Bioethics Blogs

Best intentions, worst outcomes: Ethical and legal challenges for international research involving sex workers

Central America hosts a thriving sex work industry that is a key source and transit region for sex trafficking and undocumented migrants engaged in sex work. Sex workers – particularly those who are migrant – are at high risk for HIV and other sexually transmitted infections as well as physical abuse and in some cases murder. However, the existing network of international, national, and local criminal and human rights policies applicable to sex workers can be confusing and contradictory, not only in the context of access to sexual health preventions and interventions, but also for investigators seeking to conduct that can lead to effective sexual health services.

The dense web of existing regulations – everything from criminalizing sex work, to being illegally present in a country, to mandatory public health testing to extortion by police – means that U.S. based researchers hoping to illuminate these health disparities while well-intentioned, can ultimately put persons involved in sex work in harm’s way, including arrest or deportation.

In many instances, while sex work is illegal nationally, it is condoned and supported by local officials. Knowledge of existing laws, but more importantly, the way they are implemented is thus crucial for investigators in this region if they are to avoid recruitment and data collection activities that compromise the safety of potential research participants.

On June 8 and 9, 2016, Fordham University Center for Ethics Education Director and Director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA)-funded HIV and Drug Abuse Research Ethics Training Institute (RETI), Dr. Celia B.

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.