Decriminalisation would change everything for me

We spoke to Jasmine about her views on PrEP for sex workers and the decriminalisation of sex work in Scotland.

Firstly, can you tell us a bit about yourself and how HIV has impacted your life?

My name is Jasmine, I'm 36. I've been a sex worker for 10 years. I've worked in many different settings, but for the past 4 years, ever since I moved to Scotland, I've been working for myself and on my own.

I don't think I'm at risk of HIV: I always use condoms and I do it well. Unfortunately for the general public, there are no classes at school on how to pick the right size of condom, where to store them to avoid damaging them, and what lubricants are safe to use and so on. In the decade that I've been a sex worker, I haven't had a single STD. I am sure that over the years I have had sex with people who were HIV positive or had some STD, statistically it's very likely to have happened. But that's what condoms are there for. When I started working, I was paranoid about my sexual health. But when you minimize your risks, there's nothing to worry about.

You mentioned that you don't see HIV as a risk because you use prevention. In your opinion, what HIV prevention strategies are relevant to sex workers?

I'm against PrEP for sex workers, especially women. We can experience pressure for unprotected sex from clients, and, if you work in a brothel, sometimes even from managers. Clients will offer more money for it, or they will try threatening you into it. So this fantastic thing that prevents you from contracting HIV reduces our power in negotiating condom use. If you compare PrEP to condoms, condoms are obviously better. PrEP won't protect women from unwanted pregnancies; it won't protect us from all STDs, some of them just as bad as HIV, like syphilis or hepatitis, or some drug-resistant strain of gonorrhoea, as in Yorkshire right now. Not to mention that even simple, easily treatable things like chlamydia can have profound consequences for women, like infertility and PID, which leads to irreversible damage.

Men who put pressure around condom use aren't a common experience, but there is always someone who will try their luck. And some sex workers can't afford to turn them down because they have 3 children to support. So it's the economic pressure as well as the pressure from the clients, and sometimes from the competition, like sex workers who are on PrEP and offer unprotected sex. Migrant sex workers, who don't know what services to go to for sexual health, or who wouldn't go to these services because of their status, they will be even more vulnerable. When your life and work are so precarious because you can be deported any day, you take any penny that clients offer, and if it's extra £20 for unprotected sex, then unprotected sex it is. So this magic pill that makes you immune to HIV makes it easier for unscrupulous people to push women who already are vulnerable into a more vulnerable position. And to be honest, HIV isn't the worst thing that can happen to me at work. Even people who agree to have unprotected sex for extra money, will say no to a person who is rude when contacting them. Because a risk of an STD is different to a risk of physical violence and death, and the current laws around sex work in Scotland make women easy targets for all sorts of violence.

You mentioned the current laws – how do you feel about the recent consultation on decriminalising sex work in Scotland?

Every day we have to choose between working legally and working safely. It's legal to sell sex, but it's illegal to do it in a safe environment, like a place where you have a friend for protection. This is why I am so excited about the motion by Jean Urquhart to decriminalise sex work in Scotland! It's vital to start the conversation, because in the last 5 years we've seen many attempts at criminalisation and nobody listens when we say 'no, we don't want that!' But now sex workers have a chance to say 'This is what we want!'

What would decriminalisation mean for you?

Decriminalisation would change everything for me in terms of safety at work and my wellbeing. I don't want to go back to brothel work, but if I could share my work space with another worker, it would be so liberating! And clients won't be afraid to provide their details so we can screen them properly! It will make lives of a few thousand women in Scotland much safer. And we will not be living in this fear of police anymore. Because right now, with all the laws and the operation Lingle in Scotland, it feels like they are hunting us. Whereas if sex work were completely decriminalised, the police would stop wasting their time and resources chasing women, and they could, I don't know, try to win the war on drugs, or deal with real crimes.