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Reducing HIV Transmission Requires Decriminalizing Sex Work

This World AIDS Day we are fighting to end the criminalization of trans bodies and those living with HIV.

SESTA-FOSTA protest

"Since the passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), trans sex workers have been pushed to hit the streets late at night or take other risky actions, which put them in more danger." (Photo: Koca Vehbi/Shutterstock via ACLU)

Transgender people are criminalized for our bodies.

We are profiled, stereotyped, and presumed guilty based on the way we look or for failing to meet gender expectations, and it must stop.

Nearly one in six transgender people has been incarcerated. For trans people of color, the number is one in two. It's staggering, and it demonstrates the deep bias in our current laws and criminal justice system.

This World AIDS Day, let's not forget that transgender women—particularly trans women of color—are also more likely to be living with HIV than cisgender people. The fight for trans justice cannot be separated from the work to reduce new transmission and provide care to those who are living with HIV, while ending stigma and criminalization for having HIV. To win this fight, we must decriminalize sex work.

Since the passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), trans sex workers have been pushed to hit the streets late at night or take other risky actions, which put them in more danger. They aren't able to screen their clientele and can't take precautions to protect themselves in case something bad happens to them.

Being back on the streets increases the risk for unsafe sex practices. Economically marginalized people face increased pressure to engage in risky behavior and have less ability to control their activities.

Trans women of color are frequently profiled as sex workers even when they are not engaging in sex work. This has highly impacted undocumented sex workers, who are at even higher risk of harassment and abuse. Walking while trans laws and no condoms as evidence laws can help stop the profiling of trans women and especially trans women of color.

Trans people who choose to engage in sex work still need the law to protect against coercion, violence, and abuse. We face arrest, abuse, and violence. We deserve a legal system that protects us, not only from incarceration, but also from the dangers of life on the street where many of us are forced to turn for survival.

That's why the ACLU's Trans Justice campaign, along with local partners and organizations led by current and former sex workers, is fighting to end the targeting of trans people by decriminalizing sex work. Such reform would help to protect sex workers from HIV, lowering the risk of putting themselves in compromised situations. It would make interacting with clients safer, reduce violent interactions with police, and lessen the fear of talking to the police when abuse does happen.

This reform is especially important for sex workers living with HIV. In many states, what would normally be misdemeanor charges related to sex work become felonies for people living with HIV. These laws have been used to send trans women and others living with HIV to prison for years, even when there was no risk of HIV transmission. In some states, after incarceration, they need to register as sex offenders. These laws not only don't stop HIV transmission—they make it more likely. They spread misinformation and stigma about HIV, push sex workers and clients into riskier choices, and make it harder for people to survive.

As the World Health Organization has found, sex workers are among the most vulnerable to HIV, and laws criminalizing their activities increase violence and stigma against them.

Sex workers deserve protection from violence and access to health care free from stigma. By changing our laws, we can bring sex work out of the dangerous corners of the world and into the light where people are protected—not targeted—by the law.

LaLa B. Holston-Zannell

LaLa B. Holston-Zannell

LaLa B. Holston-Zannell leads the American Civil Liberties Union's advocacy and organizing work to support and empower transgender and nonbinary people. She was previously lead organizer at the New York City Anti-Violence Project, where she led AVP's public community organizing work by doing advocacy, outreach, and networking on behalf of LGBTQ New Yorkers who have experienced violence.

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