Saturday, June 9, 2012

Transactional Abstinence and the Objectification of Women

Similar to the HIV scare stories before the 2010 World Cup in South Africa (and numerous other sporting events), the mainstream media is full of the same in the run up to Euro 2010 and the London Olympics. According to the Washington Post, Ukraine has a booming prostitution industry, which is going to boom even more while the football is on.

Of course, for the media this is all about sexually transmitted HIV. Much of Ukraine's epidemic is a result of intravenous drug use and even many of the sex workers who are infected may not have been infected sexually. But mainstream journalists seem shy of mentioning that blood-borne infections, such as HIV, hepatitis and others, can be transmitted through unsafe healthcare, tattoos and various other routes.

We are told that an estimated one in ten sex workers in Ukraine is HIV positive. Someone cited in the article says "If a fan is not using a condom, he has a very good chance of getting infected." But even if someone not wearing a condom has sex with a HIV positive sex worker (a one in ten chance), they don't have anything like a one in ten chance of being infected. And wearing a condom won't protect people from non-sexual infection, if anyone happens to visit a health facility or get a tattoo. What constitutes 'a very good chance'?

The article then gets bogged down with some of the horrific experiences a sex worker risks, without questioning the sort of society that allows some women to be subjected to things that would be criminal were anyone else to experience them (which is by no means something peculiar to Ukraine, or even to poorer countries). The article makes it seem inevitable that if someone works as a sex worker, they will be persecuted with impunity.

Aside from allowing the author to express a bit of righteous indignation and fill up some space (and why shouldn't journalists make a bit of money out of the sex trade, lots of other people do?), it's hard to see any point to an article like this. It doesn't promote public health and, far from promoting the interests of sex workers in Ukraine, it appears to advertise the country as the ideal destination for sex tourism and underage sex. Or perhaps that's what Washington Post readers demand?

The anthropologist Laura Agustin expertly denounces the conflation of sex trafficking with sex work, which does nothing for those who have been or are in danger of being trafficked and does a lot of harm to sex workers and those who are thought to be sex workers. There are also protests in the UK about the 'crackdown' on the sex trade, which is unlikely to amount to much more than police redoubling their usual efforts to exercise their prejudices against people who may or may not be sex workers.

In a bizarre twist of logic though, the HIV industry has decided that transactional sex is such a bad thing that they are willing to give girls in some African countries money not to have sex. Ostensibly, the money is to keep them in school, but given that one of the aims is to reduce HIV transmission, and that the industry believes almost all HIV is transmitted through heterosexual sex, it is not a big step to see this as transactional abstinence.

At one time, the message was that it is bad to exchange money for sex. Now the message is that you can make more by not being infected with HIV or a sexually transmitted infection, or by not getting pregnant. It's unlikely to result in people having less sex; nor is it even clear why staying in school for longer appears to have been accompanied by a reduction in HIV transmission.

But the strategy doesn't seem that different from transactional sex by another means. How are the recipients not being objectified? How are they not being seen as sex objects? They are being treated as if they are all potential sex workers, particularly if they are poor. The HIV industry seems to be proposing the control of people's sex lives using financial inducements. Compare this to Laura Agustin's article on the use of 'rescue and rehabilitation' approaches to sex work and their long and venerable history. Except that in the African case the girls are probably not involved in sex work. But there seems to be a danger that the cash incentive will simply underline just how lucrative transactional sex can be.

The media, the HIV industry and various religious and political interests are selling us what amounts to deeply ingrained institutional prejudices against women, sex workers, Africans and many others. If a story sounds like a journalist's wet dream, that's probably exactly what it is. But this kind of coverage can draw attention away from, rather than towards, the worst injustices that are being committed in the name of public health, crime reduction and the protection of vulnerable people.

[For more about non-sexual HIV transmission, see the Don't Get Stuck With HIV site.]


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