What is Harm Reduction?

What is Harm Reduction?

Harm reduction is a fancy term, commonly used in reference to substance use. That said, harm reduction is a strategy used by health and community services, such as Magenta, to deliver their services. Harm reduction is not about encouraging behaviours with associated risk, but about accepting that we all take risks as people and it is important that we minimise any potential harm.

Think about a car; we jump in and put on our seatbelt. Being in a car involves an element of risk, but wearing a seatbelt is a form of harm reduction. Seatbelts are proven to reduce risk of harm if a car crashes. Covering your mouth when you cough reduces the risk of passing along your cold to others; again, it is about the reduction of harm to others and ourselves. As individuals, we practice harm reduction every day.

Why does Magenta use harm reduction?

Magenta uses harm reduction principles because they are effective, evidence based, empowering and most importantly, client focused.

Harm reduction is not about ‘saving’ or ‘rescuing’ any person. It is a client-led model based on individual’s needs. It is Magenta’s role to support a person without judgement or assumption. The result is an empowered person who makes realistic choices in their lives to minimise the risk of harm.

The harm reduction approach provides all sex workers with a non-judgmental and supportive service, resulting in increased health outcomes and increased empowerment of the individuals.

What does harm reduction look like for sex workers?

Harm reduction is different for everyone and unique to your needs, goals and circumstances. Common advice given to sex workers is make sure to save your money so you can afford to be sick.

Let us break this down. You have three workers, all catch a cold, but the harm reduction approach to each situation is unique.

Lucy works in a nearby parlour 1-3 nights per week around her study, upon starting in the industry she has no savings and is in a small amount of debt. 3 months later, Lucy catches a cold, she still has no savings, and her expenses remain the same. Lucy decides to work a shift, taking the next day off school to rest, and recover.

Ben works full time hours as a sex worker privately. When he starts he owns his home, has minimal expenses and $3000 in savings. When Ben contracts a cold he chooses to take two weeks off work to reduce the risk of giving it to clients and allow himself time to rest and recover.

Jasmine lives in Albany and is a single mother who tours Perth occasionally when she does not have care of her children. Jasmine is touring Perth for two weeks. One week into the tour, she gets a cold. She has covered her touring costs and home expenses, but has not made profit. Jasmine decides to continue to work, minimising the risk by informing clients of her cold and avoiding kissing, working to make money and return home with enough profit to recover from the flu and cover new school supplies for her children.

Harm reductions works to empower and support the individual person.

Other examples of harm reduction for sex workers;

  • Using condoms, dams, gloves and other safer sex supplies to reduce the health and legal risks to sex workers.
  • Being educated around STI and BBV transmission
  • Being knowledgeable about the legislation in the area that you work
  • Sharing information on ‘ugly mugs’ with other workers
  • Keeping sex worker safety tips within the sex worker community only
  • Screening clients in a way you feel works for YOU
  • Negotiating consent clearly

Working my way

Being bipolar and a sex worker has been an interesting journey. If you missed my post about that, you can have a read here. However, this is about how harm reduction and peer education supported my work and life. It is about working my way with support and advice from other sex workers.

Part of bipolar for me is mania, specifically hyper-sexuality. Which means I am super interested in working and do not always make the best choices. When I was figuring out how to work and manage my mental health I was seeking support from Magenta peer educators. These people did not have bipolar, but they had been sex workers.

At first, I thought ‘how can these people, who do not live my life,  understand’? How can these condom selling health experts give me any advice other than ‘just don’t work’, which I’ve already been told by my psychiatrist. My sex worker friends pushed me into reaching out. Telling me that it was worth it and suggesting there was no harm in asking. So, I did.

I was honest with the educator about my mental health. I was possibly more honest than I should have been, but I was using a fake name  so I was totally anonymous. It kind of felt like going to a confessional. I told this educator about not charging for extra’s, running over time, doing services that I do not offer and taking health risks. I told her about the pressure I faced from clients who returned to see me when I was stable who then expected the same service and the aggression that could result if I said no.

This Magenta staff member did not judge me; in fact she listened and contributed similar experiences and a non-judgemental space. She even had advice on methods I could use to set boundaries. Things like; not working when manic, becoming a ‘touring’ worker with a different name and service description for manic periods, only seeing regulars and having a ‘menu’ of services that I don’t detour from. When I said something would not work for me, she listened to why and helped me to develop ways of working that would.

What I did not realise then is that harm reduction and peer education is not this super formal, complex approach. It is simply sharing information from the community and using the advice that best fits your way of working.