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Wednesday, July 29, 2020

GHJP and Community Partner Report Surveys Perspectives and Service Needs of New Haven Sex Workers

The Yale Global Health Justice Partnership (GHJP), in collaboration with the Sex Workers and Allies Network (SWAN), has released a report on the perspectives and experiences of street-based sex workers in New Haven with a focus on criminalization, policing, and social services. The report, based on findings from a peer-based needs assessment survey carried out by SWAN with assistance from GHJP, found that precarious and insufficient access to social services, compounded by harmful policing practices and criminal legal system involvement, represent the greatest sources of vulnerability for street-based sex workers in New Haven.

The report, Mistreatment and Missed Opportunities: How Street-Based Sex Workers are Overpoliced and Underserved in New Haven, CT, defines sex work as the exchange of sexual conduct for goods, services, and/or money. In Connecticut, and in all 50 states with few exceptions, criminal laws prohibit the selling and buying of sexual services and certain related activities entirely, and authorize policing, arrest, and conviction for these acts.

Because street-based sex work involves the solicitation of clients in public spaces and often intersects with homelessness and substance use, people who engage in this form of sex work are generally subject to increased criminalization and policing. Given these realities, SWAN, a local harm reduction organization led by and for people with lived experience in sex work, identified the need for a peer-based needs assessment survey to document the unique gaps in social services and barriers to meeting basic needs faced by street-based sex workers in New Haven.

“No one asks people on the street what they need. Until people understand how sex workers have been denied services and neglected by our systems, we can’t solve anything,” said Beatrice Codianni, Executive Director of SWAN. “We’re dismissing human beings by ignoring their voices — and that is what we hoped this survey would start to change. It’s a wakeup call to other service providers and the City. We hope they will act on the report’s recommendations and reach out to SWAN to figure out how we can better work together to support the safety and health of sex workers in New Haven.”

One of the main findings of the report is that the service gaps experienced by street-based sex workers are not due to the absence of services, but rather deficiencies in the accessibility and acceptability of existing services. Despite pervasive food and housing insecurity among survey respondents, 54 percent reported difficulty accessing food from a free meal service, 36 percent reported having been turned away from a shelter at least once, and only 23 percent reported confidence that shelter staff would treat them with respect.

The same was true for medical services: while nearly all respondents had health insurance, a lack of trusted and non-stigmatizing care led to massive underutilization of needed services. According to respondents, frequent interactions with the criminal legal system created additional hurdles to finding stable employment and was a prominent site of disrespect and violence.

KCM Campbell-Morrison, Director of Programming and Outreach for SWAN, emphasized that “sex workers are often dehumanized by homeless health services, the police, and medical providers, which prevents them from engaging with services designed to protect them. The endemic dehumanization of sex workers places their lives at risk and demonstrates how our systems fail marginalized members of society.”

Survey participants were primarily contacted through SWAN’s membership base, the majority of whom identify as white and Latina cisgender women. As such, report authors note that the experiences of abuse and marginalization faced by people of color and/or trans and gender nonconforming people in sex work are not necessarily captured by this report and deserve immediate and explicit attention.

This report makes several recommendations to City and State agencies as well as service providers to improve the design, supply, and delivery of social services through community input and meaningful consultations with people in the sex sector. The findings also underscore the need to limit police surveillance and interactions with the criminal legal system, in part through the decriminalization of “quality of life” criminal charges such as those associated with sex work, drug use, and homelessness.

To support the report’s calls for the full decriminalization of sex work, GHJP and SWAN have released a series of fact sheets on different legal approaches to the sex sector, the differences between sex work and sex trafficking, and the consequences of criminalizing sex work. The fact sheets are intended to dispel common misconceptions about sex work and to help the public and policymakers appreciate the unjustifiably deleterious impacts of criminalization on sex workers, their families, and their communities.

The report is released at a critical moment of multiple and compounding public health crises: the coronavirus pandemic and exposure of the ongoing injustices of police violence and anti-Black racism. The report fits squarely within the evolving national analyses of police practices and local city budgets in order to redirect funds away from police departments and toward more accountable community-based social services. Mistreatment and Missed Opportunities affirms the imperative for policymakers and service providers to involve marginalized populations in rebuilding and reorienting social services and, ultimately, to decriminalize sex work and remove police surveillance over people in street economies.

“The vulnerabilities detailed in this report are not foregone conclusions but rather the result of policies and practices that we have the ability, incentive, and ethical obligation to change,” said GHJP Clinical Fellow Poonam Daryani. “Addressing the marginalization of sex workers requires confronting the systems that perpetuate violence and inequity in our communities.”

The Global Health Justice Partnership (GHJP) is a program hosted jointly by the Yale Law School and Yale School of Public Health that tackles contemporary problems at the interface of global health, human rights, and social justice. The GHJP is pioneering an innovative, interdisciplinary field of scholarship, teaching, and practice, bringing together diverse leaders from academia, non-governmental, and community-based organizations to collaborate on research projects and the development of rights-based policies and programs to promote health justice.

Founded in 2016 following a police sting of alleged sex workers in New Haven, the Sex Workers and Allies Network (SWAN) is a grassroots harm reduction, advocacy, and direct service organization led by and for people with experience in street-based sex work in the greater New Haven area.

This work was supported in part by a generous grant from the Open Society Policy Center and was also made possible with support from the Gruber Project for Global Justice and Women’s Rights. Inquiries can be sent to health.justice@yale.edu.