US: Tennesee lawmakers end sex offender registry requirement for HIV+ sex workers, clearing path for removal from registry

TN Lawmakers vote to remove sex offender registry requirement for Law criminalizing sex workers with HIV

By Katie Riordan

State lawmakers have voted to no longer require sex offender registration for someone convicted under the state’s decades-old aggravated prostitution law, which only affects sex workers who are HIV positive. The legislation also allows those on the registry for the offense to have their names removed.

The measure overwhelmingly passed the state house on Thursday with bipartisan support after clearing the senate earlier this month.

The vote takes place as the Department of Justice and advocacy groups have sued Tennessee over enforcement its aggravated prostitution statute. The criminal code raises a misdemeanor prostitution charge to a felony if the sex worker knowingly has HIV.

Critics have long pointed out that no actual sex act has to take place and the law does not take into account modern advances in treatment and prevention of HIV.

Under the newly passed legislation, aggravated prostitution remains a felony, but it strikes down a separate penalty requiring those convicted to register as a violent sex offender for life.

The bill also allows those on the registry for the crime to petition to be removed, as long as they aren’t listed for another offense. Additionally, victims of sex trafficking can ask the court to expunge their record.

The Nashville-based non-profit, Thistle Farms, which provides services to survivors of trafficking, prostitution and addiction, backed the legislation.

The organization initially asked for a complete repeal of the aggravated prostitution law, but Amanda Clelland, director of communications and advocacy, says the amended bill lawmakers agreed to still removes “insurmountable” barriers that the sex offender registry creates.

The registry’s restrictionson where someone can work and live, Clelland says, hinders the ability to escape a life of exploitation and sex work.

“It really just kind of perpetuates a system where folks aren’t able to leave, even though they want to,” she says. “By law they are just continuously put back into these situations where they’re unable to access the services or even the safe space to start that rebuilding process.”

About 80 people are listed on the sex offender registry for an aggravated prostitution violation, according to research released in 2022 from the Williams Institute at the UCLA School of Law. The study also found that most are in Shelby County and are Black women.

Clelland says the bill’s passing signals an openness to offering support to trafficked people and sex workers instead of further criminalizing them.

“Those doors have been closed to them for years, and those doors are finally going to start reopening, and it’s exciting, and it’s just full of a lot of possibility,” she says.

The legislation will now head to Gov. Bill Lee’s desk to decide whether to sign off on it.

State legislators made aggravated prostitution a crime in 1991 at a time when effective treatment for HIV was still limited. They followed up in 1994 with a criminal exposure law that makes it a felony for anyone not to disclose a diagnosis to an intimate partner.

Last session, the legislature removed a sex offender registry requirement for an exposure charge.

Outside of lawmakers actions, the Department of Justice is suing the state to stop enforcing the aggravated prostitution statute. The DOJ’s lawsuit argues it violates a federal anti-discrimination law by creating stiffer penalties for people living with HIV.