Tennessee gets federal lawsuit over sex worker law

ACLU, Transgender Law Center charge a measure to keep HIV-positive workers on a lifetime offender list is unconstitutional

By: - October 25, 2023 6:00 am
(Getty Images)

(Getty Images)

A Tennessee law that forces convicted sex workers with HIV to register for life as “violent sex offenders” is unconstitutional and violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, a federal lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union and the Transgender Law Center claims. 

The suit challenges the state’s 1991 “aggravated prostitution” law, enacted during a period of national panic over HIV.  While sex work is most often charged as a misdemeanor offense, the law created a felony for workers who know they have HIV. Tennessee is the only state to impose sex offender registration requirements for HIV-positive individuals who have engaged in sex work.

Most of the 83 people currently on Tennessee’s lifetime sex offender registry for aggravated prostitution were convicted in Shelby County; 77% are Black, according to the lawsuit.

Tennessee bill would protect victims of sex trafficking from arrest after reporting crimes

“People convicted of aggravated prostitution must spend years in prison then register as violent sex offenders for the rest of their lives – meaning they cannot access the housing, employment, healthcare and community life they need to get back on their feet,” said Molly Quin, executive director of OUTMemphis, one of the plaintiffs. 

Tennessee’s law “solely targets people because of their HIV status and keeps them in cycles of poverty, while posing absolutely zero benefit to public health and safety,” she said.

Four unnamed individuals — three grandmothers and a transgender woman in her 30s — are among the lawsuit’s other plaintiffs in the lawsuit filed Tuesday in a Memphis federal court.

The women “cannot be alone with their nieces, nephews, or grandchildren, and are forbidden, for example, from watching their grandchildren perform in a school play or sporting event.”

The registries’ rules requiring sex offenders to steer clear of working, living or entering “exclusionary zones” — playgrounds, schools, parks or any other area children may gather — have made it difficult to find work or housing, or even to keep up with the constantly changing boundaries of the zones, the lawsuit said.  

The lawsuit notes that there are no similar enhanced criminal penalties imposed on individuals who buy sex knowing they are HIV-positive.

Earlier this year, Tennessee lawmakers acted to remove the felony offense of “criminal exposure of another to HIV” from the list of violent sexual offenses in which a conviction required an individual to register as a sex offender for life. 

While the law is a “step in the right direction,” it does not affect the separate felony charges sex workers are subject to, said Jeff Preptit, an ACLU of Tennessee staff attorney. 

Other efforts by advocates in the legislature to amend or eliminate the aggravated prostitution charge have thus far failed. 

The suit is seeking to have Tennessee’s “aggravated prostitution” statute struck down permanently and the removal of all individuals listed on the sex offender registry as a result of their convictions for the crime.

Aggravated Prostitution Challenge

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Anita Wadhwani
Anita Wadhwani

Anita Wadhwani is a senior reporter for the Tennessee Lookout. The Tennessee AP Broadcasters and Media (TAPME) named her Journalist of the Year in 2019 as well as giving her the Malcolm Law Award for Investigative Journalism. Wadhwani is formerly an investigative reporter with The Tennessean who focused on the impact of public policies on the people and places across Tennessee.