Author: Communciations

I am a NSW sex worker who works and lives with HIV. The HIV virus has been in my blood, semen and rectal fluids for over 30 years now and even though the virus and I are now comfortable with each other, society is neither comfortable with me or the virus.

As a sex worker living with HIV, I occupy a space that is routinely stigmatised. However, as a white cis male, I also occupy an extremely privileged position. The stigma of my HIV infection and of my sex work are concealable stigmas and I have automatic access to all the tools that white male privilege automatically provides.

Despite these privileges, I am subject to a number of perceptions concerning my health and occupation. There is a general, but baseless perception that all or most Australian sex workers carry the HIV virus and are “vectors” of HIV transmission. This baseless perception is counterbalanced by another baseless public perception, that no sex workers in NSW are HIV positive, because there are “laws against such things”.

I am not the only sex worker living with HIV in NSW, nor the only sex worker living with HIV in Australia. Sex workers not only have an excellent record in keeping rates of HIV infection low as part of our work, but we are also members of what is referred to as the ‘general population’; and when we are not at work we tend to behave as members of the general population.

These perceptions feed into stigma against me as a sex worker, and I am also seen as careless, irresponsible or even evil in ‘allowing’ myself to become HIV positive. The only sex work I offer is protected sex but many people will not even consider having sex with me. Some people believe that if I was ‘careless’ once I will be again and that will put them at risk. Others use the irrational belief that condoms protect during ‘normal or non-commercial’ sex, but not if the sex is paid for!

It took me many years to work comfortably with HIV, not because I was concerned with transmitting the virus to clients. Being 100% condom-compliant, plus employing sex worker safe sex practices which are stricter, more numerous, more complex and effective techniques than used by non-sex workers, would have made that impossible. What was not impossible and in fact likely, was blackmail, police action and life damaging media publicity.

The reality is in Australia, sex workers were the earliest adopters of safe sex practise. Sex workers claim to have started using condoms before gay men and even if this is a slight hyperbole, street based sex workers in the Kings Cross area of Sydney Australia mandated condom use with clients in the misogynistic 1980’s. Parlour and brothel workers achieved the same in their workplaces.

So through our own efforts, soon supported by the partnership of government, research and community, sex workers have managed to virtually eliminate HIV transmission in our work to the extent there has been no case of HIV transmission in a sex work setting in NSW.

Sounds great doesn’t it? Unfortunately, the lived experience is radically different.

While sex work is almost fully decriminalised in NSW, I and my colleagues remain highly stigmatised and we suffer discrimination at almost every turn. The word usually used to describe us is “prostitute”. This is a term defined as a person who puts themselves or their skills to an unworthy or corrupt use for personal or financial gain.

We are seen as immoral, venal and self-interested - not to mention stupid and lazy. Up until recently the law held that we were unable to be raped because we were always on offer and therefore always consenting. We are routinely refused visas to travel and the US refuses us entry point blank. We can be asked to leave rented apartments, hotel and motel rooms, restaurants and bars due to our occupation (even if we aren’t practising it in those locations). Just last week the Sex Worker not-for-profit health NGO I work for was refused a bank account by a major bank because our Board are all sex workers.

Being a sex worker living with HIV can be terrifying; blackmail, violence, incarceration and outing by media are constant threats. One of the first sex workers in NSW who publicly admitted she was living with HIV spent the rest of her life, 16 years, detained under a Public Health Order. For many years I always kept my passport up to date and a fair amount of cash handy and a plan on either quickly leaving the country, or going quietly and quickly to the bush if any of those things happened.

Among the extremely small number of sex workers living with HIV that I knew, most had similar plans and strategies in place, and several had a Plan B if their Plan A failed. Plan B was more extreme than a passport and a wad of cash, and that was always suicide.

Even if you do not do sex work, but live with HIV this may unfortunately sound familiar as perceptions of people living with HIV (PLHIV) in some places and communities is very similar.

People suspected of having or transmitting HIV are demonised in the media and unjustly treated by the courts. Sex workers suspected of having or transmitting HIV are treated as automatically guilty by media and often by the courts.

The ACT has a law that criminalises sex workers just for having HIV and sex working. The last person charged under this law was jailed even though no evidence was presented that he had transmitted the virus to anyone or even that there had been any sexual contact (safe or unsafe) between him and his clients.

Recently I was in court when a West Australian sex worker living with HIV requested bail on an extradition order to face a charge of recklessly infecting someone else with HIV in Western Australia. The sex worker requested 48 hours bail in order to pack her belongings, terminate her lease etc. and fly back to Perth to surrender to the Perth Court. Police opposed bail on the grounds that the public needed to be protected from the sex worker. They believed that in those 48 hours she was likely to “infect innumerable persons with HIV”. The court agreed with the police and bail was refused, even though no evidence was presented that the worker was in fact HIV positive or of any HIV transmission by the worker. In this instance, any regard for the presumption of innocence, a presumption that is supposedly a cornerstone of our legal system, was ignored.

Sex workers who are not white cis males or sex workers living with HIV who are not white cis males, do not enjoy the privilege that is granted to me almost automatically. For example, female sex workers, intersex, gender diverse, trans sex workers, sex workers of colour, Indigenous sex workers, migrant sex workers all miss out on the protection of privilege.

We know stigma is one of the main drivers of HIV transmission rates and we have long known that overall stigma creates barriers to access services and quality health outcomes. For most people stigma and discrimination are just words and intellectual concepts. It is almost impossible to describe an experience of pain by treating pain as an intellectual concept. Pain is a real and visceral experience and cannot be understood without a lived experience of pain.

I firmly believe that it is time we started to not only demand, but to take concrete and effective actions at reducing stigma and discrimination, not only for sex workers and for people living with HIV but for all marginalised and stigmatised communities.

CAMERON COX

Cameron is the CEO of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP).

Information and Support for Sex Workers www.swop.org.au or (02) 9206-2166

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