B.C. sex workers’ group confronts stigma around STDs

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      In early April, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced new rules for blood donations from men who have sex with other men. The amount of time that they couldn’t donate after having sex dropped from 12 to three months.

      This came after Health Canada approved applications from Canadian Blood Services and Héma-Québec last year to make the same change for men who have sex with other men. And like their U.S. counterparts, Canadian officials cited an “extensive review of scientific and epidemiologic evidence”.

      Although the stigma against gay men and tainted blood has been alleviated, the president of a B.C. organization representing sex workers says that this isn’t the case for people who make their living in the sex industry.

      In a phone interview with the Straight, Andrew Sorfleet of the Triple-X Workers’ Solidarity Association of B.C. said that the Public Health Agency of Canada continues to say sex workers are disproportionately affected by sexually transmitted diseases and blood-borne illnesses.

      “I sort of feel that we can’t really advertise that our members are providing fully safe services when the Public Health Agency of our country is saying that we’re more likely to have STDs than anyone else,” Sorfleet said. “Which really means we’re more likely to transmit STDs.…It is a stigma.”

      At the 23rd International AIDS Conference earlier this month, Sorfleet prepared a poster presentation to raise awareness about his group’s efforts to get the federal government to focus on behavioural risk factors rather than population groups.

      Triple-X also wants the public health officer of Canada, Dr. Teresa Tam, to highlight the low risk of sexually transmitted blood-borne infections (STBBI) in connection with “professional sexual services provided in workplace settings with occupational health and safety practices”.

      “The assertion, based on scant evidence, that sex workers generally are high risk for STBBI transmission perpetuates prejudice and stigma within the public health and health care sectors as well as the general public—including clients,” the poster states.

      STBBIs include not only HIV, but also hepatitis B and C.

      This battle has been going on for several years. Back in 2016, Triple-X submitted a letter—signed by eight organizations—opposing draft guidelines regarding a daily medication called PrEP (pre-exposure prophylaxis) to prevent HIV transmission. That’s because the draft guidelines stated that sex-trade workers were at “significant risk” as a source of transmissible HIV.

      After Triple-X presented a poster objecting to this at the 2018 International AIDS Conference, the feds backed off somewhat. Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Teresa Tam, acknowledged the following January that guidelines about sexually transmitted blood-borne infections should be “based on behavioural risk factors and not population groups”.

      The Triple-X Solidarity Workers' Association of B.C. wants the Public Health Agency of Canada to endorse decriminalization of the sale of sexual services.
      Charlie Smith

      Yet the Public Health Agency and the Pan-Canadian STBBI Framework for Action continued to “make no distinction to acknowledge the very low STBBI transmission risks associated with professional sexual services provided in workplace settings with occupational health and safety practices”. That’s according to a 2019 Triple-X letter quoted on the poster.

      “I feel this is a direct barrier to legal reforms that would make sex work a legal business—and a direct barrier to a professional association for sex workers,” Sorfleet maintained. “The Public Health Agency of Canada needs to endorse decriminalization of prostitution, because occupational health and safety is an important avenue to address STBBI prevention.”