Want to rid the world of HIV? Then you can start by decriminalising prostitution

The only way to control the disease is to protect those who are most at risk


This week, the world’s leading HIV experts gather in Melbourne, Australia for AIDS 2014, the premier global meeting in the field, held every two years.

The event has been overshadowed by the tragedy of the MH17 plane crash, which claimed the lives of six people who were on their way to the conference.

Now the victims have been honoured in a moving tribute, the 12,000 delegates from around the world will now be debating how we should go about eradicating, or rather controlling, the HIV epidemic.

Whichever way this debate turns out, one thing is clear: HIV will neither be eradicated nor controlled without an increased focus on the groups of people who remain worst affected by the virus. And one of the most important, yet most marginalized groups of people affected by HIV are the women, men, and transgender people who sell sex.

Across the world, sex workers are subjected to repressive and discriminatory laws, policies, and practices, which fuel human rights violations against them, including violence and discrimination.

All of these factors are preventing sex workers from accessing the services they need to effectively prevent and treat HIV infection. This helps fuel the HIV epidemic, and results in higher rates of death, illness, and poverty among sex workers and their families.

Often driven underground by fear, sex workers encounter or face the direct risk of violence and abuse daily. They remain chronically overlooked by the global effort to tackle HIV.

Despite seemingly intractable challenges, much can be done to support sex workers in their fight to protect themselves from the risk of HIV/AIDS.  Laws, policies, and practices can help or harm sex workers in their efforts to stay healthy while selling sex. Risk environments are crucially important for sex workers, since they constantly intersect with police and the law. 

Where sex work is legal, as it is in Amsterdam, the focus of policing is on reducing violence, protecting sex workers, and supporting effective HIV programming.

Such an enlightened response reduces sex workers’ vulnerability and risk to HIV, and should be followed elsewhere. We here at The Lancet call on governments to decriminalise sex work.

There is no alternative if we wish to reduce the environment of risk faced by women, men, and transgender people worldwide.

Most people wish to ignore reality – one of our biggest challenges in addressing sex work is the need to understand human sexual desires and needs, including our own.

We might prefer to think that sex and money were unrelated, that sex was somehow immune from the transactions so common elsewhere in our lives. But why should this exception be so? And why should we condemn and criminalise the exchange of money for sex, especially if the severely adverse conditions we create for such exchange hurt women and men, and often fatally so?

The persistence and ubiquity of sex work suggests only that sex, and the human desire for sex, is a normal part of human societies.

It is part of the human story. Accepting and embracing sex work, and protecting the health of those involved, is the most humane and pragmatic approach to the reality of the situation. There's nothing we can do to instantly get rid of HIV. But by decriminalising sex work, we can at least take a huge step in the right direction.

To find out more, read The Lancet's new series on HIV and sex workers.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Web Application Support Manager

£60000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based in Reigate...

** Secondary History Teacher Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £165 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

** Secondary Geography Teacher Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

** Female PE Teacher Urgently Required In Liverpool **

£120 - £165 per day: Randstad Education Liverpool: Job opportunities for Secon...

Day In a Page

Read Next
“You're running away!” Nick said to me the other night as I tried to leave the hospital  

In Sickness and in Health: ‘There’s nothing I want more than to have you at home, but you’re not well’

Rebecca Armstrong

Daily catch-up: Ed Miliband on low pay; Alan Johnson on Betjeman; Tom Freeman on editing

John Rentoul
A roller-coaster tale from the 'voice of a generation'

Not That Kind of Girl:

A roller-coaster tale from 'voice of a generation' Lena Dunham
London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice. In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence

London is not bedlam or a cradle of vice

In fact it, as much as anywhere, deserves independence
Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with Malcolm McLaren

Vivienne Westwood 'didn’t want' relationship with McLaren

Designer 'felt pressured' into going out with Sex Pistols manager
Jourdan Dunn: Model mother

Model mother

Jordan Dunn became one of the best-paid models in the world
Apple still coolest brand – despite U2 PR disaster

Apple still the coolest brand

Despite PR disaster of free U2 album
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments