Stigma Against Sex Workers

Sex workers, like Lila, are highly vulnerable to gender-based violence, HIV, discrimination and other harms. © Tomislav Georgiev/UNFPA MK

Stigma against sex workers leads to extreme barriers to health care. For example, Lila in North Macedonia is transgender and a sex worker. One night, three of her clients attacked and raped her. Even though she endured a horrendous crime, she was afraid to see a doctor because she had witnessed discrimination from health-care workers first-hand. When her friend, also a sex worker, fell ill, doctors refused to address her concerns. Instead, Lila says, “They called a gynecologist to determine if my friend had genital injuries, and performed HIV and STI tests without her permission… To this day, I do not use public health services.”

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Lila and her friend are not alone. A UNFPA report found that nearly 1 in 4 sex workers have been denied health care because of their occupation. And, not surprisingly, more than 60% of sex workers fear and distrust health care workers so much that they have someone accompany them to the doctor’s office. However, health care workers aren’t the only people who stigmatize and harm sex workers.

Police officers around the world are known to harass, violate, and arrest sex workers. However, because police officers are part of the justice system and because prostitution is criminalized in most countries, it can be difficult for sex workers to report crimes against them, including assault or theft. Just like everyone else, sex workers deserve fair access to health and safety services without judgment or punishment.

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