NO MANDATORY TESTING! A Feminist Prostitute Speaks Out

NO MANDATORY TESTING! A Feminist Prostitute Speaks Out

by Carol Leigh

As a prostitute and activist, I am deeply disturbed by the current and proposed legislation establishing mandatory HIV testing of prostitutes. Although gay activists have been diligently supportive of us, the prostitutes’ rights movement must secure a broader base of active support from other feminist rights activists. The urgency of our situation is escalating as various states and cities plan and pass legislation which violates our rights to privacy and begins to establish a quarantine for prostitutes who have been exposed to HIV. Hopefully, a look at the present situation, an outline of current legislation, as well as an explanation of our objections to such legislation, will help mobilize the active support we currently require to avoid the quarantine of the most politically vulnerable class of women.

In Fresno, California, a woman who was allegedly HTV positive was arrested on prostitution charges. During her hearing, the judge cleared the courtroom and forced the woman to wear a mask to prevent transmission of AIDS.

Carol Leigh

When challenged by a Sacramento Bee reporter regarding the necessity of this practice, Judge John J. Gallagher replied “You’ve got to be kidding. Have you seen my calendar? I don’t have time to do that kind of research.” He was too busy to research the conditions for HIV transmission!

In Columbia, South Carolina, a woman, “Jane Doe” (the records were sealed with the help of the ACLU) who was allegedly HIV positive was quarantined by the local health department. This woman had been admitted to a mental health facility earlier that year, during which time she was tested for HIV. When arrested for prostitution, her HIV status was revealed to the judge. The ACLU became involved in the case early on and found that the court insisted that the woman had “voluntarily” re-entered a mental health facility. When she applied for release, the judge proceeded to quarantine her to her home. Meanwhile, her electricity had been disconnected, as she had been unable to pay her electric bill. She therefore was forced to leave her place of quarantine. She then was picked up by the police for violating the conditions of quarantine. Due to the work of the ACLU in Columbia, after a series of detainments the woman was released and provided with job training, drug rehabilitation and disability income.

Mandatory HIV testing of prostitutes is in effect in at least two states (Illinois and Nevada) and two cities in New Jersey (Patterson and Newark).

ILLINOIS – Legislation establishing mandatory HIV testing for convicted prostitutes is included in a bill which covers those convicted of various sex and drug-related offenses. The legislation does not stipulate felony charges to be applied to those who are convicted, then test positive, then continue to engage in the activities. Confidentiality is supposedly preserved as sealed results of tests are submitted to judges who, upon a second conviction, apply these results to sentencing as they see fit.

NEVADA – Law includes mandatory testing of suspected prostitutes who are arrested in counties where prostitution is illegal (approximately one third of the counties including Las Vegas). Felony charges (up to 20 years in prison and a $10,000 fine) will apply to those who test positive and are then again arrested and convicted of prostitution. The legalized system of prostitution requires that all prostitutes work for third parties in a brothel system. Prostitutes are tested for HIV before they are licensed to work, and they must be tested every six months thereafter, as long as they are employed. In addition, the use of condoms is compulsory in all of Nevada’s 35 brothels.

NEW JERSEY – The state of New Jersey has no current mandatory HIV testing legislation for prostitutes. However, Patterson and Newark have passed city ordinances establishing such testing. According to recent reports, Patterson has not yet used this legislation, though it is on the books. Newark’s legislation was passed in January 1988, and went into effect in mid-February. This law established mandatory HIV testing of those convicted of engaging in or soliciting prostitution at the time of conviction and again in six months. If the convicted person does not comply with the mandatory testing, she/he is subject to a fine of $1000 or 90 days in jail. The law also stipulates that when clients are convicted along with prostitutes, clients will pay for the HIV testing fees for both parties. In addition, those arrested will have their automobiles impounded.

FLORIDA – In July, legislation signed by Florida Gov. Bob Martinez makes it a crime for HIV infected people to have sexual intercourse without informing the partner. Failure to do this can mean up to one year in jail and a $1000 fine. The Florida Department of Health and Rehabilitation Services will be able to quarantine those who knowingly spread the virus through “promiscuous behavior” [read “prostitutes] for up to 120 days.

PROPOSED LEGISLATION: The following is an example of proposed legislation regarding HIV testing for prostitutes. Variations have been proposed in many states.

CALIFORNIA – California activists became alarmed when the assembly passed a bill establishing mandatory HIV testing for prostitutes, and stipulating felony charges for those who know they have tested positive for HIV and continue to engage in prostitution. The above legislation was passed during a complicated political power struggle. As a vulnerable issue for Progressives and Democrats, prostitutes were targeted by conservatives to upset the balance of power in the house.


Legislators must be forced to confront prostitution issues. We must object to the shelving of our concerns in the interests of preserving the power of a particular politician, or of sacrificing our goals to the goals of “larger” causes.

Although prostitutes’ rights activists are consistently assured that we are being protected by our sympathetic representatives, we are also told that we must not expect public statements on our behalf. We are constantly reminded that we must expect representatives to compromise our rights to a certain extent for the sake of political expediency.

Our legislative vulnerability creates an urgent need (particularly during the AIDS crisis) for the support we previously have been denied. We demand a change in strategy by those who privately support our cause with compassionate rhetoric, yet hesitate to publicly support prostitutes’ rights.

The above scenario creates a situation in which our rights can be used as a volley ball in political power struggles. The passage of mandatory HIV testing laws in various states is taking place in such a climate. Our rights must not be traded for political power. We can not afford to be put off in the midst of these crises. As other states consider mandatory testing legislation, California must take the lead in a strong movement to impede such legislation.


Because of the repressive sexuality (particularly in regard to women) and stigmatized nature of sex work in our culture, there is much misinformation about prostitutes and the sex business. Even the most open minded among us base our opinions of sex work on Judeo-Christian values which equate a range of sexual activities with sin and humiliation. These values instill a self-hatred within us as we function in sexual contexts. As a result, activists and prostitutes are discouraged from identifying ourselves in a struggle for our rights.


In order to fight the legislation which scapegoats prostitutes, we must accrue a momentum of support among women. Communication between feminists regarding issues of sexual experiences, practices and lifestyles must be included in the feminist agenda. As a prostitute, I have been aware of the stigma which forces my associates into severe isolation. Again and again feminists confess their participation in the sex business to me, indicating that they are not presently able to stand up for prostitutes’ rights for fear of being ostracized in “politically correct” circles.

In addition, after witnessing three strong prostitutes’ organizations (WHISPER, COYOTE, and US PROS) in bitter competition with each other, I am convinced that this “in-fighting” is a result of our extreme vulnerability, a fight for the crumbs of self-determination fed to us by the Patriarchy. I urge feminists to examine the prejudices which divide us and exercise greater patience when confronting various attitudes towards prostitution. All women must learn to respect the prostitute’s pride in her identity as she insists that she has ‘ ‘chosen” her life and that she is better off than those who work 9-5 jobs. At the same time, career prostitutes and those concerned with rights to sexual expression must be more sensitive to survivors of incest and forced prostitution. We must all prioritize the fight against the sexual holocaust.

Issues of choice, coercion and force are the gradation of women’s sexual experience. I am frustrated that the debate dividing us is preoccupied with strictly categorizing various activities i.e.: WHISPER attacks the myth of prostitution as a choice, while COYOTE defends it. Though forced and coerced sex is a tactic used to control women and many of us live in conditions resembling the crudest slavery, many other women are much less affected by the tactics of sexual control (based on childhood experience, psychosexuality, etc.) Some women do find great satisfaction and reward in their career as sexual facilitators, and often those who have suffered most in the face of rape, force and incest are offended by this phenomena. At the same time, sex workers and advocates are threatened by the sensitivity and anger of women who resist sexual participation with men. A chasm has been created between women based on our experience of, and reaction to, the sexual abuse in our culture.

We must open up these channels of communication, prioritizing the welfare of sex workers, while at the same time prioritizing our fight against forced and coercive prostitution and the sexual exploitation of women. In order to fight effectively on either front, we must end the division of our movement into opposing camps.

Dismantling the complicated “machinery” of sexual oppression which both forces women into, and punishes women for, prostitution will be a new task for the feminist movement. New strategies consist of outreach and affirmative action for sex workers and survivors of sexual abuse. Old style consciousness-raising can lift the veil of secrecy created by the “whore stigma” and allow sexworkers to come out of their closets. The antipathy of both camps of feminists may be tempered by personal contact with other women and a presiding commitment to a unified movement. Hopefully, the difficult task of saying “no” to rape and ‘ ‘yes” to sexual expression will provide an answer in the personal lives of many women with diverse experiences and raise the feminist struggle to a level of relevancy which we haven’t achieved for quite some time.


Although mandatory HTV testing legislation ostensibly covers both prostitutes and their clients, in reality, customers are infrequently arrested for prostitution, so felony charges (based on a second arrest) would not apply to customers of prostitutes. In addition, customers almost always plead guilty to reduced charges (such as loitering) so that the rate of conviction of clients on prostitution charges is negligible.

According to the Project Aware study of sexually active women, prostitutes do not show a higher rate of seropositivity than other sexually active women. In addition, female to male transmission of HIV is less efficient than male to female transmission. Statistics corroborate a prostitute’s negligible role in the transmission of HIV. Legislative targeting of prostitutes amounts to scapegoating prostitutes and women.

Mandatory HIV testing and punitive treatment of those exposed to HIV does not distinguish between risky activity and safe activities such as manual stimulation and no-touch fantasy sex. Some of the above legislation would make hand-jobs into felonies. Charging a prostitute with a felony, particularly in the above circumstances, is clearly a case of scapegoating. We wish to alarm the public to a situation which is, in effect, a quarantine, due to the extended sentences and short life expectancies of women exposed to HIV.

According to the U.S. Department of Health, prior to the AIDS epidemic, prostitutes had been involved in only three to five percent of the venereal disease cases in this country. (Teenagers accounted for 35 percent of transmissions.) In contrast to the fear of contamination from prostitutes, there is a lack of documentation of transmission of AIDS by prostitutes in the United States. Current studies show that most prostitutes practice safe sex with their clients.

Laws against prostitution are enforced in a discriminatory manner against women. Only 10 percent of those arrested are clients. Although less than 50 percent of prostitutes in this country are women of color, 80-90 percent of those sentenced to do jail time are women of color. Forced testing and harsher sentences result in further violation of (and violence against) an extremely vulnerable population during a crisis which requires compassion, and creates more dependence on abusive pimps. (Prostitutes have the right to responsible third party management.)

In a study done by A.W. A.R.E. (Association of Women’s Research and Education, San Francisco General Hospital, (415) 476-4091), prostitutes showed no higher incidence of seropositive results than other women with more than three sexual partners per year. Seropositivity among prostitutes was confined to I. V. drug users, representing less than 10 percent of prostitutes.

Many women are forced into prostitution by violence and coercion. Mandatory testing and escalated charges are further forms of violence against them.

Legislation already exists to cover the intentional infliction of bodily harm. Quarantining prostitutes by charging them with felonies serves no purpose but to stigmatize them and violate their civil rights.

Drug treatment programs must be designed to meet the needs of I.V. drug-using prostitutes. (In most communities there are long waiting lists for enrollment in methadone programs.) Liveable income and job training alternatives must be provided on a wider basis for all those who wish to stop working in the sex business, with special assistance for those who may have been exposed to the virus.

Solutions such as disability payments to prostitutes who may be infected must be presented to legislators. Preconceptions about the unpopularity of prostitutes should be challenged. Legislators fear the loss of public support based on stands taken on prostitutes’ issues, yet, in reality, such association is rarely compromising to a politician’s career.

The legislation for mandatory HTV testing of prostitutes scapegoats us as easy targets, because of our current status as outlaws and our traditional role as symbols of “immoral” sex. Manipulation of our fate for the purpose of warning the general public is, therefore, justified by those who are quite aware of our scant impact on the spread of AIDS.

Prostitute rights advocates, gay activists, and all feminist activists must join together to oppose all mandatory testing and scapegoating of politically vulnerable populations. We urge compassion and diligent attention to the rights of those people who are not in a position to speak for themselves.

Carol Leigh is a writer, satirist, feminist and social activist – and self-described prostitute. Her alter-ego, “Scarlot Harlot”, has performed in comedy clubs throughout the country.