DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA —
Prostitution is known by many as the world's oldest profession. However, it continues to be regarded as immoral and illegal in most countries. This has prompted sex workers, activists and lobbyists around the world to intensify their demand for an end to criminalization of their field.
Many of them are attending this year's International AIDS Conference in Durban, where they argue that continued criminalization of sex work could be worsening the spread of HIV.
Jules Kim, CEO of Scarlet Alliance, an Australian sex workers association, says lack of understanding of what they want has led many governments and people to resist their call to decriminalize sex work.
"I think a lot of people get confused because they think decriminalization means, ‘Ah! No regulation and everyone is going to start doing sex work and many criminals will start taking over,’ ” Kim said. “But actually, that's not the case. What happens is, it's not seen as a crime; it's seen as work."
Cameron Cox is CEO of the Sex Workers Outreach Project in New South Wales, where prostitution has been decriminalized. He says the move has put sex workers in the forefront of fighting the spread of HIV and AIDS.
"We can go to our health service and we can say what sort of work we do,” Cox said. “We can get appropriate sexual health testing for the type of work we do, and we don't have to worry about being arrested while we do it."
Kay Thi Win, coordinator at Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, says only one of the 38 countries in the Asia-Pacific region has fully decriminalized prostitution. Other countries should follow suit, she says.
"If they want to reduce HIV in their country, they should think and they should consider sex work decriminalization,” Win said. “It protects their sex workers from the violence, reducing the HIV."
African countries have also resisted efforts by sex workers to get their work accepted.
Katlego Rasibitse is an advocacy officer at Sisonke, a South African sex workers movement. He says criminalization of prostitution in his country has caused sex workers to suffer in silence at the hands of abusive police and clients.
He is very clear about the dream world they are fighting for.
"We want to see sex work as work in a way that the banks are able to say, ‘Because you are a sex worker, [which] we classify as a working type here, we loan you money to purchase a car, home loans, personal loans, as workers,’ " Rasibitse said.
Though he admits it is still a long journey to that dream world, he says he is happy that this present world at least is aware of the dream.