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The Curious Sex Workers’ Guide to International Aids Conferences

1. What are the International Aids Conferences?
The International Aids Conferences are very large conferences started in 1985 that take place every two years in a different country. The last four conferences have been in Durban (2000), Barcelona (2002), Bangkok (2004), Toronto (2006) and the next conference will be this August in Mexico City(2008).

They bring together over 20 000 people working on or interested in HIV. That is the same amount of people as in a small city ! Some of the people who attend the AIDS conferences are: scientists studying HIV and trying to develop medicines, vaccines or new ways of preventing HIV; social scientists studying how HIV affects people and communities; groups working on HIV and groups of HIV+ people who want to share their experiences and knowledge; government and United Nations officials; pharmaceutical companies who want to make deals with scientists or governments; activists who want to have their message heard; media from around the world; and the occasional celebrity or billionaire !

2. Why do they matter?
Some people find that the conferences matter very little to them and are turned off by the circus-like atmosphere or the large amount of money it costs to have such events. For others, the conferences are a chance to learn, to share, to meet people or to organize.
Important new discoveries are often announced at these conferences. For example, at the 1996 conference in Vancouver, Dr. David Ho announced that he had been treating patients with great success with triple-therapy.

Activists have also been able to have an important impact at these conferences. At the Durban conference in South Africa in 2000, HIV activists organized forcefully and successfully to bring the need to make HIV-treatment available to people in poor countries an international priority.

3. Why do they matter to sex workers?
The International Aids Conferences can be really exciting and important places for sex workers to have a presence and a voice. The Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) has had a presence at the International Aids Conference since the early 1990s.

Because there are media and important decision-makers from all over the International, the conferences can be important places for campaigns.

In 2004, at the Bangkok conference, Cambodian sex workers led protests against an unethical clinical trial recruiting sex workers to test their drugs. With support from other sex workers and Act-Up Paris, they interrupted a presentation by someone from the pharmaceutical company who had been running the trial. The news toured the world and the trial was soon shut down. An international discussion about ethics in HIV research started as a result.

In Bangkok, there were over 100 sex workers from different countries present. Thai sex work activists set up the “Go-go Bar” a fake stage like a go-go bar in the middle of the community village. Sex workers did safer-sex workshops, hung out and had fun at the go-go bar. When someone from the Thai government threatened to shut down the go-go bar for indecency, sex workers remained defiant. They were on the front page of many newspapers saying “The show must go on. We sex workers are leaders in the fight against HIV.”

In 2006, sex workers in Toronto led a large march, all in bright turquoise t-shirts, demanding recognition of their human and workers’ rights to fight HIV.

Sex workers also interrupted a speech by Bill and Melinda Gates chanting for an end to dangerous raids on brothels by a program supported by the Gates Foundation.

Conferences are also places for sex workers to learn about new developments in HIV-prevention and treatment and think about how they will affect our communities, how we need to prepare and how we need to make sure any new developments support our rights.

4. How do sex workers find each other at the Conference?
The conference has three major parts: the academic or science part, the community village and the arts and culture program.

There are usually some sex workers presenting in each part of these programs. The community village is an area where there are NGO booths, market-place booths where people sell things, networking zones and a positive lounge where HIV+ people can relax, nap or get a massage.

Networking Zones are places for people to meet up and this is the best way to meet other sex workers and find out what presentations on sex work are happening (and where the good parties are). Usually there is a women’s zone, a youth zone, a gay zone, an injection drug-user zone, and a sex worker zone among others. In Thailand, the go-go bar was the sex worker zone. In Toronto, it was called the Stilletto Lounge and even Bill and Melinda Gates came by to visit it ! In Mexico, it will be hosted by APROASE ( a Mexican sex worker project) and the NSWP.

5. Is the International Aids Conference a good place to pick up clients?
There is no consensus on this. Many sex work activists are too tired from activism during the conference to keep an eye open for clients ! However, some South African sex workers told journalists that the Durban conference in 2000 was great for business. There are definitely many doctors, businessmen and officials who have good disposable incomes…and you can hope that if you met them at the Aids Conference that they might be more educated about safer sex than most clients !

6. Is it true that at the last conference there was a contest to see which sex worker
could get her picture taken with Richard Gere (known for his movie Pretty Woman where he falls in love with a sex worker)?

Yes, Richard Gere was at the Toronto conference and this contest idea started in the sex worker zone. The prize was a sexy pair of very-high boots. Unfortunately, no sex workers managed to have their pictures taken with him ! Definitely, his loss !

7. How can I participate?
It is too late to apply for a scholarship to go this year, but keep that option in mind for the next AIDS conference. The community village part of the conference, where a lot of exciting things happen, is usually open for free to the public. If you can’t go but are interested in what takes place, some conference presentations may be broadcast live on the web. Other groups will have blogs and conference reports that talk about how the conference went. Check out www.nswp.org for a post-conference report from sex workers’ perspective.

For more information:
To read a blog and see pictures and videos from the sex worker zone in 2006, in Toronto: 
Read NSWP reports about previous AIDS conferences