Tennessee legislation would revise a law that targets sex workers with HIV
A pair of bills working their way through the Tennessee legislature would eliminatean aggravated prostitution charge for sex workers who test positive for HIV.
The bills – SB0181 and HB1384 respectively – follow a federal lawsuit filed in October 2023 that the Associated Press reported argued the law stems from the decades-old AIDS scare and discriminates against HIV-positive people. If the legislation passes, Tennessee will no longer be the only US state to enforce a life-time registration on the sex offender registry – a statutory requirement of the aggravated prostitution charge – if they were convicted of sex work while living with HIV.
Since the law classifies the misdemeanor offense as being of a violent sexual nature, those convicted are labeled as “a violent sexual offender.” Violent sexual offenders are placed on the sex offender registry and subject to specific restrictions, including not being permitted to be within a city block where children frequent and being ruled ineligible for some work and education opportunities.
Tiommi Luckett is a senior national organizer with the Transgender Law Center, an opponent in the lawsuit. She said restrictions like that are especially cruel.
“You can’t live near a school or a public park, or anywhere that children reside,” Luckett said.“It really restricts and takes away your dignity as a human being.”
Tiffany Moore – who was charged with aggravated prostitution in 2002 – wrote about her experience and advocated for the law to remove the aggravated charge from state statutes in an article for TheBody, an online outlet dedicated to covering issues around HIV/AIDS.
In it, she recounts her experiences while being on the sex offender registry after completing a four-year prison sentence.
“I learned that I wasn’t allowed access to drug rehabilitation centers, halfway houses, or any housing shelter because I was a sex offender and was therefore a ‘safety risk’ to others,” she wrote. “Unable to access resources or treatment, I found myself living back on the streets, barely surviving, haunted by the trauma of my past, and lacking the necessary assistance to help me survive.”
After graduating from a halfway house for sex workers in Nashville, Moore still felt the impacts of being on the registry. The restrictions in place meant she was barred from going to parks, recreational centers or even her young daughter’s school.
Moore was eventually able to get her name off of the sex offender registry in 2021, after an amendment was added to the law in 2015 that allowed individuals that were victims of sex trafficking or sexual and domestic abuse to petition for removal. Now she wants the charge removed completely.
According to the Williams Institute, only 25 arrestees were charged with aggravated prostitution between 2000 and 2010.
A U.S. Department of Justice investigation completed in December found the law violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and called on the state to repeal the measure, and a 2022 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report called laws like Tennessee’s “outdated” and not reflective of the current understanding of HIV. Luckett agrees. She calls the law discriminatory and said it targets those with the disease.
“The stigma that’s attached to being public and living with HIV, people are denied homes or housing. They’re denied employment,” Luckett said. “They’re not actually taking into consideration that people are living healthier lives. We know that this actually leads to a lifetime on the violent sex offender registry, solely because someone is living with HIV. So that’s discrimination.”