NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Tennessee would no longer be the only U.S. state to impose a lifetime registration as a “violent sex offender” on anyone convicted of engaging in sex work while living with HIV under a proposal that advanced Tuesday in the legislature.
The controversial statute still on the books is being challenged in federal court by LGBTQ+ and civil rights advocates. They argue that the law stems from the decades-old AIDS scare and discriminates against HIV-positive people. The U.S. Department of Justice has also weighed in on the decades-old law after completing an investigation in December, saying that it violates the Americans with Disabilities Act and called on the state to repeal the measure.
However, Republican Sen. Page Walley on Tuesday stopped short of fully removing the law and instead introduced legislation that would remove those convicted of aggravated prostitution of having to register as a violent sex offender.
“It maintains the charge,” Walley said. “But removes the sex offender registration.”
Prostitution has long been criminalized as a misdemeanor in Tennessee. But in 1991, Tennessee lawmakers enacted an even harsher statute that applied only to sex workers living with HIV. Nearly 20 years later, the state legislature revised the law once more by requiring lifetime sex offender registration for those convicted under the controversial statute.
In the years since, the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has warned that laws criminalizing HIV exposure — many of which were enacted amid the height of the AIDS epidemic — as outdated and ineffective. Black and Latino communities have been particularly affected by these laws even as the same standards do not apply to other infectious diseases.
Some states have taken steps to repeal their HIV criminal laws, such as Illinois, which repealed all of its HIV-specific criminal laws in 2021. That same year, New Jersey and Virginia repealed all their felony HIV-specific laws.
In Republican-dominant Tennessee, lawmakers have expressed resistance to outright repealing the aggravated prostitution charge. Instead, the GOP-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday agreed to advance a proposal that would drop the lifetime sex offender registration requirement.
Walley described his bill as “anti-trafficking,” arguing that the current framework hurts those who may be victims of sexual assault and hinders attempts to get their lives back on track.
According to court documents, 83 people are currently registered sex offenders for aggravated prostitution convictions in Tennessee. The majority of those convictions took place in Shelby County, which encompasses Memphis. The plaintiffs challenging the law in federal court, all named Jane Doe, have described years of harassment and hardships in finding housing and employment that complies with Tennessee's violent sex offender registry.
The legislation would still need to clear the full Senate and House chambers before it could make it to Gov. Bill Lee's desk for consideration. The Republican governor has not weighed in publicly on the bill.
Meanwhile, the federal lawsuit is ongoing. It's currently scheduled to go to trial in 2026.