My Take on AIDS 2012 Part 3 Cheryl Overs

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

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 )  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

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  ) 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   ‘Sex Work and the new Era of HIV Prevention and Care’ which I wrote for the APNSW in 2007 can be seen at and there in an article in the Conversation about it.

There are some initiatives looking at new prevention technologies such as the New Series on the Social Dynamics of Biomedical Prevention on Transcriptions 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.

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:  


Northern Ireland sex-legal-in-bid-to-control-human-trafficking-167015705.html


  • 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

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 for all the news on the Sex Wokers Freedom Festival

Entry filed under: research.

My Take On Aids 2012 Part 2 Cheryl Overs The told, and told again, tale of sex trafficking

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