Biden’s Justice Department Sues Over Tennessee’s HIV Prostitution Law

The law makes it a felony to engage in prostitution while knowingly infected with HIV.
BERLIN - MAY 16: Escort girls await customers at Berlin's exclusive Night Club Bel Ami on May 16, 2006 in Berlin, Germany. Escort girls across Germany are anticipating booming business in June as soccer fans from around the world will descend upon the country for the World Cup. (Photo by Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)
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The Biden administration’s Justice Department filed a lawsuit Thursday against Tennessee’s aggravated prostitution law for people with HIV.

The law, which imposes tougher penalties for engaging in prostitution while knowingly infected with HIV, violates the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Justice Department claims in its lawsuit.

The department said Tennessee’s law elevates the crime simply “because the individual has HIV, regardless of any actual risk of harm.”

“People living with HIV should not be subjected to a different system of justice based on outdated science and misguided assumptions,” Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke of the Justice Department’s civil rights division said in a statement.

Tennessee’s law, passed in 1991, raises prostitution from a misdemeanor to a felony “when, knowing that such person is infected with HIV, the person engages in sexual activity as a business or is an inmate in a house of prostitution or loiters in a public place for the purpose of being hired to engage in sexual activity.”

The law also requires people who are convicted of engaging in prostitution while HIV-positive to register for life as a “violent sex offender.” It is the only state with this requirement.

This means the convicted person faces up to 15 years in prison and a fine up to $10,000 for the felony charge, rather than just six months a fine up to $500 fine for a misdemeanor charge.

Much of Tennessee’s prostitution occurs in the Memphis area.


The Justice Department’s lawsuit includes details about an anonymous, black, trans-identifying man who found out he had HIV in 2008 and was arrested in 2010 for prostitution near a church or school, ultimately pleading guilty in 2012 to attempted aggravated prostitution. The man has been homeless at times, has had trouble finding a job, and is barred from seeing his nephew alone because of his conviction, the lawsuit says.

The department’s lawsuit demands Tennessee get rid of the law and also expunge the convictions of those convicted under the law and take them off the sex offender registry.

The state attorney general’s office has said it is aware of the complaint and plans to review it.

In December, the Justice Department warned Tennessee about the law, saying the state could face a lawsuit if it does not stop enforcing it.

Since 1991, there has been “significant progress” in understanding and treating HIV, Rebecca Bond, chief of the DOJ’s Disability Rights Section, wrote in a letter to Tennessee officials.

“Beliefs and assumptions that individuals with HIV will spread it, or that having HIV is a death sentence, are now outdated and unfounded,” Bond wrote.

In recent weeks, Republican state lawmakers have proposed a change to the law that would remove the “violent sex offender” registration requirement for those who engage in prostitution with HIV.

Earlier in October, the American Civil Liberties Union and the Transgender Law Center also filed a federal lawsuit over the law, saying they want it scrapped.

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