The Utah Senate committee unanimously passed SB155, a law which will allow third-degree felony charges to be brought against sex workers who have tested positive for HIV. Usually, sex work is prosecuted as a misdemeanor in Utah, but there is a mechanism to amp it up to a felony if the defendant is HIV-positive and “knowingly sells or solicits sex acts.” The process for doing that was so difficult that it rarely happened, so they came up with this new law to make it easier.
I fully understand the desire to slow the spread of HIV. And at the same time, I can easily imagine this law having the exact opposite result because it creates a disincentive for sex workers to get tested. HIV testing is one of the most important parts of the work to end HIV disease because finding out that one is HIV-positive early may delay the onset of illness. And of course, when people know their HIV status, they may be more likely to change their safer sex behaviors. From a public health perspective, we don’t need more barriers to HIV testing.
It’s also worth noting that while the risk of a felony charge may discourage some people from continuing to work as sex workers, a lot of people are simply going to have to keep doing it in order to survive. Yes, there are some people who have other options and they may choose them over continuing sex work after finding out their HIV status. But those who don’t have other alternatives are simply going to risk felony charges.
Utah isn’t the only place that creates these sorts of disincentives for sex workers. Possession of condoms has been used as probable cause and justification of arrest for sex work in Washington DC, San Francisco, and New York. While bills to end this are working their way through the political process in some places, this clearly discourages people from practicing safer sex in the meantime.
We need a better approach than punishing sex workers for taking care of themselves. Whether you believe that sex work should be decriminalized or not, I don’t think it’s hard to see that these laws decrease safety for sex workers and make HIV transmission more likely. It’s time that we came up with better alternatives. If we actually want to address HIV in a constructive way, we need to encourage people to take steps to take care of themselves. Until we do, we’re contributing to the very problems that we say we want to stop.
Unless, of course, what we want to do is punish people for sex work and pretend that we’re acting out of a desire to protect people. But the police and politicians wouldn’t do that, would they?