‘Nothing no wrong with it!’ - Sex workers step up call for trade to be legalised
Police raids, hostile clients, and persons determined to have unprotected sex are some of the major challenges facing sex workers in Jamaica who continue to beg the state to protect them by legalising the trade.
Apple, a 42-year-old mother of five, is a sex worker based in Ocho Rios, St Ann, who has been in the industry for more than eight years. At her previous job as a bartender, she was propositioned frequently, which led to her entering the world of prostitution on a full-time basis. Now, she embraces her job in spite of sustained stigma.
"Nothing no wrong with it. Them cuss all my kids them bout it seh 'gweh, your mumma a whore'," Apple told The Sunday Gleaner.
"I say better you sell it than give it away free. I don't see anything wrong with it. When man come and give you money and you have sex, no the same work?" added Apple with a defiance which the Sex Workers' Association of Jamaica (SWAJ) says is becoming the normal position for persons in the trade.
"Sex work is work, because at the end of the day, we do get an income out of it. We do contribute to society. It's not like we're doing it for fun. ... Sex workers have kids going to school, they are going to school, also. We are playing a part in society," declared Sheena Yorke, public relations officer at the SWAJ.
She argued that sex workers have been empowered with the tools to negotiate health risks.
According to Yorke, the reduction in HIV prevalence among sex workers illustrates the seriousness with which they approach the trade.
Data from the Jamaica AIDS Support for Life show the HIV rate among sex workers has dipped from 11 per cent in 2007 to 2.9 per cent this year.
Despite the decline, a 26-year-old sex worker, who goes by the name Kay, noted that negotiating condom use with clients still poses challenges.
SOME REFUSE TO USE CONDOMS
"You have some who will want to use it but you have some who will tell you point-blank, 'I will pay you just for not using it'. You have a next set that will just bully you if dem feel like you a idiot, just to not use the condom." Two HIV-related deaths in Kay's family have driven her to enforce condom use with clients.
Kay, like several other sex workers, envisions a day when prostitution becomes legal in Jamaica.
The Sexual Offences Act, which is being reviewed by a joint select committee of Parliament, prescribes a maximum fine of $500,000 or a three-year prison term for prostitution and living off the earnings of prostitution, if prosecuted in a parish court. The possible sentence escalates to 10 years in a circuit court.
Yorke contended that decriminalisation is nested in SWAJ's overarching goal to provide social and labour protection for sex workers.
"We're trying to get our girls licensed and insured so we can get everything up and running, so at the end of the day, they have benefits from it," said Yorke, who declined to say if the group has engaged government stakeholders in talks to legalise the sex trade.
Sociologist Rashalee Mitchell pointed out that the push to have sex work recognised as work is inhibited not only by the law, but conservative belief systems.
"While all sides of the debate must be a part of the dialogue, one important point to be considered is that sex workers have rights ... they are human beings first, and citizens of Jamaica.
"Therefore, it is less of a moral debate but more squarely falls in the domain of human rights," said Mitchell.
She is currently exploring the working conditions of sex workers for her PhD in an effort to generate empirical evidence to inform social policy.
In 2003, New Zealand became the first country to legalise prostitution, and Mitchell thinks there are lessons for Jamaica.
"There is serious attention around sex work as work, and focus on access to labour rights and health rights for sex workers. In fact, the New Zealand Prostitutes' Collective was instrumental in moving the needle forward in decriminalising sex work there," added Mitchell.