Commentary Sexual Health

Building Solidarity to Overcome Invisibility: Sex Workers and HIV-Focused Activism

Anna Forbes

Even as federal agencies and public health organizations have taken steps to address HIV in vulnerable populations, sex workers have been left out of the conversation.

Researchers from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in February published a study of HIV rates among female sex workers in the United States. The authors of the review—which was limited to female sex workers because research on genderqueer, transgender, and male sex workers in the United States is almost nonexistent—acknowledged that the prevalence of HIV in this group is high. They also noted, however, that they had little material to work with: The paper reviewed 14 studies, of which only two were done in the last decade. Thus, the authors note, “The burden of HIV among this population remains poorly understood.”

This shocking paucity of recent data is a result, in large part, of the withdrawal of federal funds for research on “prurient” topics imposed during the George W. Bush administration. That shift to the right had a chilling effect on the federal HIV response as a whole—an effect that has been most enduring with regard to sex workers. Overwhelmingly, even as federal agencies and public health organizations have taken steps to address HIV in other vulnerable populations, sex workers have been left out of the conversation. This omission is one that HIV-focused activists, at the urging of sex worker rights organizations, are starting to notice.

Most countries recognize men who have sex with men (MSM), people who inject drugs, and sex workers as their primary “key populations”—defined, in United Nations terms, as “groups of people who are more likely to be exposed to HIV… and whose engagement is critical to a successful HIV response.” The U.S. government, however, recognizes the first two, among others, as key populations, but not sex workers. Virtually no federally funded HIV prevention and care services are targeted specifically to sex workers in the United States, although, ironically, U.S. funding does support some good HIV prevention programming for sex workers overseas.

Here at home, they remain largely overlooked. The CDC’s HIV Behavioral Surveillance System (HBSS) only alludes to sex workers indirectly as a subgroup of “heterosexuals at risk of HIV infection” who “exchange sex for money or drugs”—a designation that, obviously, ignores their diversity on multiple levels.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

Meanwhile, the National HIV/AIDS Strategy Update, a federal blueprint for our national response written by the Department of Health and Human Services’ Office of National AIDS Policy, mentions gay and bisexual men 35 times, youth 23 times, transgender people 19 times, people who inject drugs 18 times, and incarcerated people twice. It does not mention sex workers—as such or by any euphemism—even once.

This virtual invisibility was reflected at this year’s National HIV Prevention Conference in Atlanta, billed as the “preeminent conference for scientists, public health officials, community workers, clinicians, and persons living with HIV.” Of the hundreds of abstracts presented via panels, posters, and roundtable discussions, only four mentioned sex workers as a distinct and relevant population to consider at this conference.

At a “listening session” on the NHPC’s third day, I asked Conference Co-Chair Jonathan Mermin—the director of the CDC’s National Center for HIV/AIDS, Viral Hepatitis, STD, and TB Prevention—about the lack of data on sex workers and HIV. He acknowledged that the CDC has not collected the kind of data on HIV vulnerability among sex workers that it collects on other key groups.

This lack of inclusion is nothing new. In 2012, when the massive bi-annual International AIDS Conference took place in Washington, D.C., many foreign attendees with sex work or drug-using histories couldn’t get U.S. visas to attend.

Four blocks away from the two adjacent luxury hotels where NHPC was held, the HIV Prevention Justice Alliance (HIV-PJA) convened a free “People’s Mobilization on the National HIV/AIDS Strategy Counter Conference.” Nearly 100 participants signed in at its meeting space—some of them unable to afford NHPC registration and some dividing their time between the two conferences.

In the middle of the NHPC’s opening plenary, AIDS Foundation of Chicago organizer Maxx Boykin walked unannounced onto the stage, along with seven other Counter Conference participants, to protest the omission of sex workers from the National HIV/AIDS Strategy Update. “At this conference we talk about getting to zero new infections and ending the epidemic,” he said, “but we will never get there without tackling sex workers’ rights.” The group left the stage to substantial applause.

In contrast to the NHPC, the Counter Conference offered a striking example of HIV-focused advocacy groups joining sex worker rights organizations to address this exclusion. In the process, the collective also examined how structural factors such as housing, gentrification, and displacement affect people’s HIV risk and their HIV prevention and treatment choices.

Rather than choosing among hundreds of presentations, Counter Conference attendees met in plenary with experts leading discussions on topics that included the intersections of HIV criminalization, mass incarceration, and the war on drugs; the barriers to reproductive and sexual health care facing youth and women living with HIV; the escalating difficulty of getting HIV prevention and care in southern states without Medicaid expansion; the links between unemployment, economic injustice, and disparities in HIV-related outcomes; the health care and quality-of-life challenges faced by transgender people; and the need to develop solidarity between HIV and sex worker rights advocates.

At the latter panel, four leaders in sex worker rights organizations recommended that HIV activists learn more about their local and state laws on sex work. Magalie Lerman, representing the Sex Workers Outreach Project, observed that “the political and social environment in the [United States] contributes to negative outcomes for people in the sex trade” in all kinds of ways.

It is not unusual, for example, for police and prosecutors to use the possession of multiple condoms as evidence of someone’s intention to sell sex. This practice has been exposed and subsequently prohibited in a few cities, but is still a common practice elsewhere. It both discourages condom use—thus heightening HIV risk—and provides another tool for unjustly arresting marginalized people, including sex workers and those profiled as sex workers, which frequently includes transgender women of color.

Lack of funding for sex worker-specific HIV prevention and outreach work is another issue where joint advocacy is needed. Lerman urged HIV-focused organizations to “deal us in on HIV prevention funding streams” and collectively demand resources to support local, peer-led empowerment programs that have proven effective in reducing HIV rates. Such projects received less than 1 percent of all HIV prevention funding worldwide in 2009, the most recent year for which data is available. Domestic data on funding for this is, of course, nonexistent.

Another high priority was staff training and program adaptations to make HIV service agencies more accessible to sex workers. Panelist Deon Haywood represented Women With a Vision, a New-Orleans based organization providing harm reduction and HIV prevention services to Black women since the 1980s. She mentioned the need to “make the people running the organization look more like the people coming through the door.” She said this could be done by hiring peer counselors with lived experience in the sex trade and ensuring that their jobs were designed with room for advancement.

Panelist Cassie Warren from Chicago’s Howard Brown Health Center, meanwhile, talked about how agencies could expand their hours, locations (using mobile van services), and strategies to reach street-based youth engaged in survival sex. While the process of investigating and resolving existing barriers to care is labor-intensive, she said, HIV-focused service providers can’t expect to engage with high-risk youth without doing such work.

Building cross-sectoral communication and trust is another major challenge. Panelist Stella Zine, founder of the peer-driven support group Scarlet Umbrella Southern Art Alliance, pointed out that sex work can be a “heavy term” for some people. She urged participants to learn how to talk about HIV and sex work carefully, using language acceptable to people who need services but do not self-identify as sex workers.  

When working with organizational partners rather than clients, on the other hand, Haywood cited a willingness to name the issues on the table explicitly—and to point out incidents where issues are misnamed or avoided—as essential to solidarity building. For example, Haywood commended the Counter Conference for bringing an explicit racial analysis to its discussions, an aspect she found missing at the NHPC.

The central theme of the session was “nothing about us without us.” Having been ignored and forcibly silenced in so many other settings, the panelists emphasized that sex worker rights advocates will partner with allies willing to ensure that sex workers are at the table whenever funding, policy, and strategy decisions affecting sex workers are under discussion.

After the sex workers panel, some of us walked back to the NHPC to attend the “listening session” mentioned above, where I raised the issue of sex worker invisibility. Dr. Mermin responded by acknowledging the gap and advised us of the CDC review published in February. He warned us, however, that this new paper would not contain the kind of key population data on sex workers that is being collected in other countries.

Indeed, the CDC’s website currently states that “there are few population-based studies of sex workers in the United States or globally” (emphasis added) due to their illegal status. In international terms, that assertion is badly outdated. A plethora of studies on sex workers and HIV have been published in the last five years, showing clearly that punitive approaches to sex work exacerbate HIV spread. Public health and rights-based approaches, on the other hand, not only reduce HIV rates substantially, but are cost-saving to boot.

Silencing groups by excluding them from pivotal conferences and omitting them in national strategic planning are forms of overt discrimination, as is simply refusing to include them accurately in population surveys. If uncounted, they do not officially exist and do not have to be served. This political decision results in an absence of much-needed evidence.

Dr. Mermin added, however, that we don’t have to wait for solid numbers or data to increase national efforts to deliver services successfully targeted to sex workers. Was he signalling a federal shift, at last, toward the public inclusion of sex workers in our national HIV response? Hard to tell—but the odds of that occurring are undoubtedly better if pressure for such inclusion escalates.  

News Law and Policy

Texas Lawmaker’s ‘Coerced Abortion’ Campaign ‘Wildly Divorced From Reality’

Teddy Wilson

Anti-choice groups and lawmakers in Texas are charging that coerced abortion has reached epidemic levels, citing bogus research published by researchers who oppose legal abortion care.

A Texas GOP lawmaker has teamed up with an anti-choice organization to raise awareness about the supposed prevalence of forced or coerced abortion, which critics say is “wildly divorced from reality.”

Rep. Molly White (R-Belton) during a press conference at the state capitol on July 13 announced an effort to raise awareness among public officials and law enforcement that forced abortion is illegal in Texas.

White said in a statement that she is proud to work alongside The Justice Foundation (TJF), an anti-choice group, in its efforts to tell law enforcement officers about their role in intervening when a pregnant person is being forced to terminate a pregnancy. 

“Because the law against forced abortions in Texas is not well known, The Justice Foundation is offering free training to police departments and child protective service offices throughout the State on the subject of forced abortion,” White said.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

White was joined at the press conference by Allan Parker, the president of The Justice Foundation, a “Christian faith-based organization” that represents clients in lawsuits related to conservative political causes.

Parker told Rewire that by partnering with White and anti-choice crisis pregnancy centers (CPCs), TJF hopes to reach a wider audience.

“We will partner with anyone interested in stopping forced abortions,” Parker said. “That’s why we’re expanding it to police, social workers, and in the fall we’re going to do school counselors.”

White only has a few months remaining in office, after being defeated in a closely contested Republican primary election in March. She leaves office after serving one term in the state GOP-dominated legislature, but her short time there was marked by controversy.

During the Texas Muslim Capitol Day, she directed her staff to “ask representatives from the Muslim community to renounce Islamic terrorist groups and publicly announce allegiance to America and our laws.”

Heather Busby, executive director of NARAL Pro-Choice Texas, said in an email to Rewire that White’s education initiative overstates the prevalence of coerced abortion. “Molly White’s so-called ‘forced abortion’ campaign is yet another example that shows she is wildly divorced from reality,” Busby said.

There is limited data on the how often people are forced or coerced to end a pregnancy, but Parker alleges that the majority of those who have abortions may be forced or coerced.

‘Extremely common but hidden’

“I would say that they are extremely common but hidden,” Parker said. “I would would say coerced or forced abortion range from 25 percent to 60 percent. But, it’s a little hard be to accurate at this point with our data.”

Parker said that if “a very conservative 10 percent” of the about 60,000 abortions that occur per year in Texas were due to coercion, that would mean there are about 6,000 women per year in the state that are forced to have an abortion. Parker believes that percentage is much higher.

“I believe the number is closer to 50 percent, in my opinion,” Parker said. 

There were 54,902 abortions in Texas in 2014, according to recently released statistics from the Texas Department of State Health Services (DSHS). The state does not collect data on the reasons people seek abortion care. 

White and Parker referenced an oft cited study on coerced abortion pushed by the anti-choice movement.

“According to one published study, sixty-four percent of American women who had abortions felt forced or unduly pressured by someone else to have an unwanted abortion,” White said in a statement.

This statistic is found in a 2004 study about abortion and traumatic stress that was co-authored by David Reardon, Vincent Rue, and Priscilla Coleman, all of whom are among the handful of doctors and scientists whose research is often promoted by anti-choice activists.

The study was cited in a report by the Elliot Institute for Social Sciences Research, an anti-choice organization founded by Reardon. 

Other research suggests far fewer pregnant people are coerced into having an abortion.

Less than 2 percent of women surveyed in 1987 and 2004 reported that a partner or parent wanting them to abort was the most important reason they sought the abortion, according to a report by the Guttmacher Institute.

That same report found that 24 percent of women surveyed in 1987 and 14 percent surveyed in 2004 listed “husband or partner wants me to have an abortion” as one of the reasons that “contributed to their decision to have an abortion.” Eight percent in 1987 and 6 percent in 2004 listed “parents want me to have an abortion” as a contributing factor.

‘Flawed research’ and ‘misinformation’  

Busby said that White used “flawed research” to lobby for legislation aimed at preventing coerced abortions in Texas.

“Since she filed her bogus coerced abortion bill—which did not pass—last year, she has repeatedly cited flawed research and now is partnering with the Justice Foundation, an organization known to disseminate misinformation and shameful materials to crisis pregnancy centers,” Busby said.  

White sponsored or co-sponsored dozens of bills during the 2015 legislative session, including several anti-choice bills. The bills she sponsored included proposals to increase requirements for abortion clinics, restrict minors’ access to abortion care, and ban health insurance coverage of abortion services.

White also sponsored HB 1648, which would have required a law enforcement officer to notify the Department of Family and Protective Services if they received information indicating that a person has coerced, forced, or attempted to coerce a pregnant minor to have or seek abortion care.

The bill was met by skepticism by both Republican lawmakers and anti-choice activists.

State affairs committee chairman Rep. Byron Cook (R-Corsicana) told White during a committee hearing the bill needed to be revised, reported the Texas Tribune.

“This committee has passed out a number of landmark pieces of legislation in this area, and the one thing I think we’ve learned is they have to be extremely well-crafted,” Cook said. “My suggestion is that you get some real legal folks to help engage on this, so if you can keep this moving forward you can potentially have the success others have had.”

‘Very small piece of the puzzle of a much larger problem’

White testified before the state affairs committee that there is a connection between women who are victims of domestic or sexual violence and women who are coerced to have an abortion. “Pregnant women are most frequently victims of domestic violence,” White said. “Their partners often threaten violence and abuse if the woman continues her pregnancy.”

There is research that suggests a connection between coerced abortion and domestic and sexual violence.

Dr. Elizabeth Miller, associate professor of pediatrics at the University of Pittsburgh, told the American Independent that coerced abortion cannot be removed from the discussion of reproductive coercion.

“Coerced abortion is a very small piece of the puzzle of a much larger problem, which is violence against women and the impact it has on her health,” Miller said. “To focus on the minutia of coerced abortion really takes away from the really broad problem of domestic violence.”

A 2010 study co-authored by Miller surveyed about 1,300 men and found that 33 percent reported having been involved in a pregnancy that ended in abortion; 8 percent reported having at one point sought to prevent a female partner from seeking abortion care; and 4 percent reported having “sought to compel” a female partner to seek an abortion.

Another study co-authored by Miller in 2010 found that among the 1,300 young women surveyed at reproductive health clinics in Northern California, about one in five said they had experienced pregnancy coercion; 15 percent of the survey respondents said they had experienced birth control sabotage.

‘Tactic to intimidate and coerce women into not choosing to have an abortion’

TJF’s so-called Center Against Forced Abortions claims to provide legal resources to pregnant people who are being forced or coerced into terminating a pregnancy. The website includes several documents available as “resources.”

One of the documents, a letter addressed to “father of your child in the womb,” states that that “you may not force, coerce, or unduly pressure the mother of your child in the womb to have an abortion,” and that you could face “criminal charge of fetal homicide.”

The letter states that any attempt to “force, unduly pressure, or coerce” a women to have an abortion could be subject to civil and criminal charges, including prosecution under the Federal Unborn Victims of Violence Act.

The document cites the 2007 case Lawrence v. State as an example of how one could be prosecuted under Texas law.

“What anti-choice activists are doing here is really egregious,” said Jessica Mason Pieklo, Rewire’s vice president of Law and the Courts. “They are using a case where a man intentionally shot his pregnant girlfriend and was charged with murder for both her death and the death of the fetus as an example of reproductive coercion. That’s not reproductive coercion. That is extreme domestic violence.”

“To use a horrific case of domestic violence that resulted in a woman’s murder as cover for yet another anti-abortion restriction is the very definition of callousness,” Mason Pieklo added.

Among the other resources that TJF provides is a document produced by Life Dynamics, a prominent anti-choice organization based in Denton, Texas.

Parker said a patient might go to a “pregnancy resource center,” fill out the document, and staff will “send that to all the abortionists in the area that they can find out about. Often that will stop an abortion. That’s about 98 percent successful, I would say.”

Reproductive rights advocates contend that the document is intended to mislead pregnant people into believing they have signed away their legal rights to abortion care.

Abortion providers around the country who are familiar with the document said it has been used for years to deceive and intimidate patients and providers by threatening them with legal action should they go through with obtaining or providing an abortion.

Vicki Saporta, president and CEO of the National Abortion Federation, previously told Rewire that abortion providers from across the country have reported receiving the forms.

“It’s just another tactic to intimidate and coerce women into not choosing to have an abortion—tricking women into thinking they have signed this and discouraging them from going through with their initial decision and inclination,” Saporta said.

Busby said that the types of tactics used by TFJ and other anti-choice organizations are a form of coercion.

“Everyone deserves to make decisions about abortion free of coercion, including not being coerced by crisis pregnancy centers,” Busby said. “Anyone’s decision to have an abortion should be free of shame and stigma, which crisis pregnancy centers and groups like the Justice Foundation perpetuate.”

“Law enforcement would be well advised to seek their own legal advice, rather than rely on this so-called ‘training,” Busby said.

Commentary Sexual Health

Parents, Educators Can Support Pediatricians in Providing Comprehensive Sexuality Education

Nicole Cushman

While medical systems will need to evolve to address the challenges preventing pediatricians from sharing medically accurate and age-appropriate information about sexuality with their patients, there are several things I recommend parents and educators do to reinforce AAP’s guidance.

Last week, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released a clinical report outlining guidance for pediatricians on providing sexuality education to the children and adolescents in their care. As one of the most influential medical associations in the country, AAP brings, with this report, added weight to longstanding calls for comprehensive sex education.

The report offers guidance for clinicians on incorporating conversations about sexual and reproductive health into routine medical visits and summarizes the research supporting comprehensive sexuality education. It acknowledges the crucial role pediatricians play in supporting their patients’ healthy development, making them key stakeholders in the promotion of young people’s sexual health. Ultimately, the report could bolster efforts by parents and educators to increase access to comprehensive sexuality education and better equip young people to grow into sexually healthy adults.

But, while the guidance provides persuasive, evidence-backed encouragement for pediatricians to speak with parents and children and normalize sexual development, the report does not acknowledge some of the practical challenges to implementing such recommendations—for pediatricians as well as parents and school staff. Articulating these real-world challenges (and strategies for overcoming them) is essential to ensuring the report does not wind up yet another publication collecting proverbial dust on bookshelves.

The AAP report does lay the groundwork for pediatricians to initiate conversations including medically accurate and age-appropriate information about sexuality, and there is plenty in the guidelines to be enthusiastic about. Specifically, the report acknowledges something sexuality educators have long known—that a simple anatomy lesson is not sufficient. According to the AAP, sexuality education should address interpersonal relationships, body image, sexual orientation, gender identity, and reproductive rights as part of a comprehensive conversation about sexual health.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

The report further acknowledges that young people with disabilities, chronic health conditions, and other special needs also need age- and developmentally appropriate sex education, and it suggests resources for providing care to LGBTQ young people. Importantly, the AAP rejects abstinence-only approaches as ineffective and endorses comprehensive sexuality education.

It is clear that such guidance is sorely needed. Previous studies have shown that pediatricians have not been successful at having conversations with their patients about sexuality. One study found that one in three adolescents did not receive any information about sexuality from their pediatrician during health maintenance visits, and those conversations that did occur lasted less than 40 seconds, on average. Another analysis showed that, among sexually experienced adolescents, only a quarter of girls and one-fifth of boys had received information from a health-care provider about sexually transmitted infections or HIV in the last year. 

There are a number of factors at play preventing pediatricians from having these conversations. Beyond parental pushback and anti-choice resistance to comprehensive sex education, which Martha Kempner has covered in depth for Rewire, doctor visits are often limited in time and are not usually scheduled to allow for the kind of discussion needed to build a doctor-patient relationship that would be conducive to providing sexuality education. Doctors also may not get needed in-depth training to initiate and sustain these important, ongoing conversations with patients and their families.

The report notes that children and adolescents prefer a pediatrician who is nonjudgmental and comfortable discussing sexuality, answering questions and addressing concerns, but these interpersonal skills must be developed and honed through clinical training and practice. In order to fully implement the AAP’s recommendations, medical school curricula and residency training programs would need to devote time to building new doctors’ comfort with issues surrounding sexuality, interpersonal skills for navigating tough conversations, and knowledge and skills necessary for providing LGBTQ-friendly care.

As AAP explains in the report, sex education should come from many sources—schools, communities, medical offices, and homes. It lays out what can be a powerful partnership between parents, doctors, and educators in providing the age-appropriate and truly comprehensive sexuality education that young people need and deserve. While medical systems will need to evolve to address the challenges outlined above, there are several things I recommend parents and educators do to reinforce AAP’s guidance.

Parents and Caregivers: 

  • When selecting a pediatrician for your child, ask potential doctors about their approach to sexuality education. Make sure your doctor knows that you want your child to receive comprehensive, medically accurate information about a range of issues pertaining to sexuality and sexual health.
  • Talk with your child at home about sex and sexuality. Before a doctor’s visit, help your child prepare by encouraging them to think about any questions they may have for the doctor about their body, sexual feelings, or personal safety. After the visit, check in with your child to make sure their questions were answered.
  • Find out how your child’s school approaches sexuality education. Make sure school administrators, teachers, and school board members know that you support age-appropriate, comprehensive sex education that will complement the information provided by you and your child’s pediatrician.

School Staff and Educators: 

  • Maintain a referral list of pediatricians for parents to consult. When screening doctors for inclusion on the list, ask them how they approach sexuality education with patients and their families.
  • Involve supportive pediatricians in sex education curriculum review committees. Medical professionals can provide important perspective on what constitutes medically accurate, age- and developmentally-appropriate content when selecting or adapting curriculum materials for sex education classes.
  • Adopt sex-education policies and curricula that are comprehensive and inclusive of all young people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Ensure that teachers receive the training and support they need to provide high-quality sex education to their students.

The AAP clinical report provides an important step toward ensuring that young people receive sexuality education that supports their healthy sexual development. If adopted widely by pediatricians—in partnership with parents and schools—the report’s recommendations could contribute to a sea change in providing young people with the care and support they need.