For the past eight years, U.S.-based HIV organizations providing services overseas were forced to formally denounce sex work, and if they didn’t, Uncle Sam closed his checkbook to them. On July 2, the Second U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals struck down the Bush-era policy, and many HIV organizations and sex worker advocacy groups praised the decision.
“Organizations that offered services to sex workers were forced to not provide services unless they said, ‘You must get out of prostitution,’ ” explains Norma Jean Almodovar, the executive director of the Los Angeles office of Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics, a lobbying group for current and former prostitutes. “But many times there are no options for sex workers because there are no jobs.” The law was dangerous because it discouraged sex workers in foreign countries from receiving treatment, Almodovar says.
“Can you image if gay rights organizations said to people, ‘You can’t have a gay lifestyle’?” asks Almodovar, who is also the president and founder of the International Sex Worker Foundation for Art, Culture, and Education. “You can imagine how that would harm communities.”
The court’s decision doesn’t apply to foreign HIV organizations that use U.S. funds, but sex advocacy and HIV organizations are pushing to remove the denunciation requirement for international groups as well, Almodovar says.
The recent court decision is a reminder of an ironic turn of events regarding the antiprostitution oath. Randall Tobias, who became the U.S. global AIDS coordinator in 2003, zealously supported the oath. He was forced to resign in 2007 after he admitted patronizing a Washington, D.C., escort service.