Toronto
4 min

Fallen women, innocent men

What evil lurks in the pussies of prostitutes?

Evil is out there! Unsuspecting heterosexuals – even some well known sports celebrities – are endangered because of a group of conniving, malicious, seductresses! These women take money for sex! They’re a reservoir of filth and illness! Now they’re spreading AIDS to us!



Yes, HIV is in the courts and in the news again. I haven’t seen the acronym “HIV” is so many newspaper headlines since the last international AIDS conference.



But HIV is completely irrelevant to the Toronto court case that has prompted the headlines and spawned radio and television phone-in shows.



Mark Lukacko, who ran several escort agencies, has been charged with 16 counts of living off the avails of prostitution and procuring for the purpose of prostitution. But from day one, the focus of media coverage has not been on Lukacko. Instead it’s jumped on HIV, and the three escorts who are alleged to be HIV-positive.



Sadly, the coverage reveals that stereotypes, misogyny, scapegoating and the stigma surrounding HIV are flourishing in Toronto. The hysterical treatment also begs a lot of questions and obscures some basic facts.



To start with, there are only allegations that the three escorts are HIV-positive. Index cards for some of the escorts were entered as evidence at the trial, and on the back of three cards were notes that the women might be HIV-positive.



According to news reports, one hooker named Destiny had a card which described her as “possibly (probably) HIV-positive.” A co-worker of another prostitute, Simone, apparently found AIDS medication in Simone’s purse and reported it to the agency, which wrote a note on her card. The third escort named as probably HIV-positive was Claudia.



We don’t know if the women are positive or not, we don’t know what kind of sex was engaged in, we don’t know if condoms were used. Therefore, we also don’t know if any men were infected. The story, then, is about danger – more accurately, the concept of dangerous women – not actual harm.



I feel like I’m in a time warp. From the beginning of the AIDS epidemic, the tendency has been to locate it in certain “fringe” groups like gay men, IV drug users and sex trade workers. Talk focussed on risk groups, not risk behaviour.



Since then we’ve learned about transmission and vulnerabilities, but there still seems to be a need to blame the fringe group, in this case sex trade workers.



So who should we be pointing our finger at for risky sexual behaviour?



“We’re always blamed, trust me. The fact is, it’s the johns who don’t want to use condoms,” says Anastasia Kuzyk, spokesperson for the Sex Workers Alliance Of Toronto, a prostitutes’ rights group. “Ninety percent of the girls I know use condoms all the time – why do you think all those downtowners are bitching about used condoms lying around? In 15 years I’ve never heard of a girl holding a gun to a john’s head saying, don’t use a condom.”



Barb MacPherson, an AIDS educator with Toronto public health, recalls approaching sex trade workers early in the epidemic about safer sex.



“The prostitutes laughed and said, ‘We’ve been using condoms for years’,” she says.



There’s no evidence that HIV rates are higher among sex trade workers than among other women, says MacPherson, and study after study shows a very high rate of condom use among them.



It’s just a little bit hard to swallow when one Toronto Star headline blares: “Escorts’ Clients Not Told Of Risks.” It’s 1999 and these men are paying money for sex: Could they have been sleeping during the past 15 years of publicity about about AIDS and STDs and the need for safer sex?



And speaking of risks, we do know that biologically, women are at much greater risk for HIV infection from men than vice versa. They’re also at risk for other things.



“We’re not the cause of the HIV epidemic, but there is an epidemic of violence against us,” says Kuzyk.



Admittedly, I haven’t monitored all the phone-in shows on this but in the bits I have heard no one has talked about the customers’ responsibility for safer sex. Instead, there has been talk of tracking down the HIV-positive escorts.



And there has been talk of the innocent, unsuspecting wives of the escort’s clients. (It’s true the wives may not know of their husband’s philandering, but I always get chills when “HIV” and “innocent” are used to describe one group, since the implication is always that another group is guilty.)



The coverage “just reinforces the notion that prostitutes are a high risk group. It’s about women as vectors of transmission – it doesn’t even look at the fact that women are much more likely to be infected by men, than men by women,” says Janet Rowe, women’s health promoter with the AIDS Committee Of Toronto.



If the three escorts had indeed tested positive, they would have received safer sex counselling. A clear implication of the coverage is that the escorts were wantonly spreading HIV. Hence Richard Elliott of the HIV/AIDS Legal Network muses on why the Crown hasn’t laid any criminal charges.



After all, if the women were indeed positive and did engage in unprotected sex without disclosing their status – if all of that were true – they could be charged with the crime of assault, he noted, citing the Supreme Court decision in the controversial Cuerrier case. (Elliott isn’t suggesting charges should be laid, he is just wondering why they haven’t been.)



It’s a messy world. What does Kuzyk of the Sex Workers Alliance think of the coverage? “It’s all about sex, and the HIV angle just turns it up a notch.”



The Commercial Sex Information Service website is located at www.walnet.org/csis.



Fluid Xchange is Xtra’s AIDS and HIV issues column. Story ideas should be sent to 491 Church St, Suite 200, Toronto M4Y 2C6. Our fax number is (416) 925-6503.