Benjamin Di’Costa: Ending Stigma In Two Fields of Work
By Stephen Lucin
When HIV activist Benjamin Di’Costa published his op-ed in HIV Plus magazine earlier this month, he was doing two things: 1. Answering the people who wanted to use his story in an attempt to slander his name and 2. To stand up for people in the world who are sex workers.
During our phone interview, Benjamin said that someone had emailed all of his professional and personal contacts, as well as his friends, to call out what they thought was wrong. They argued that Benjamin should not be an HIV activist if he is a sex worker, too. And so, they attempted to smear his name by exposing his secret life.
But this only emboldened Benjamin to come out publicly about his work.
“I wanted to show everyone that it is possible to be an activist and a health educator in the field of HIV while also being a sex worker,” he explained. “I wanted to create an awareness in the community. Normalizing it creates societal change, which can lead to a political change. But it all starts in the community.”
Benjamin takes his sex work day-by-day, as he says. He does it only to survive and to make ends meet, though a relationship may put the brakes on it. But he isn’t judgmental about it, nor does he leave you with the impression that it’s had a negative impact on his life. He started sex work seven years ago, and had his first profound, positive escorting encounter nearly four years ago.
“It was a sugar daddy, sugar baby type of experience,” he said. “I was flown to LA to meet an older man. He paid my expenses and travel. The guy wanted something not complicated; a simple rendezvous. I had met him through a website that no longer exists, but he just wanted to skip the complications of Grindr or searching for sex.”
This experience moved him to continue with this line of work, and subsequently to this moment when he publicly came out to bring visibility to sex workers just like him.
“People in the world of sex work also work the gamut of jobs in the HIV field,” he said. His coming out, he hopes, will impact these peoples’ lives and help them to feel more comfortable with their line of work. The two fields aren’t dichotomous, according to Benjamin, but go hand-in-hand. He says that he’d eventually like to see sex work decriminalized in the United States, though not legalized.
“Legalization would mean the regulation of prostitution with laws regarding where, when and how prostitution could take place. Decriminalization eliminates all laws and prohibits the state and law enforcement officials from intervening in any prostitution-related activities or transactions, unless other laws apply. We need to create a safe environment for sex workers without fear of repercussions,” he said. “I also want to bring attention to other methods of HIV prevention outside of condoms. I never use condoms; I hate condoms. I prefer bareback sex. And providers need to understand and empower people who use other tools in the toolbox to prevent HIV.”
Outside of the world of escorting, Benjamin works with an Illinois-based non-profit organization that provides HIV and safe sex resources to young people. He says that the experiences there and in his own personal life have helped him to learn how to meet people where they are in life. He draws from both his experiences and his knowledge of public health to bring a more congenial conversation to his clients.
“Each person is their own individual,” he said. “Interaction is not based off of a script or a manual; being a real person is what keeps people involved in their own healthcare.”
What he has seen in the field of HIV prevention is an “intentionality to provide people with resources to stay negative. You can see that this is expanding into overall healthcare, too. The con in this field of work is that there is an over-saturation of services in affluent white communities, such as service organizations in the ‘gayborhood,’ and not in the areas of towns with marginalized communities for those of varying sexual orientations and gender identities.”
Overall, Benjamin is an activist in two different worlds: HIV prevention and sex work. He hopes that his coming out about his two lines of work will help to empower individuals and communities to provide safe spaces and to decriminalize the field of sex work. He hopes that he can lead by example to take control of one’s life – one’s story – and to meet people where they are in their own lives.
Benjamin encourages sex workers looking for resources, legal assistance or healthcare information to visit the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP).