Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Police repression of sex workers and outlooks on reproductive justice

According to Tampa Bay's local Fox affiliate, a woman is being charged with "criminal transmission of HIV" after she offered to perform sex acts on an undercover cop for money. Joana Griffin, a 46-year old sex-worker, later told police that she was HIV-positive, and then was given the transmission charge. They also found a crack pipe in her possession.

Easy enough to demonize this woman without blinking an eye, isn't it? After all, she's a prostitute, a drug user, and has continued her sex work for two years knowing she was HIV-positive. And it wouldn't have gotten any news attention at all had she just been charged with prostitution. However, criminal HIV transmission charges add a decidedly more colorful, more newsworthy element to this sex-worker's plight.

The way Fox chose to write the story is interesting in and of itself. What "sex act" was she offering to do? Was it even something that was likely to transmit HIV, and if so, should we just round up all sex workers, test them for HIV, and then watch for them to share a needle or get it on without a condom? Conveniently, the story is written like a police report, an inarguable description of an act that cannot be defended, one that paves the way for further repression and even more expensive criminalization of women who obviously need help, not prison.

Did young Griffin dream of someday becoming a prostitute? Did she hope to some day be a crack user, on the streets infected with a deadly virus? Hers is not the typical lifestyle one aspires to belong to but more one so many women find themselves literally trapped in. There's really no way for readers to know what happened in Griffin's life that led her down the path to prostitution and drug-use. Yes, you could argue she "chose" to take that first hit of cocaine and "chose" to have sex for money. You could even make the case that she "chose" to contract HIV by her "choice" to engage in risky behavior.

Of course, this explanation rests highly on the assumption that we live on a level playing field, that everyone is born with the inherent possibility to do great things and achieve wonders. We're raised thinking that good lives result from good deeds, and vice-versa. From this, we can of course only blame Griffin for her situation, just as we seamlessly blame all sex-workers, drug addicts, and HIV-infected persons of having "choices" and making "bad ones."

But obviously we don't live in that world. Regardless, we still give an automatic pass to those who create and maintain situations that will inevitably consume the lives of millions. Sometimes the creator is a system, one that puts many down and then punishes those who can't pull themselves out. Other times, it's a physical enabler, such as a pimp (who might in turn also be in his situation in response to an otherwise impossible situation). And yet pimps are rarely targeted by police repression, just as how the commander in chief isn't the one getting his legs blown off in Iraq. It's common knowledge amongst sex worker advocates that most anti-prostitution efforts simply don't target pimps, much less the situation that forces a woman into prostitution in the first place. Prostitutes are merely locked up (and many report rape by law enforcement), then bailed out if someone cares enough to come pay up. No reform, and the situation inevitably repeats itself time after time. With that lifestyle, I'd be tempted to turn to hard drugs as well.

And what of this "criminal HIV transmission" charge? There is absolutely no proof that whatever sex act Griffin offered would have definitely (or likely) resulted in a transmission of HIV had it been carried out, nor is there evidence that she had transmitted HIV to anyone prior to her arrest. Her job (and yes, it is a job) made her far more susceptible to HIV infection to begin with, and Tampa Bay police have obviously adopted that possibility to further charge her, to raise her bail, and create even more of a monster out of her life. There are thousands upon thousands of people well aware of their HIV status, but that doesn't stop them from finding ways to (safely) become sexually-fulfilled individuals. Not yet at least. With societal repression of those more likely to contract HIV (as conservative radio host Jim Quinn so candidly pointed out last week), I wouldn't be at all surprised if HIV-positive individuals were suddenly be susceptible to criminal action.

This whole debate further strengthens my support for 100% total and unyielding reproductive justice. In a world where reproductive justice was attained, women would not be forced onto the streets selling their bodies unless they truly desired it. In those situations they would be educated to protect themselves, and criminal action against an individual for drug use and unlawful forms of prostitution would emphasize reform and rehabilitation. Pimps would be targeted as the main source of illegal prostitution, and rehab centers/shelters would be available to anyone who needed its services. As defined by Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice, I'm talking about "the complete physical, mental, spiritual, political, economic, and social well-being of women and girls, and will be achieved when women and girls have the economic, social and political power and resources to make healthy decisions about our bodies, sexuality and reproduction for ourselves, our families and our communities in all areas of our lives."

1 comment:

Kellie said...

You bring up a lot of great points here. One thing to add: prostitution thrives on patriarchal control, another thing that has to be dismantled in order to achieve reproductive justice. As a former exotic dancer, I was face-to-face with that culture of "selling sex" (although legally in my case), and yes it does most certainly leave women open to using drugs. Then doing more for more money for more drugs. Which requires more money. It's a never-ending battle that far too many women are caught up in. We were encouraged to do coke, for example, at the place I danced. Then we pushed our states' limits on what was legal to do inside a strip club for more money for more drugs. Then of course we got the punishment when the undercover cops showed up, not the club owners who were encouraging us to do these things. I was lucky to get out of it and I now work so that more and more women can as well.