Harm reduction is understood as a way to promote better health practices in the drug field. However this concept is now more and more accepted with a broader meaning including prisons, sexual health and sex work. In the recent years sex workers activists have used the idea and framework of harm reduction to promote health policies and practices which benefit and include them. This initiative often came from sex workers using drugs and understanding the similarities between drugs users and sex workers issues.
The problems they may face in terms of addiction can be blamed on their sex work which furthers their stigmatisation and ignore the real causes. When they look for a job out of the sex industry and request career counselling they can be discriminated against as persons supposedly unable to find a ‘proper job’ or, on the contrary, seen as not able to make the right decision concerning their sex work due to their drugs use. Also, violence, including police repression, is often increased for drugs users’ sex workers who suffer additional criminalisation.
The framework of harm reduction is particularly useful when many social actions targeting sex workers are led by anti-sex work organisations which aim is sex workers’ rehabilitation and the elimination of sex work rather than the promotion of safer and better working conditions. These organisations receive massive funding and misuse ‘human trafficking’ to scare the public opinion and support prohibitionist policies. If most of them oppose harm reduction in the sex work field, we need to be vigilant that some may still use the concept to define sex work as inherently harmful. We need also to be careful that regulations thought to improve sex workers condition in the name of harm reduction don’t end up controlling us and limit our freedom.
When sex work is not recognised as work, we can’t adopt solutions from usual regulations and laws on labour which have been proven efficient for workers’ health and safety and against their exploitation. The exclusion of sex work from the concept of labour requires focusing attention on harm reduction which then allows specific actions for our health and welfare.
In many countries, charters have been signed between health organisations, public authorities and night clubs regarding better practices in terms of drugs use in the clubbing scene, or with sex clubs regarding HIV prevention. It was achieved because we all stopped pretending that there are no drugs in night clubs or sex occurring during parties. These new examples of harm reduction could also be a model for better prevention practices and to improve health & safety regarding indoors sex work despite the law on brothel keeping.
Objections against harm reduction in the sex work field used to be that giving condoms would encourage sex workers to continue ‘prostitution’ instead of ‘leaving it’. It was also the fact that health organisations employed sex workers as peer outreach workers doing the same job as social workers. Sex workers inclusion in sex work projects is in fact crucial to reach and build trust within the community but it also challenged the portrayal of sex workers as unable to know for themselves. Today, sex workers must not only be part of sex work projects but lead them in their direction.
Criminalisation is one of the reasons for harm reduction and we must avoid that sex work projects become new light versions of rehabilitation organisations funded to maintain the social control of sex workers. The Policing and Crime Act 2009 gave new roles to these organisations and many collaborate with the police so sex workers who were arrested for soliciting are meeting them to ‘get out of the Criminal Justice system’. The ultimate aim of harm reduction must be to oppose the criminalisation of sex work and sex workers’ exclusion so there is no need any more for specific actions on a particular group of workers. Sex work projects must not professionalise themselves to accompany the state’s repression and guarantee their own career but to fight against it so one day their own reason to exist will disappear.