TCS Daily

Sex Workers of the World Unite!

By James Pinkerton - November 23, 2004 12:00 AM

How are you going to commemorate World AIDS Day, December 1? Will you be mourning the loss of 25 million souls over the last quarter-century? Or will you be partying hard -- which is OK, so long as you have a condom? Either approach seems to be fine with the AIDS Establishment, although the condom-accessorizing merits more attention from the World Health Organization these days. And that's the danger of letting these folks run free with their printing presses and our wallets; they always seem to be encouraging unsafe practices, even when they say that they are discouraging them.

Consider, for example, the latest press release, dated November 11, from WHO: it offers an online "tool kit" for sex workers. That's right, sex workers, also known as prostitutes. WHO may be physically located in Geneva, but its mind seems to have moved to the Sunset Strip. In the eager-beaver prose of the press release, the new kit includes "practical 'how to do it' documents like 'Hustling for Health' and 'Making Sex Work Safe.'"

Is this the right way to fight AIDS? Using "experienced sex workers" as the authors? And with the collaboration of various left-wing non-governmental organizations, including George Soros' Open Society Institute? I wonder.

To be sure, public health officials as a group tend to be non-judgmental. Their first goal is dealing with the disease itself; dealing with the larger politics of a malady is, in their minds, secondary. Which explains why, for example, words such as "whore" or even "prostitute" are never used in public-health officialdom; the preferred phrase is the neutral "sex worker."

Yet even so, sometimes the value-free calculus of public health officials is undone by value-laden politics -- in this case, as happens frequently in regard to AIDS, from the left. In the past, those charged with protecting the commonweal did not hesitate to impose quarantines on actual or potential disease-vectors. Indeed, in the US, the Centers for Disease Control still maintains a network of quarantine stations around the country.

But these extreme measures, however effective, have never been employed in re: AIDS. Why not? To put it bluntly, the left has built a sexual-cultural carapace around AIDS that has beaten back even tough-minded public healthcrats.

So instead of quarantines, we get condoms. That is, serious measures to thwart an epidemic are taken off the table, and so less serious, and less effective, measures take their stead. Oftentimes, condoms are simply a joke; they are a fig leaf over the problem, not a solution to the problem.

My visit last July to the XV World AIDS Conference in Bangkok left me with the uneasy feeling that many AIDS activists were more interested, strange as it might sound, in preserving the sexually liberated status quo than they were in stopping the disease. Why? Because the activists approached AIDS through the prism of liberation and politicization, in which the great good was human freedom, and the great "bad" was Puritanism. Oh, and of course, the profit-minded drug companies were bad, too. Human freedom, the activists seemed to think, should be protected in the bedroom, not in the boardroom.

And what if this combination of sexual freedom and Pharma-bashing contributes to the further spreading of disease and the diminishing of prospects for a cure? Well, that's OK, because as the Bangkok conclave demonstrated, the world's governments are generous, especially to the media-savvy AIDS activists. Heck, even the drug companies spent heavily in Bangkok.

Which is to say, if big, rich governments and big, rich corporations are willing to pay for a permanent AIDS-ocracy to grapple with a permanently growing AIDS case load, is it really a shock that interest in actually vanquishing AIDS has waned? Would it really be a surprise if some pro-sex, pro-promiscuity propaganda became insinuated into the AIDS agenda, so as to keep the pipeline full of future patients?

If that seems like an outrageous allegation, consider the choice of Bangkok as the site for last summer's conference; that city is home to the Patpong district, the most notorious fleshpot in the world. And yet the AIDS conferees paid little heed to it. They staged no "take back the night"-type marches or protests through Patpong. That might have been bad for business -- both for the pimps and streetwalkers on one side of the AIDS equation and the activists allegedly on the other side.

As I argued in two pieces, for TechCentralStation and for The Los Angeles Times, many AIDS activists have been swallowed into a moral hazard partially of their own making. Having undercut prospects for a cure through their Naderistic policies, they now revel in the nihilistic consequences of no hope:

Absent any short-term hope for a cure, the activists seem determined to make the band play on -- that is, to preserve maximum sexual freedom for all, no matter what the cost. In Bangkok, all discussions on abstinence were dismissed; out in front of the convention center was a giant condom, described as a "victory monument." In the lobby stood a display honoring -- yes, that's the right word -- sex workers; the Debby Project, the Australian art protest troupe that sponsored the exhibit, declared: "It is not necessarily degrading to have intimacy with strangers. In fact, it is one of the most liberating things you can experience."

Indeed, if history is any guide, "business" for the AIDS-ocrats will continue to get better; the XVI AIDS conference, scheduled for Toronto in 2006, will likely be even better funded.

But in the meantime, what of sex workers? It's undeniably a world problem. If one Googles "sex workers," one sees three main categories of "hits." First, news accounts of criminal behavior, which have obvious public-health implications. Second, sincere efforts to comprehend the scope of the problem. And third, deeply cynical efforts to profit from the phenomenon.

In this sexed-up environment, one must ask: are WHO bureaucrats, using phrases such as "hustling for health" in order to sound hip, really part of the solution? Or are they mere spectators, even, in a way, cheerleaders? Have the WHO-crats gotten so into the issue that they have conflated admonition and advocacy? Are they now valorizing the dangerous activity itself, thus turning pitiable victims into laudable heroes?

A look at one document published by UNAIDS, a spinoff of WHO also based in Geneva, tends to confirm those fears. Its title, "Female sex worker HIV prevention projects: Lessons learnt from Papua New Guinea, India and Bangladesh", seems even-handed enough. And it begins with a neutral sociological tone: "In nearly all settings, female sex workers are a stigmatized group of people. Their very existence challenges the standard family and reproduction-oriented sexual morality found in most societies. Yet they exist nearly everywhere, clearly indicating that they fulfill a function for society." OK, so far so good.

But then the language of the pamphlet starts to shift, from description to a kind of admiration. Chapter headings within the document include such trendy buzzphrases as "Empowerment," "Courage and Clarity of Commitment," and "Strategies for Strength and Replication." And soon it becomes obvious: in the minds of the UNAIDS authors, AIDS policy is a fulcrum for leveraging social change in the Third World.

For example, amidst the consideration of "best practices" in sex-worker protection, the reader comes across this glowing discussion of Sonagachi, a red light district in Calcutta: "As such it provides a remarkable example of powerless women moving into the 21st century with an altered image of what they can accomplish for themselves, and a lesson for those involved in the women's movement, poverty reduction, and public health in general." In other words, Western feminists are now seeking a new laboratory in which to try out their grand theories of socio-sexual transformation.

And by now, of course, the UNAIDS treatise is getting far afield, far from its ostensible purpose. Sex activists have long used various forms of sexual liberation, in fact, as part of their effort to transform not only the Third World, but also the First World. And that planetary agenda comes clear from a brief look at Western sex worker groups, such as the London-based International Union of Sex Workers, a member of the larger GMB union, which includes, in its list of demands, "Decriminalisation of all aspects of sex work involving consenting adults." And on this side of the Atlantic, the Sex Workers Outreach Project offers a revealing portrait of itself as part of a parallel effort to legalize prostitution and normalize any and all human relations.

But, wait a minute, isn't it a free country? Well, not quite that free. Earlier this month, the city of Berkeley, California voted on a referendum, known as Measure Q, which would have instructed the local police department to make enforcement of prostitution laws its lowest priority. The measure was defeated by a nearly 2:1 margin earlier this month -- and this in the bluest city in one of the bluest states.

That's one of the big conundrums facing all "sextivists": much of what they want to achieve, here in the US and around the world, falls well outside the realm of what the American people support, let alone wish to pay for. For the most part, the AIDS Establishment gets away with publishing documents such as "Hustling for Health" and "Making Sex Work Safe," because citizens and taxpayers aren't really paying attention to what their moneys are being used for.

Yet there's a deeper question: will the prevalence of AIDS be reduced if this sex-utopia is achieved? Probably not. As was so obvious in Bangkok in July, the social goal of achieving a New Society is far more important to activists than the medical goal of eradicating HIV.

So yes, the activists say, take a moment to think about December 1. But now WHO has reminded us as well: December 17 is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. If that second holiday focuses on ending the ill-treatment of sex workers, nobody will complain. But to the extent that December 17 celebrates and encourages lethal behavior -- slapping a flimsy veneer of "safety" on top of inherently dangerous activity -- then everybody should complain. Because then the merriment of December 17 will directly undermine the sober work of December 1.


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