Panel on harm reduction engages students in conversation about sex work, drug use

By Danielle Kiefer

A group of six University of Maryland students hosted a panel at Hornbake Library April 27 to discuss sex work and drug addiction.

Panelists at HIPS Panel: Understanding Sex Work, Drug Addiction & Harm, spoke about the importance of harm reduction in relation to drug use and sex work. Harm reduction is a strategy focused on preventing harm by acknowledging that people engage in risky behavior, and implementing policies and practices to reduce risk — teaching safe sex practices in school instead of simply promoting abstinence, for example.

“Harm reduction is necessary because it’s something that works and is really effective because you’re engaging people in the community,” said student panelist and HIPS volunteer Rachel Walker during the panel.

Students who attended the panel heard from employees and volunteers at HIPS, a nonprofit organization in Washington, D.C. that provides harm reduction services and advocates for individuals and communities affected by drug use and sex work.

The panel also included university health center sexual health program coordinator Jenna Messman, anthropology assistant professor and HIPS volunteer Andrea Lopez, and Demetrius Marcoulides, a member of the Baltimore Harm Reduction Coalition.

“I hope that this conversation helps destigmatize conversations about sex, sexuality, sex work, drug use, substance abuse and harm reduction,” Messman said.

Sophomore government and economics major Savannah Gaines, one of the hosts of the panel, said the idea came out while she and her teammates were brainstorming ideas for their capstone project for the College Park Public Leadership Scholars Program.

“Once we chose HIPS as our definite project, we went out and interviewed people to find out more about harm reduction, drug use, sex and sexuality, sex work and sex trade. We had to educate ourselves about it first,” Gaines said.

In addition to the panel, they hosted two restaurant fundraiser nights benefitting HIPS at Blaze and Chipotle. They also had a toiletries donation box at the panel, and encouraged students to either bring in an item to donate or make a monetary contribution to help HIPS.

Gaines’s biggest goal for students attending the panel was to change their perspectives on sex work and drug use. The event also aimed to make students more aware of what harm reduction is and how to apply it in their everyday lives in college.

Students listen to panelists speak about harm reduction at the HIPS panel in Hornbake Library.

“Sex work and drug use are kind of marginalized in the sense that it’s not really talked a lot about; it’s kind of taboo,” Gaines said. “We wanted to raise awareness about [harm reduction] and bring it into our own sphere of understanding in our own lives.”

Sophomore psychology and criminology and criminal justice major Natania Lipp said her perspective changed about people who are engaged in activities such as prostitution or drug use, and she learned about the importance of helping these people instead of judging them.

“I think that we really often push people like that into a certain category, and then they’re marginalized, and they don’t get the help that they need,” Lipp said.

Panelists similarly hoped that the event informed students more about topics they may not have known much about before, and understood how to apply harm reduction to their own lives.

“I hope that students feel more informed about campus resources and community resources that exist, and more knowledgeable about different ways that they can incorporate harm reduction into their lives, or inform friends about various harm reduction techniques,” Messman said.

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