Editorial | Why make criminals of prostitutes?
We would wish that lawmakers go further. But if they are, for now, incapable of mustering the courage to do so, we encourage them to embrace Patrick Lalor's recommendation for the decriminalisation of prostitution as part of a broader removal of barriers against consensual sex between adults, irrespective of the gender of the participants.
Under Jamaica's sexual offences law, a person who knowingly lives, either fully or in part, from the earnings of prostitution, or "persistently solicits or importunes for immoral purposes" can, if convicted by a parish judge, be fined up to J$500,000 or sent to jail for up to three years. Conviction in the Circuit Court could send you to jail for a decade. Similar sentences apply for using a premises for prostitution.
These fines are many multiples higher than the J$100 you might have to pay for lying to an immigration officer on your travel documents.
Beyond the criminal record, the potential loss of liberty, or economic burden someone might bear for prostitution, there are health and social consequences to criminalising sex work, as Mr Lalor, of the NGO, Jamaica AIDS Support for Life, pointed out in testimony before a parliamentary committee last week.
He said: "The laws, as they stand, drive (sex workers) underground, limit their ability to negotiate safe sex, limit their ability to have sex in safe places, expose them to increased levels of violence ... and, as a result, increase their risk of contracting HIV and [other] sexually transmitted infections."
The observation about HIV is timely, given the recent public debate between Jamaican officials and the UNAIDS over data on the prevalence of AIDS in the island. UNAIDS says there has been a rise in the estimated number of cases in recent years. Jamaica says no.
Irrespective of who is right, the matter of HIV-AIDS is serious. Of the more than 30,000 persons infected with HIV, only 37 per cent are on antiretroviral drugs. That percentage is in danger of falling. These drugs are expensive. Their use in Jamaica, up to now, has been financed largely by grants from the Global Fund. But as a so-called middle-income developing country, Jamaica, unless it can convince the fund otherwise, is being graduated out of this money.
MAKE SEX SAFER
Ultimately, the best antidote for HIV-AIDS is to not contract the disease. In the absence of abstinence, this is best achieved by safe sex, especially the use of condoms, particularly by high-risk groups, such as those with multiple sex partners. Sex workers are part of this lot.
Education is critical. Gains, though, will be greatly enhanced with the elimination of stigma and discrimination against those who, because of their behaviour and sexual preferences - such as prostitutes and men who have sex with men - are driven underground.
This newspaper has, in the past, argued, in relation to gay men, that the State has no legitimate role as voyeur, peeping through cracks of people's bedrooms to determine the sexual preferences of consenting adults. That is an invasion of the constitutionally guaranteed right to privacy and freedom of association. Similar rights apply to adult women who, in the absence of coercion, at their free will, accept cash from willing payers, in an environment that doesn't encroach on the rights of others, for sexual favours.
The scandal to public morals, in the circumstance, is if people were to bring their sexual behaviour to the public space. It wouldn't matter then if the behaviour was transactional or not.