World AIDS Day, commemorated today, provides an opportunity for people worldwide to unite in the fight against HIV/AIDS. For social workers and academic researchers like us, one thing is clear: If we truly want HIV/AIDS prevention to succeed, Americans need to have a courageous conversation about decriminalizing prostitution.
Let’s be honest. Paying for sex has been around a long time, and it’s not going away anytime soon. Recent court cases have established sexual rights and privacy in protecting what consenting adults do behind closed doors, but those rights end for people who wish to exchange sex for money. In the U.S., sex workers’ rights are mostly unprotected, and those who sell sex are usually arrested, charged and shamed in public. But this only adds to the HIV/AIDS problem and increases chances for unsafe sexual practices.
Discussions about sex work are often polarizing, in part because some people do not believe sex workers should have the same legal rights as other workers. A study recently published in The Lancet found that even partial criminalization – such as the Swedish model now quite popular in the U.S., in which the clients of sex workers rather than sex workers themselves are criminalized – places sex workers at equal risk for human-rights violations and exploitation. Trying to stop demand will not stop prostitution.