Map of life expectancy at birth from Global Education Project.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

An "Invisible" World

I just heard a talk from guys with Project Weber, a program here in Providence for male sex workers. This is not a phenomenon that most people even know exists. I'm not talking about high price rent boys like Jeff Gannon, I'm talking about street workers.

According to Project Weber founder Rich Holcomb, most of them identify as heterosexual and they do it out of desperation, usually because they are addicts. It's a horrible, degrading life. Unlike female street workers, who are usually readily identifiable and attract the ire of neighbors and the attentions of the police, they are unrecognizable to most people and get little or no police attention. But they are obviously at very high risk for HIV and other STDs, do cycle in and out of jail due to drug offenses, and are also at high risk of being raped and murdered. In fact Project Weber is named after a kid named Roy Weber, who was murdered in Providence in 2003. The crime has not been solved.

The project hands out condoms and exchanges needles, has a drop-in center, and helps people get into treatment and out of the life if and when they want to. These guys are as down and out as it gets. I expect most people pass moral judgment on them, but the fact is they were typically abused as children, and a lot of them started out as "throwaway kids," kicked out by their parents at a young age, who got into sex work to survive. The addiction may have come before or after.

Most people don't care about them, but the public health response -- as opposed to the Christian response of threatening people with damnation -- demands treating people with compassion and respect. Stigma and shame equal invisibility and just drive people deeper into the shadows and away from hope and help. Thanks to the clean needles and condoms they get from Project Weber, a lot of the guys manage to stay HIV negative until they get clean. And if they do become infected, they can get into medical care and if HIV is treated effectively, the person is not infectious. That's a big win for us all. Caring about the people who are least fortunate is a nice bonus.

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