour nagged and many of us spent the next decade  working to make space for sex worker voices from Global South into the sex workers rights movement (albeit via the HIV industry which is another story). But as striking as our whiteness is in the film, the lack of sex workers from the Global South in 1989 wasn’t our fault. It was the fault of the governments, health agencies, and conference organisers that supported thousands of people to go to these conferences. None of them seemed to have thought to bring sex worker along. There should not have been a discussion about sex workers in Senegal without Senegalese sex workers, but since there was, good on Carol Leigh for questioning Senegal’s repressive disease control model. In fact, many professionals from the Global South lined up to tell us that women in their country didn’t sell sex unless forced so they weren’t sex workers and our human rights analysis didn’t apply. ‘Yeah right mate,’ I would’ve said, in that excruciating accent.

In Montreal we developed a strategy of telling all researchers and officials to ‘bring a sex worker next time.’ Importantly we also hooked up with development agencies like ENDA Senegal who engaged with the application of human rights to sex work and were keen to learn more from sex workers at home. ENDA did indeed did bring a sex worker next time. Smarajit Jana a health researcher from India also took up the challenge, turning up at a conference with a small army of sex workers. That too is another story, but not mine. It’s the story of the Sonagachi project in Calcutta.

There is a final lesson from this film. George found it in the Concordia University library amongst several hours of unedited footage donated by ACT UP NYC, chased up permission to use it from the filmmaker who shot the footage Catherine Gund and Andrew Sorfleet happened to see an opportunity to fund the editing process. In other words, a very hit and miss process. I’m one of a dozen or two activists from that time who have boxes and boxes of historic material in various states of order under beds and in attics. Some are stored in local archives and a few people, like Carol Leigh and the wonderful Norma Jean Almodovar in Los Angeles, have kept up with electronic archiving. When we were young and beautiful it didn’t occur to us that we might get old and die and these jewel boxes of text and image would be headed for various dumps around the world along with  long forgotten leather trousers and padded shoulder jackets. We need a strategy for this now, just as we needed a strategy for influencing the response to HIV in 1989. History matters.



27/12/2016 at 13:04 Leave a comment

What is the definition of decriminalisation of sex work?

There is no official definition of legalized or decriminalized prostitution. Those who are not familiar with the contemporary discussion about prostitution law reform usually use the term “legalization” to mean any alternative to absolute criminalization, ranging from licensing of brothels to the lack of specific laws dealing with prostitution. Most references to law reform in the media and in other contemporary contexts use the term ‘legalization’ to refer to any system that allows some prostitution. These common definitions of legalization are extremely broad. Conflicting interpretations of this term often cause confusion in discussions concerning law reform. ..There is much work to be done to create a meaningful framework for discussion of prostitutes’ rights. Each of the linguistic approaches can be problematic: The term legalization is overly broad. The term decriminalization has not worked its way into a contemporary discussion and can elicit confusion and misinterpretation. Obviously, all these terms will be evoked in thorough discussion of the issues. Consensus regarding definitions should be established early. As the discourse develops, it is essential that terms be developed from the perspective of those who will be affected by the legislation.

—Scarlet Harlot      

04/11/2013 at 13:11 Leave a comment

What the 100% Condom Use Program looks like with sex worker involvement

Indonesia : Inspired by Bunga Seroja, a self-funded sex worker organisation in Yogyakarta.  They managed to negotiate with local authorities and healthcare providers to the extent that

  • police don’t hassle them, ie. no raids
  • sex workers can access STI testing 2 times a week
  • VCT every 3 months.

All 400 sex workers in the area are required to sign the following agreement:

  • 100% condom use (the mummy’s of each brothel check the bin for condom when client leaves)
  •  they do not take school going adolescents in uniforms 
  • no clients under age 19.

If  found to contravene agreement, they are not allowed to work for a period of time while they undergo peer counseling.

19/10/2012 at 10:53 Leave a comment

Someone is Wrong on the Internet: sex workers’ access to accurate information

Over the last few months I have corrected information about sex work that has been put out on the internet by friends and colleagues in organisations that I actively and passionately support. This raises the question, have I turned into the fool in the cartoon?   We all need to keep a check on ourselves and ask our friends to pull the modem plug if we descend to nitpicking on the internet instead of having a life.  With a little help from my friends I’ve done that and fortunately I pass the test becase there are sound reasons why I corrected some statements. They follow.

1.       New Zealand is the only country where sex work has been fully decriminalised.

I know this is party pooping and I am really sorry to spoil a good story, but it is illegal to buy or sell sex in New Zealand without health precautions  – for now that’s condoms but in future it could be something else.  So it’s only accurate to say that sex work is fully decriminalised if we turn a blind eye to that part of the law.  As I understand it only a few people have been charged. Some people in New Zealand think the law against unprotected commercial sex helps sex workers, which is fair enough.  It’s a local issue that would pan out differently if it was replicated elsewhere.  However the sex workers rights movement historically opposes criminalisation of unprotected commercial sex because in sex workers words, ‘viruses and germs don’t travel on money’ and ‘HIV doesn’t know if a worker and a punter are fucking or a married couple’.

So this is not about opinions in New Zealand or anywhere else.  It‘s about  recognising that a legal framework that criminalises behaviour in the context of commercial sex but not other sex is not decriminalisation. It’s worth speaking out aganst erosion of the definition of decriminalisation.

2.       Pepfar Kills Sex Workers

This is a very handy slogan but it leaves people puzzled because it is an odd thing to say about a program that has delivered life-saving medicines to millions of people, presumably including sex workers.  The slogan of course means The Pepfar Anti Prostitution Pledge, not Pepfar itself.  I guess people could find that out if they listen for a moment. But most won’t.   

Around the time of the conference I noticed one organisation announcing that the US government refuses to provide services to sex workers. In fact, as Hilary Clinton pointed out in the opening plenary, the US remains one of the largest donors to sex work programmes globally. ( please note that I come at this having been profoundly personally affected by the anti-prostitution pledge. I spoke at the Robert Carr Memorial Lecture at the Washington Aids conference) I imagine the US is the largest bilateral donor for sex work porgrammes.

The same INGOs – CARE, MSF, PSF, PSI, FHI and others – have the multi-million dollar USAID contracts for services to sex workers now that had them before the pledge. The programmes operated by those organisations that signed the Pledge are second rate by definition because they are limited by their commitment to the US government. But they do deliver condoms, information and clinical services so it’s a stretch to say they are killing sex workers.  When the pledge was introduced one country and few individual organisations rejected the Pledge and were defunded amidst much publicity. The government of Brazil made up the shortfall but it’s difficult to know if any other gaps still exist or are significant. Perhaps there is documentation that shows such gaps so that sex workers are in fact dying because the USG and their national governments have left them without condoms, information and clinical services. But I can’t find it.  What I can find however is organisations that have signed the pledge sitting at the same table as sex workers discussing sex workers rights without apology or explanation. Shameless. Where are the ‘PEPFAR KILLS’ banners when you need them?   

3.       Brazil. 

The discussion about sex work law in Brazil has always fascinated me as it is often said that  sex work is legal there. In fact although there is no law against selling sex but there are laws against many other aspects of the sex industry including brothel keeping and procuring. There are many countries where this is the case.   This can be seen as legal ambiguity or it can be seen as the law seeking to punish only perpetrators of harm.  Either way the result is the same in terms of access to safe workplaces and human rights. My point is that the question ‘is sex work legal or illegal? ’ can’t be answered.  To ask it is to invite an ambiguous answer.

To formulate the correct question we need to replace the noun (sex work) with verbs that match the actual offences. So the question should be ‘what activities are criminalised by prostitution law?’ The answers are actions – soliciting, brothel keeping, procuring, advertising, profiting etc. which are carried out by a range of people, not only the sex worker.

There has always been pressure to limit the definition of decriminalisation of sex work to the Brazilian scenario. I think that’s because even people that don’t want sex workers punished are squeamish about decriminalising ‘the pimp’. But if sex work is work there is no logic in criminalising the people and places needed for it to take place. Nor is it a practical solution, as a look at the Brazilian sex industry shows.  


None of this is a criticism of anyone in particular. It’s easy to see how Chinese Whispers applies and information gets distorted or loses integrity in translation as it travels among well intentioned folks. This is especially so given sex workers’ lack of access to academic journals  and almost no resources having gone to supporting sex workers to form and sustain the structures they need to conduct independent analysis and disseminate accurate information. Nevertheless over-simple or inaccurate accounts of sex work law and policy flags up a worrying process in an environment where many sex workers groups must rely entirely on what they are told and are not in a position to question or verify that information.

Sex workers and non sex workers alike are of course entitled to believe that  laws that punish sex businesses or impose health conditions on sex workers and clients are good for sex workers, especially in local contexts, in the short term or in less than ideal circumstances. For example in some places mandatory health checks which clearly violate medical ethics in reality provide sex workers access to health care that would not otherwise be available.  However no matter how many people or institutions hold those views,  the definition of decriminalisation, and therefore the aims of the global sex workers rights movement, should not change to incorporate them.  Rather we should be focussing on convincing more people of the established position of the sex workers rights movement –  that the criminal law has no place at all in managing commercial sex.

27/09/2012 at 10:56 Leave a comment

The told, and told again, tale of sex trafficking


I just read an article in the UK newspaper, the Guardian promoting a forthcoming book by Mexican journalist Lydia Cacho  http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2012/sep/01/lydia-cacho-mexican-journalist-interview?newsfeed=true  

The book makes an all too familiar claim to be breaking the silence over the ‘untold tale’ of sex trafficking. Can it have escaped anybody’s notice that far from being an untold tale, sex trafficking is the global cause de jour? Governments, charities, the UN, multilateral development agencies all kinds of authorities and private enterprise spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year on research and anti-trafficking initiatives.  Who could have missed the enormous campaigns against sex trafficking backed by giants like Google, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and MTV. Dozens of documentaries, books, journal articles and films have been released including an HBO series that was seen by millions. Even Eastenders has had a sex trafficking storyline. Sex trafficking is a high priority of the US government which publishes the  detailed Trafficking in Persons report each year and penalises countries that it sees as not taking strong enough actions  against trafficking.  A glance at the internet shows that thousands of anti-trafficking NGOs have been established in the last decade. Churches, clubs and student bodies in dozens of countries address sex trafficking either by funding rescues and rehabilitation of sex trafficking victims  or ‘raising awareness’ about it.   (if you doubt any of this set up a Google Alert for ‘sex trafficking’)   Several ‘campaigning journalists’ have made sex slavery  their schtick, most notably Nikolas Kristof of the  New York Times whose methods have included  buying ‘sex slaves’ and raiding brothels in Cambodia.  It has become the favorite cause of globally famous artists and local amateur dramatic societies alike and attracted a constellation of celebrities from Meg Ryan and Emma Thompson to Demi Moore and Ashton Krutchner. (pictured in India with rescued girls) Like Cacho, they invariably posit themselves as ‘brave’ and declare themselves ‘not easily scared’ the moment they step out of their hotels with their media minders or security staff to ‘confront the traffickers’.  ( Cacho takes this one step further by giving herself this award within the hotel.)

The publisher could not have missed this. Presumably they assessed the appetite for sex slave stories and saw a market not yet satiated.  But readers really should know two things before they consider buying the book.

First there is a huge and growing body of credible evidence that much of the information and data about trafficking are inaccurate to wildly exaggerated. Even the US  Governments’  own Office of Accountability noticed that the actual number of trafficking victims located by US funded programs was far fewer than projected and insufficient to justify the expenditure. (see  2007 HUMAN TRAFFICKING : Monitoring and Evaluation of International Projects Are Limited, but Experts Suggest Improvements. digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1015&context=humtraffdata) All around the world it is routine for costly police operations to fail to locate any trafficking victims among the sex workers they arrest.  (The UK’s Operation Pentameter was a case in point.  see Mai, N   Migrant Workers in the UK Sex Industry (2009) ESRC End of Award Report, RES-062-23-0137. Swindon)

Second,  the discourse advanced  by Cacho and many, many others before her,  leads to laws that conflate trafficking with sex work and seek to eradicate it by criminalising clients and subjecting sex workers to raids, arrests, forced rehabilitation and detention, and in the case of migrants, deportation. 

Many rescue organisations set up in the sex trafficking boom have been found to be unethical and the centres in which sex workers are detained after alleged rescues are often hotbeds of abuse  from which they escape as soon as possible.  And of course the so called rescues are conducted by the same corrupt police that sex workers in much of the world identify as the main perpetrators of violence against them.   

Happily in contrast there is a genuinely untold story that’s worth listening to. It is sex workers global mobilisation against the about sex trafficking and abuse it creates.

There is a large and sophisticated sex workers rights movement made up of sex workers of all genders, ages and backgrounds V from dozens of countries both rich and poor. Hundreds of them met recently at the Sex Workers Freedom Festival in Kolkata India where they talked with an authority possessed only by those who have lived the experience about the real nature of human trafficking, people smuggling and exploitation of migrant sex workers. “Save us from saviours’ has become a catch cry of sex workers who tell a more nuanced and complex story than the simple discourse of sex trafficking by gangs of violent male criminals serving up duped innocents for other men to rape. They talk about the damage caused by the blunt tool of anti-sex work laws that claim to address trafficking but which fail the real victims, miss the perpetrators and violate the dignity and rights of all sex workers. They insist that the sex workers rights movement offers far better analysis as well as practical solutions to these issues.  They reject the suggestion made by Cacho and other feminists that sex work is slavery since no woman with perfect choices would ever do it.  On that logic stacking shelves in a supermarket in London is slavery, let alone working in an electronics factory in China or a quarry in the Congo.     

Although the account of Cacho’s investigative method in the Guardian article is not complete it struck me what  an impoverished  and unethical vantage point  sneaking about hotel lobbies taking secret photos of sex workers and their clients is compared to the lived, considered and articulated positions expressed by sex workers  in Kolkata last month.  So is conducting interviews that the author constructs and interprets.  Who would buy a book about, say, Native Americans, based on secret photos taken around a reservation and having asked a few of the indigenous people how awful their lives are?

It’s particularly disappointing that Cacho did just that in Bangkok of all places. One of the most well established and respected sex worker organisations in the world,  Empower, and the regional federation of sex workers’ organisations the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers  were both just a couple of train stops away.  Those sex worker led organisations provide insights that are as complex as the issue and as rich as the collective experience of those who have lived it. They do this not only through publications but also through films, pictures and performance.  Empower, which includes many women from Burma and other Asian countries in Thailand to work in the sex industry, recently produced an excellent report and beautiful and informative tapestry about trafficking and anti-trafficking. ( See Empower  Foundation ‘Hit and Run’  http://www.empowerfoundation.org/index_en.html)  Cacho would have been much better off spending her time talking with the women who told their genuinely untold tales in that work of art than sitting in her hotel imagining the traffickers coming to get her. Likewise readers would be better to listen to what sex workers have to say about trafficking and how to fix it than reading yet another contribution to the ‘sex slave’ literature genre.

Any potential readers interested in actually benefitting people abused within sex industries, of which there are plenty, would be better off sending their money to an organisation like Empower to use to give practical support to real women and  supporting them to push their case for real solutions in the real world.  

Cheryl Overs August 2012

                                              Empower Foundation

20/09/2012 at 07:56 2 comments

My Take on AIDS 2012 Part 3 Cheryl Overs

Conversations, Activism and the Bloody Global Village

In Part 1 I wrote about what I learned about the Nevada brothel system in one of the discussions in the sex worker networking zone.  In other conversations and workshops I learned about how sex worker groups are thinking about legal issues, documenting human rights violations labour organising and strategizing around abolitionist undermining of sex workers rights. (one way is by using some of the same tactics as abolitionists).  I learned more about the Swedish system and dreadful injustices happening there and about sex work and the harm reduction movement from the wonderful Pye Jacobson.  Perhaps most interesting to me was learning about the issues facing US sex workers.  I don’t have much access to that country or information about it. The tensions around advocacy and service delivery in the context of the US social and political environment and health systems are very different than Global North countries I have lived in (UK, Australia and France).  Admiration for the US sex workers rights activists was definitely my main takeaway from the conference.

I also had several fascinating conversations with people from governments about their struggles around reforming sex work law and policy and with doctors and scientists about ARV based prevention and sex work.  It is fascinating to see how people are struggling with these difficult issues in their part of the world, especially the well intentioned people.   I spoke with people I’ve worked with over the years in Pakistan, Madagascar, Ethiopia, Dominica and Mongolia who told me about the [mostly positive] developments for sex work projects in their countries. 

A few people asked me about drug resistant gonorrhea after I mentioned it in a presentation.  ( see  http://sti.bmj.com/content/88/5/317.short?g=w_sti_blogs )  Is this an insight into frontline workers access to technical information? Don’t these people have access to $30 journal articles and the time and skills to read them?

Some of these conversations took place in the minutes after a session as people for the next session arrive but most were in the sex worker networking zone. That means they were yelled over the din with god-knows-who milling about or joining in. And that brings me to the Global Bloody Village.

I have worked in the HIV NGO world all my adult life and since 1990 I have spent most of my time at the IACs in the sex workers booth or networking zones. (Until the late 90s we had small booths at the conferences that everyone gathered around in scrums so networking zones were very welcome. )  I was co-chair for the Global Village for AIDS2010. I say this to stress that nobody supports the aims of the Global Village more than me. But I say that to preface my view that that the 2012 Global Village was a hell on earth. 

As usual the GV was a mile from what’s increasingly called the’ main conference’.  It was in gigantic basement shed configured by no-frills temporary walls.  The ‘session rooms’ were areas curtained off from the big shed.   (In Part 1 I bemoaned the fact that the most important session of the conference I attended was drowned out by drumming)  This is not new, just worse. But what is new and much worse, is that the GV has morphed into a side conference.  Sessions are now held in networking zones and they all compete for noise-space, participants, customers and audiences.  Many ‘sessions’ are small conversations but even a small circle of people couldn’t be heard without a microphone. Among other things this means that dozens of public address systems blare throughout the entire space just a few feet from each other.  It’s difficult for these ‘sessions’ to have a clear start or end and anyone can come and go from them.  Lots of people ‘poke their noses in’ because the only way to know what’s going on is to listen for a moment.  

 The conversations, meetings and sessions   held in them are too important to be relegated to these spaces. Sex worker-only meetings have always played an important role in activism at the IAC and elsewhere but they can’t happen now that the GV is open to all delegates and the public. Several people in the GV told me that they had been refused ‘registration only’ scholarships and it seems that in many networking zones, including the sex worker zone there were lots of  by people who didn’t have access to the conference.  ‘Community’ they are called. What they looked like to me was the most important, interesting and hard working people at the conference. ( see http://www.xtra.ca/public/National/What_an_AIDS_conference_should_look_like-12363.aspx#.UChILvPJWYo.twitter)

Clearly my attitude to hired kids running about screaming about condoms is due to my age and grumpiness.  I realise people have a fun time in the GV as well as learning and sharing, but we don’t need the sentimental talk about it being real and funky and the heart of the conference because it’s not.  (With respect to Dee Borrego  http://www.thebody.com/content/68763/the-global-village-effect.html?ap=2009  ) It’s a place to go if you don’t speak English and the ‘main conference’ so the  waste of your time.  Its NGOs providing the colour and movement that allows the IAS to tick the ‘community participation’ box.  It keeps affected people out of the conference proper where they are spoken about.  It’s a second rate fob off with a first rate price tag.  It’s the global ghetto.

I have no idea of what is possible and I can assure readers that being on an IAC committee doesn’t provide any opportunities to find out, let alone make changes. At both Vienna and Washington many sessions were in rooms that were too big so it would be easy for the IAC to have them configured into smaller rooms that could be allocated to networks on a time basis rather than for named sessions.  Room allocations for networks would also enable communities to conduct closed meetings as well as public sessions.  Simply spreading the GV activities out to the whole conference would be a good start.  I guess health and safety rules and the venues’ rules limit possibilities but there are a number of things that are in the  control of the IAS that could be done if it is serious about meaningful involvement of affected communities in the IAC.  But if we keep cheering that the Global Village is terrific and demand no more than a handful of scholarships and a noisy shed then that’s all we will get.

Plenary Presentation

On the Thursday of the conference I spoke at the plenary session. My Topic was “The Tide Can’t be Turned Without Us”.  One of the issues I highlighted was the impact of ARV based prevention, or new prevention technologies. I talked about some of the issues they raise in respect of sex work and expressed my hope that their introduction doesn’t slow work on the social and political changes that are needed to make any prevention method work.  

I am pleased to see that someone else who recognises re-medicalisation of HIV as a threat feels that questioning and even listening began in DC. Dr Alan Li, an HIV worker among immigrants in Toronto said “The treatment-as-prevention bandwagon has left the station and is proceeding full force, with very limited analysis and discussion on the feasibility, practicality or ethical implications of its implementation. The increasing emphasis on biotechnical/biomedical interventions for prevention versus behavioural/educational approaches brings both promise and huge warning signs to the frontline.” Thanks to Washington, that questioning has begun. Medical science must listen to social science.  I hope he is right.

I also spoke about sex worker involvement in programming and activism and about sex work and the law. The point I most wanted to make about that is that we don’t need a legal framework that gets services to sex workers working in dreadful conditions but one that gets commercial sex out of those places and into safe ones.  

A film of the presentation is on the AIDS 2012 website and the powerpoint slides and text of the speech (minus films) are at http://pag.aids2012.org/PAGMaterial/aids2012/PPT/1548_3477/CherylOvers%20final%20plenary.pptx.   ‘Sex Work and the new Era of HIV Prevention and Care’ which I wrote for the APNSW in 2007 can be seen at http://www.eldis.org/go/home&id=44838&type=Document and there in an article in the Conversation about it. http://theconversation.edu.au/profiles/cheryl-overs-8548

There are some initiatives looking at new prevention technologies such as the New Series on the Social Dynamics of Biomedical Prevention on Transcriptions http://somatosphere.net/2012/07/new-series-on-the-social-dynamics-of-biomedical-prevention-on-transcriptions.html. None that I know of have included sex workers yet but it’s up to the sex workers movement to change that.

The Robert Car Memorial Lecture

Over the years I‘ve spoken at dozens of sessions at International Aids Conferences (both invited and uninvited) but I have never talked about myself or my own experience.  I decided to change that when I was asked to speak at the session remembering Robert Carr – and to risk of crying in public.  Losing my two closest friends in recent years has taught me I deal very, very badly with bereavement.

I wanted to pay a very particular tribute to Robert who uniquely supported me through the ‘bullshit’ of stigma and discrimination in my own life. Not the stigma and discrimination that is written and talked about as something abstract or that happens out there to ‘vulnerable people’ but the stigma and discrimination within the AIDS industry  that affects every person who comes to HIV work as a member of a ‘key population’. We all know that we are permanently vulnerable to it and yet it is so hard to speak about.  You don’t know where or it will happen, but you know that it can.  Sometimes it is blatant, but often it is subtle. Sometimes it’s imagined or internalised. Frequently it comes as rumour or false allegation or just being frozen out.  It happens whether you are an unpaid peer educator in a local project in a poor country or an educated white gay man working for the UN or the Global Fund.  It happened to gay Australian High Court Judge Michael Kirby who was falsely accused of hiring rent boys.  I have never spoken about this with him but I imagine that even if the accusation had never been made he always lived with the knowledge that it could be.  David Fawcett said of stigma ‘the personal costs are enormous. Years of experiencing such stigma creates a defensive shell into which a person retreats, excessively alert for any sign of judgment, at times flushed with shame, and believing at a deep internal level that they are indeed flawed’

When stigma turned into life changing, soul destroying discrimination for me Robert was my tower of strength.  He helped me avoid what Fawcett describes Although stigma, discrimination and abuse is the theme of all of my work I wasn’t able to process how I was being treated, even after of decades of living it in various forms.  Well I chose to be a sex workers rights activist. I thought that while sex workers are in filthy exploitative conditions earning barely enough to eat and gay men are being murdered (add many etceteras) my own experience didn’t count.  To face it would be self-pitying, part of the sickening narrative of the white man’s burden. I even felt that even when I was refused entry to the US which was a terrifying and humiliating trauma. As bad border experiences go, how can I complain? I had a home to go to.

But Robert had none of this. He told me what I already know (always the best starting point) – that hatred and abuse of poor people, drug users, racial minorities, sex workers, gays etc is all linked. He talked about the counter productiveness of victim hierarchies.  He helped me place and accept myself when I most needed support. He illustrated his points, not with psychobabble aimed at making me feel better, but with his lived experience and his analysis of the dynamics of power and oppression.  He cited Friere and Foucault, teaching me that the oppressors have really won when we internalise oppression.  He enabled me to own my experience and therefore move on. So for me Robert was a great friend and a great counsellor and a brilliant teacher.  Unfortunately he was never able to teach me how to be graceful and dignified as he was in the face of bullshit.  Meeting Robert’s dad after the session made me think that maybe that’s inherited, not taught.

I have many great memories of good times with Robert. I am so glad I got to eat roti with him at his favorite place in Trinidad and laughing in London. Some that can’t be mentioned. I miss him terribly and remember him with lots of smiles and love as well as the gratitude for his truly empowering support and I break the silence in his memory.  

(After the session I was surprised by how many people came to tell me they have had similar struggles with discrimination within HIV/AIDS organisations and had also found it difficult to deal with.)

Final thoughts

Although splitting the sex worker activism between DC and Kolkata was a headache for the    organisers, AIDS 2012 was a triumph for sex workers.  I am sure that the impact was far greater than if there had been no Kolkata hub.  The situation oppresses all sex workers but it really penalised the US sex workers who worked incredibly hard to make sure that sex workers voices were amplified through the conference despite it.  I said at the outset, Hilary Clinton’s defensiveness about sex work is proof that the very existence of the hub put sex worker rights to the very top of the agenda.  Here is another measure – Francoise Barré-Sinoussi   a co-chair of the next conference in Melbourne mentioned the exclusion of sex workers and the red umbrellas in her post conference article in the Lancet.  http://www.thelancet.com/journals/laninf/article/PIIS1473-3099%2812%2970209-8/fulltext?elsca1=ETOC-TLID&elsca2=email&elsca3=HTDJ35F

The voices of sex workers and the activism around the conference are far more important than the technical content of the conference but they are not a substitute for it.  Information about sex work at the conference has improved but it remains woeful because sex work research is woeful and because the IAC abstract selection system stinks. 

This conference took a lot of my time and energy and I had to take time off from my paid job to do it. I decided to do that at the same time as deciding it would be the last time I would contribute in that way. For both personal and professional  reasons I will refocus  my use of  energy.  I haven’t escaped the consequences of 30 years of being on the receiving end of stigma, hatred and worse. I don’t feel as damaged or as burned out as other activists have experienced, but  I am profoundly bored by it.  The same is true of witnessing corruption and profiteering that goes with the territry and I’ve have lost the stomach for that and the tolerance for those who turn a blind eye to it.

Other parts of that decision is that years of sex worker rights advocacy mainly within sex worker led organisations means I don’t have the financial security I would have if I had worked within NGOs or  a university all along.  

I hope the new generation of sex workers can carve out better career plans for themselves.  Although I must say I don’t see much promise of that. I see a lot of money around sex work programming and policy these days and few the signs of the frosted glass ceiling being lifted.  Most of the money goes to non sex workers, even when it is theoretically granted to sex workers.  I can’t think of any of the INGOs or UN agencies that employ open sex workers or have them on their boards despite millions flowing through their coffers for HIV work among  sex workers.  Can you?  Actually I know of more government Aids programmes having hired sex workers than the agencies that champion the involvement of MARPS.

Although I won’t do direct advocacy any more I will be doing work within my university on some specific technical issues that I think is needed to  inform policy that affect all sex workers. Which  brings me back from the rhetoric of the Aids Free Generation and the heady atmosphere of banging on about human rights at the IAC to the real world in which…..

  • Police crackdowns like this continue:



  • Dreadful law reform like this is happening:  

California  http://www.sfbg.com/2012/08/14/democrats-and-sex-workers

Northern Ireland http://www.irishcentral.com/news/Northern-Ireland-could-make-paying-for- sex-legal-in-bid-to-control-human-trafficking-167015705.html

Barcelona  http://www.catalannewsagency.com/news/society-science/barcelona-bans-street-prostitution-starting-weekend-fining-both-clients-and-pro

  • Governments refuse to implement the policies that can reduce HIV and abuse


  • Condoms continue to be confiscated by police


  • Violent rescues and abuse by police and media continue


  • Not just the money but the technical means to operate HIV projects eludes sex workers.   Look what it takes to evaluate an HIV prevention initiative for sex workers ( and weep )  


  • HIV positive sex workers are persecuted even in countries that are considered to be well managed:


To brighten up after all this check out pictures of the Sex Workers Freedom Festival http://www.facebook.com/media/set/?set=a.396829013713564.93140.100001594062573&type=1

All of this of course just means that there is much work to do. Its great to see the establishment of the Red Umbrella Fund that might support sex worker led organisations to do that. At the moment it is only distributing half a million dollars which is not going to change the world but its a good start.

The thing of which I am surest in the wake of AIDS2012 is that the many current sex workers who are taking on leadership roles in the movement are well placed to build on what my generation achieved, which was more than we dared hope for. For me those achievements are symbolised by the change from ‘prostitute’ to ‘sex worker’ and, as I sad,  it was a great honour to have its author Carol Leigh at Aids 2012. The sex workers rights movement that turned out in Washington and  Kolkata and the thousand who didn’t  are a juggernaut fired by energetic committed sex workers with the skills and persistence needed to face both the anti-trafficking advocates who oppose our agenda and the HIV industry that seeks to appropriate and modify it.    

For  news and research about #sex work see PLRI on twitter

For comments on #sex workers and HIV issues follow cherylovers

And see the NSWP website www.nswp.org for all the news on the Sex Wokers Freedom Festival

31/08/2012 at 11:12 Leave a comment

My Take On Aids 2012 Part 2 Cheryl Overs

Everyone says the International Aids Conference is too big and that’s obviously true but I experience that as the IAC being a victim of its own success. Any frustration I felt at AIDS 2012 was down to there being too much fascinating and important information at the conference to take in. That the great information is accompanied by the pointless and the misguided is a relatively minor annoyance and not the fault of the IAC anyway.  I went to less than half of the sex work sessions, let alone sessions on the many other topics  I’m interested in.  I didn’t even  get to the important presentations from Johns Hopkins University who have conducted an analysis of all the studies on sex work available to date.  (THACD0 503 & 502) 

I could have spent a couple hours each day reading posters. Instead I just noticed some really important work presented there as I rushed past simultaneously skim reading, eating a sandwich and texting.  It was great to see there was a presentation on aging sex workers, which is a neglected issue, but I couldn’t get to that either (TUAD0305). I noticed a study by WHO and Johns Hopkins University that analysed studies of microfinance and concluded that they don’t appear to impact HIV outcomes for a number of groups including female sex workers. (THPE279).  I also noticed a contradictory study in Ethiopia that claimed that sex workers in income generating programmes are far less likely to provide unprotected sex than others (THE529) But hang on – those programmes are all linked to provision of condoms, information and STI care. Nothing in the study seems to disaggregate that.  (Oh – it’s by an organisation thats signed the pledge.  Say no more.)  Text sent, sandwich almost finished, let’s look for a good study before the next session.  An account of Sanklap’s ( Karnataka India’s) models of community empowerment for sex workers (THPE280) fits the bill. A study of sex workers children in Bangladesh ( THPE352) in the next aisle looks good too.  Pity its one of two studies I spot that categorize children under 15 as sex workers.  This hides the issues faced by children and young people who are selling sex and distorts understandings of adult sex work.  (see THPE405 for an example)   Intelligent approaches to the issue of young people and sex work are yet to emerge.  Later I meet a terrific UNICEF person who says the same thing and tells me about UNICEF’s determination to change that.  The IAC – highs and lows. 

I also missed an important session on the UN Periodic Review which some people claim can help make governments more accountable for how they treat sex workers (WEWS10). This was an important session because the UN requires sex workers to endorse the Review making it the fruit at the top of the policy tree.  This kind of session is crucial to enable sex workers to understand and participate meaningfully in complex discussons about AIDS policy.  

Speaking of trees and fruit, I didn’t get to the sessions on the use of condoms as evidence.  That wasn’t because of my scepticism about the value of campaigning around this low hanging fruit at the IAC.  I say low hanging fruit because it’s hard to imagine anything easier that getting an AIDS conference to agree that police shouldn’t confiscate sex workers condoms.  I worry that the publicity generated around police and condoms might leave the impression that this is a central demand by sex workers.  The root of the condom/police problem ( and many others)  is the criminalisation of sex work. If the laws are removed all the fruit, from high to low, can be removed.  Until then of course getting police to behave responsibly remains a cornerstone of local advocacy for dozens of sex work projects, particuarly in the US.  Human Rights Watch and others are to be commended for helping with that.  It would also help if Human Rights watch would support sex workers demands for decriminalisation.  http://www.aidsmap.com/Criminalising-condom-possession-by-sex-workers-is-a-global-trend/page/2448677/

I also worry that focus on sex workers and condoms as evidence is a precursor togreater  involvement of police and army in HIV prevention for sex workers  ( GIPA for sex workers ! ) Several presentations and posters urged this.   Police: part of the solution?  Not on the planet I call home. More thinking and less cheerleading is needed there.   

Some of that thinking has been done by the Global Commission on HIV and the Law whose session I did manage to attend.  It is very significant that this is the first time such an influential body has recommended removal of all criminal laws against sex workers and sex businesses.  http://globalhealth.kff.org/AIDS2012/July-24/The-Global-Commission.aspx.  For me the Commission report is evidence of what a long way we have come since 2007 when UNFPA and UNAIDS  attempted  to establish abolition of sex work as its policy.  (see Ahmed A  (2011) Feminism, Power, And Sex Work In The Context Of Hiv/Aids: Consequences For Women’s Health Harvard Journal of Law and Gender, Vol. 34, No. 1 and the response of sex workers http://sexworkpolicy.wordpress.com/ ) How it is used remains to be seen. I suspect  much of that will be up to sex workers themsleves because the NGOs that don’t have their logo on it are unlikely to push it. 

I found less at the conference than I expected about preparing for the roll out of new ARV based prevention technologies. Several of the abstract presentations addressed the issues in very specific contexts.  There was almost nothing about them in the context of sex work.  One poster ( WEPE282) looked at acceptability of HIV protective microbicides to female sex workers and their private partners ( the men are keener than the women) But like most studies on this subject  it dismissed  ‘old prevention’ by simply stating that sex workers have difficulty using  condoms  before launching into an account of the feasibility of introducing less effective methods to replace them.  I reiterate the point that it’s not enough to ask sex workers if they would like a new prevention product. 

I did hear a couple of presentations I was particularly interested in by popping in and out of sessions, although I think that’s rude to the other speakers.   One such presentation was Sue Kippax  from Australia addressing gay men’s concerns around ARV based prevention. I went to that because, although I am convinced that the researchers preparing for new prevention around sex work are getting it wrong, I am not sure what they should do to get it right.  Sue’s work is really worth watching.  

There was little information on sex workers access to HIV treatment but plenty on testing,  including the unsurprising fact that it is the most common intervention for sex workers (WPE104). Sadly I also saw several presentations that were very murky round the edges about the voluntariness of testing.  At least approaches like that of Sint Maarten, mandatory weekly HIV tests and lectures for sex workers, are clear. (TUPE 377)

If you are thinking ‘what about male sex workers ? ’ don’t. They are an endangered species in HIV world. You have to read between the lines of the “MSM’ data to learn about male sex work.  (TUPE 353 Dominican Republic was an exception and there were others)  

Transwomen were much more visible in the program this year. I was fascinated to see an abstract session on transgenders in which all speakers were transgender.  How amazing to compare this with female sex worker sessions where it is very rare indeed to see a sex worker present.  There is no point complaining about this. The IAS insists the abstract selections are blind and has statistics to prove that there is enough sex worker content in the conference. 

I didn’t get to the demonstrations or march to the White House.  Fortunately we have wonderful pictures of the gorgeous young things that did.

To be continued

22/08/2012 at 17:07 Leave a comment

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