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New Research Report: HIV Criminalization and Sex Work in California

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A new Williams Institute study authored by Amira Hasenbush, Bianca D.M. Wilson, Ayako Miyashita, and Madeleine Sharp found that HIV criminalization laws in California were enforced inequitably and lacked consideration for modern medical advances related to HIV.

Women and people of color bear the heaviest burden of HIV criminal laws in California. Also, the state’s HIV-specific criminal laws do not take into account modern medicine, such as pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP) and the use of antiretroviral therapy treatment as prevention (TasP), which may inadvertently work against best public health practices.

The vast majority of HIV-specific criminal incidents involve sex work. Until recently, if a person with a known HIV-positive status was arrested for solicitation, an act of agreeing to engage in sex acts in exchange for something of value, he or she could be charged with a felony under California’s HIV criminal laws. With the passage of a SB 239, the felony charge has been repealed.

“Our studies show that certain marginalized communities are bearing more weight of the penal code than others. What’s more, these HIV criminal laws, which were originally intended to control the spread of HIV by prosecuting individuals who expose others, don’t require proof of transmission, or even exposure in most cases. So they’re not doing what they set out to do,” said Amira Hasenbush, lead author and Jim Kepner Law and Policy Fellow at the Williams Institute. “With SB 239, California’s criminal law treats HIV like any other communicable disease.”

Key findings from the study:

  • Between 2005 and 2013, women made up 1/2 of the population of California but accounted for 2/3 of prostitution arrests.
  • Over that time period, women made up 12 percent of the people in California living with HIV but accounted for 37 percent of those arrested for felony solicitation while HIV-positive.
  • Between 2005 and 2013, Black women made up 4 percent of all HIV-positive women in California but accounted for an average 22 percent of the arrests for felony solicitation while HIV-positive. Of all the HIV-positive people living in California, Black women were the most overrepresented group for felony solicitation while HIV-positive.

Read more here.