This is the first of a series of posts I hope to write over the next few weeks. For the last few months I’ve been working with a PhD student on a cost-effectiveness evaluation of behavioral interventions to reduce HIV transmission among sex workers, and in many ways this has drawn on a lot of my research and public health experience over the past 15 years, so after her successful Thesis Defense today I’m inspired. I hope to lead these posts through an overview of public health and sex work, a discussion of the issue of human trafficking, and finally presentation of the problems in the political debate over sex work. I ultimately hope to present the thesis that radical feminism is a reactionary and conservative ideology which is no friend to women.

Fun, I’m sure we all agree, for the whole family.

As background, I will mention that I’ve done research on sex worker health on and off for the last 15 years, starting with some research on types of genital wart among sex workers, covering some behavioral research, branching into drug treatment issues, and finishing with a recent spate of modeling work that covers sex work in two countries. My first job after I left university was in a sexual health centre, and on my first afternoon at work – after I’d filled in the HR forms and been shown my desk – I was introduced to two representatives from the local sex worker union and given an afternoon tour of the clinic by them, while they explained to me how sex work in Sydney runs. Both were retired sex workers, one a Thai woman and one Australian born. This was back in 1995 before sex work was properly decriminalized in New South Wales, and these women’s job was to visit illegal brothels and check on the health and safety of the women working there. They also had to work with police, other health agencies, and the government to find ways to ensure the safety of the women in the industry, all against the backdrop of the illegal status of the industry. Once they’d given me an overview of the status of sex work in NSW, and the particular problems facing (and, potentially, caused by) migrant sex workers, I was packed off back to my desk with a copy of Sex Work and Sex Workers in Australia, which you can now read most of online, and gives a nice (though dated) insight into the industry as it was back then.

Since then I’ve also had friends (and one girlfriend) who worked in the industry, either when or before I met them, and through my work I’ve had a chance to find out a lot about the industry, to the extent, I hope, that I don’t view it as either a salacious mystery or a grotesque stain on society. I’m hoping, in these posts, to try and summarize what I learnt over the past 15 years but – rather than simply presenting a dry public health view – I want to tackle some of the moral and political issues that have arisen from the feminist and christian backlash against the decriminalization-based models of sex worker self-empowerment that have been gaining popularity in the era of AIDS. It’s my personal opinion that the movement to recriminalize or abolish sex work in countries like the USA, Sweden and the UK is a classic example of a backlash against modern sexual freedom, that it is not in the interests of women – whether sex workers or not – and that sex workers are being used as pawns in a bigger political battle that they want no part of.

These issues are tied in not only with public health and sexual morality, but with immigration, globalization and drug use, and they’re too complex to cover in one or two posts. So, for my next post I’ll give an overview of public health responses to sex work, and from that dry base we’ll see if we can spin off into some turgid moral debate…