For Sex Workers, Alumna Shows Decriminalization Improves Health
“I tried to go into it with an open mind,” says alumna Meghan Hynes (’14) of her study subject on which everyone has an opinion.
Her resulting paper, “Sex Work and the Law in South Africa, Sweden and New Zealand: An Evidence-Based Argument for Decriminalization,” was published in the fall issue of Global Health Journal.
In what began as her culminating experience at the School of Public Health, supervised by Assistant Professor of Global Health Jennifer Beard, Hynes compared three countries across the spectrum of sex work policy.
Both buying and selling sex are completely illegal in South Africa, while only buying sex is illegal in Sweden; in New Zealand, sex work is legal and regulated like any other trade.
“It was no surprise” that sex workers in New Zealand would have better living and working conditions and appear to have lower incidences of violence, infection, and improved relations with police, says Hynes, who came to SPH after two years volunteering at a Washington, DC-based sex worker harm reduction organization called HIPS.
“In New Zealand you have occupational rights that you can reference—you are able to sue just like in any other trade,” she says.
“When sex work is decriminalized, when sex workers have legally recognized rights, when they feel protected by the law, when they’re not at odds with the police—who are often the direct perpetrators of violence toward sex workers in South Africa and sometimes in Sweden—the health outcomes tend to be a lot better.”
Hynes says the global tide is turning when it comes to sex work decriminalization. Amnesty International took an official stance in favor of decriminalization when she was midway through writing the paper. “There are a lot of different multinational organizations and governments that are hopping onto that train,” she says. “It’s a really exciting time to be having this conversation.”
However, stigma makes policy change difficult. With much of the conversation focused on emotion and cultural norms, Hynes says an evidence base is vital: “We need to be writing policy around evidence and data.”
Sticking to data in the face of hotly contested issues is a skill she says she continues to use after SPH. Hynes now manages AIDS Action Committee’s Needle Exchange and Overdose Prevention Program, a role that has recently included speaking before the Massachusetts legislature as an expert on the health consequences of the opioid epidemic.
“I’m asked to come as a key witness or an expert as opposed to an advocate,” Hynes says, adding that the experience of the sex work study has helped her “channel whatever biases I have, and be able to stick to the hard data to help let my point make itself.”