Meeting the Health Needs of Sex Workers


The sex work population is one of the most marginalized and stigmatized; on a daily basis, sex workers face consistent human rights abuses, like increased rates of violence and lack of access to primary and reproductive healthcare. Preston Mitchum with Advocates for Youth sits down with us to explain this lack of access to healthcare and how it impacts an already extremely vulnerable population of people both in the United States and abroad. 

It is vital that sex workers are not conflated with those who are being sex-trafficked. People who are forced into sex slavery are unfortunately done so through coercion and deceit, and are exploited into forced sexual labor. Sex work does not involve coercion or deceit, and even when it is illegal, it involves consensually engaging in sex trade in exchange for money, services, etc., and making this decision freely. Examples of sex workers in today’s society include pornographic actors, strip-club workers, and people who have sex for money.

Sex workers can face a lack of access to comprehensive healthcare.  HIV prevention and treatment is often considered the primary health need of sex workers, and while this is a need that must be addressed, it isn’t the only one. While sex workers are certainly at an increased risk of HIV/AIDS, focusing solely on this specific topic can also construct a harmful and stigmatizing frame for the health needs of sex workers.

The criminalization of sex work means attaching criminal penalties to the buying and selling of consensual sex. Criminalization drives sex work underground and exacerbates negative public health outcomes- meaning those who are afraid to face criminal penalties are afraid to access the healthcare that they need, like getting regularly tested for STIs.

Sex work is a type of labor, although many discount it as such. It is an exchange of services for money, goods, or other services. Like other working people, sex workers have families that they want and need to take care of. The bottom line is this: sex workers deserve access to healthcare options even though they preform labor that is judged as religiously, morally, or ethically “different.”

There are U.S. policies that are harmful to sex workers both in the United States and abroad. The Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath is a U.S. policy that requires all overseas organizations that receive HIV/AIDS funding to explicitly oppose prostitution. Under the condition of U.S. funding, organizations cannot promote or advocate for the legalization or practice of sex work under safe conditions, and the policy also tends to conflate sex work and trafficking as the same thing. The Supreme Court has ruled that the explicit language used in the policy is a violation of first amendment rights in the, meaning it could never be applicable as a rule in the U.S. like it is overseas.

Two bills passed in the House and Senate were meant to be helpful for sex workers but had the opposite effect. The Senate passed SESTA, or the Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act, and the House passed FOSTA, or the Fighting Online Sex Trafficking Act. Both bills meant to curb online sex work, but instead shut down, a website used by many sex workers to advertise. Not only has this increased the law enforcement presence in sex work, it limited sex workers ability to pre-screen clients online, which provides a safety barrier.

Sex workers are people who, like all other workers, deserve access to comprehensive primary and reproductive healthcare and freedom from violence. Consistently stigmatizing and marginalizing the sex worker population means already vulnerable people will have a harder time accessing vital care for fear of criminal repercussion, judgement, and violence.  If you’d like to learn more about sex worker’s access to healthcare, check out the Take Action section of the shownotes.

Photo by Riccardo Mion on Unsplash

Links from this episode

Advocates for Youth on Facebook
Advocates for Youth on Twitter
Preston Mitchum on Twitter
Information on SESTA and FOSTA
Sex Workers at Risk: A Research Summary on Human Rights Abuses Against Sex Workers
Body Politics: A Campaign Toolkit
Amnesty’s policy on the rights of sex workers
CHANGE’s report, All Women, All Rights: Sex Workers Included

Take Action!