Monday, February 13, 2012

stig·ma: noun

1a) archaic : a scar left by a hot iron, brand b) : a mark of shame or discredit, stain.

 At PEERS we see a lot of examples of how stigma creates enormous barriers for the people who use our services.  Nearly every day someone comes into our office or onto the RV with a story about how they were treated badly because of the work that they do (or have done in the past).

 In many cases, stigma prevents sex workers from accessing vital services like health care and police protection.  As multiple studies have shown, even brief experiences of exclusion can have long-term, negative health consequences.  It’s not hard to understand, then, how social exclusion over years can have devastatingly debilitating consequences on the lives of people who experience it.

 I saw a glaring example of stigma against sex workers just yesterday.  A dear friend of mine had written me an email asking me to consider joining the bone marrow donor registry, and I was researching the process.  The first step was a set of “Health Screening” questions including Have you ever donated blood? and Have you ever had a positive HIV test? These questions seemed reasonable considering that the donation is blood-related.  Then I was asked: In the past 5 years, have you taken money or drugs for sex?

 If my answer to this was “yes,” what would that mean about the viability of the stem cells in my bone marrow for transplant? Would it disqualify me from the registry? I called the Canadian Blood Services’ (CBS) information line to ask, but the polite woman who answered my call didn’t know how to respond and it seemed that no one who did was available to talk.  The assumption implicit in this question is that people who trade sex for cash or goods even once, under any circumstances, live more disease-prone lives.  Otherwise, why not ask about whether a potential donor has ever paid for sex with drugs or money?  Or whether they’ve had sex with lots of people for free? The assumption that sex workers’ blood is more likely to be tainted and unusable does real damage by promoting tired, old stereotypes.  Not only is it illogical, but statistics about sex workers’ health in Canada don’t support the notion either.  While it may speak to his or her economic circumstances or notions about the validity of sex as service, trading sex for money, drugs, or anything else does not in itself say anything about the health or character of the person who does it.  It doesn’t make someone different or more dangerous.  And it should not preclude someone from even applying to be a donor of life-saving material. Test my blood first and, if you have to, reject it on its own merits, not on those of my sexual history.

 I’m still applying to join the donor registry (you should too!), but will continue to follow up with CBS about this antiquated question.  Challenging stigma is central to increasing sex workers’ safety and is one of PEERS’ central purposes.  We invite you to join us in noticing and taking apart anti-sex work stigma when you see it happening.