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Stabroek News

Legalising prostitution: social implications
published: Sunday | September 4, 2005


- CARLINGTON WILMOT/FREELANCE PHOTOGRAPHER
One of several homes on the bank of a gully along Dumfries Road in New Kingston where prostitutes and drug addicts live.

Leighton Taylor, Contributor

PROSTITUTION IS defined as the performance of sexual acts solely for the purpose of material gain. Persons prostitute themselves when they grant sexual favours to others in exchange for money, gifts or other payments and in so doing use their bodies as commodities (Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2005).

Therefore, in a society built on strong Christian principles, it is very controversial to raise issues that advocate the legalisation of prostitution. Though there are several points of view against legalising prostitution, there are also equal numbers of arguments that validate legitimising its practice.

Prostitution is one of the world's oldest professions and shows no signs of dissipating any time soon, but rather all indications show that it is a growing industry in Jamaica and that it has profoundly affected the social structure of our society. Government must now face its responsibility of determining the extent to which prostitution will continue to impact upon the social fabric of our society.

Opponents have long insinuated that, legalising prostitution would increase the spread of HIV/AIDS. However, reports have shown where regulation is an important tool used by governments across the world to achieve reductions in infection rates. Take Senegal for example, HIV prevalence among pregnant women has been below one per cent for more than a decade and early legalisation of prostitution has been credited for this low level (Steen, 2001). Jamaica having just over three per cent of all new cases in the Caribbean each year, the island has the second highest rate of infection in the region (The Sunday Observer, March 10, 2002, p. 6) and prostitutes are not only identified as being a high risk group but also that, prostitution is a factor fuelling the spread of HIV/AIDS.

One in every four HIV-positive persons reported having had sex with a commercial sex worker at some point in time (The Health Promotion & Protection Division, Ministry of Health 1982-2000) and the rate of infection in the sex industry is three times that of the general population (Realities of Commercial Sex Work in Jamaica, December 1, 2002 p. 19). As a result, government should consider regulating this industry as a means of effectively curtailing the effects that prostitution has on the spread of HIV/AIDS.

REGULAR HEALTH CHECKS

Legalisation would require prostitutes to undergo regular medical examinations, not just for HIV/AIDS but also other sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and ensure that sex workers are trained in practising preventative techniques (health education). This also provides the Government with a method for screening out and identifying infected individuals.

Legitimate solicitation and security would replace, in many instances, pimps and organised crime, which contradicts oppositions' claim that legalisation of prostitution would be a gift to pimps and traffickers. Strict zoning would eliminate seedy, unsafe areas, as prostitutes are more susceptible to crime when they are forced to walk lonely streets late at nights in order to conduct business.

One prostitute disclosed, in an interview conducted by Ras Kassa, broadcasted on Music Plus (a local cable channel), that she is often stoned, abused and robbed at gunpoint when she goes out at night to work. Other researched accounts reveal that prostitutes are the victims of rape, harassment and murder. By decriminalising prostitution, measures would be in place to ensure that the practice occurs only in clean, safe and controlled environments, that all participants are of legal age (18) and all are participating of their own free will. The Government could use the legalisation of prostitution as a means of addressing allegations made by the United States' State Department, for its supposed lackadaisical approach to addressing human trafficking. The Trafficking in Persons Report 2005 cites a 2001 International Labour Organisation report, which alleged that more than 100 minors were involved in Jamaica's sex trade (The Sunday Gleaner, June 12, 2005, p. G1).

TAX REVENUE

Legalisation would also provide the Government with well-needed tax revenues, as this would allow for the widening of the tax net. Revenues would result from licensing and registration fees as well as taxation in the form of income tax and General Consumption Tax (G.C.T), which may well be used to better fund rehab programmes, homeless shelters, the purchase of intravenous drugs, drug and health education and regulatory agencies.

The Jamaican Government has serious debt- servicing problems and according to Courtney Williams, an economist in the debt management unit at the Ministry of Finance and Planning, who disclosed in a telephone interview (August 15, 2005) that approximately 69 cents of every dollar earned by the Government is used to service debt obligations. This leaves very little financing for the Government's day-to- day operations (impairing the Government's ability to function efficiently).

Sex is a booming industry in Jamaica with segmented markets comprising escort services, bars, clubs, cruise ships, streetwalkers, brothels and massage parlours. In a research entitled 'Realities of Commercial Sex Work in Jamaica' by Patricia Watson (December 1, 2002, p.19), it was reported that some prostitutes earn between JA$500 (minimum) and JA$10,000 (maximum) per sexual act, plus tips (U$20-$50).

The sex trade is estimated to consist of up to 2000 workers (conservative estimate). This was revealed by the Director of the Target Intervention Department (Jamaica AIDS Support) Steve Harvey in an interview held on August 16, 2005, with approximately 150 employed to 'Go Go' clubs in Kingston alone. Other studies have placed that figure at 900, the income-generating capacity of the sex industry is projected to be in the millions per year and by regulating such an industry, the Government would gain access to vast new sources of income.

SEX WORK IS 'WORK'

Prostitution provides employment to poor, disadvantaged, unaided individuals, who have no support or source of income. Most commercial sex workers perceived what they do as a job (or a skilled profession) and not just as a means of self-gratification. Prostitution has alleviated some of the many demands placed upon Government's social services, as individuals who would have otherwise had to access these services, are able to provide for themselves and their families with the income derived from the sex trade. Some are able to earn enough that they at times stop working for weeks and months.

By legalising prostitution, the stigmas that are attached to its practice (such as the spread of HIV/AIDS) would be removed and allow for a more open examination of the extent to which it is practised. Legalisation would provide a sense of legitimacy and respect, which would in turn empower commercial sex workers (CSW) to refuse dangerous practices with demanding customers. A supportive network could also result, which would encourage workers in the trade to organise themselves and force employers to provide adequate working environments. Regulation can promote safer sex by establishing clear terms of work conditions and rates that clients must agree and adhere to.

SEX WORK AND TOURISM

Tourism is Jamaica's greatest earner of foreign exchange and the Government could boost its promotion to the world by legalising prostitution. Holland is one example of how legalised prostitution has helped in the promotion of that country's tourist industry. It is already a common practice in most resort areas across the island, so legalising the practice of selling sex, would be an act of mere formality.

Holland has gained widespread notoriety because of its famous Red Light Districts; it has had mentions in movies, songs and even has one of the world's most famous rappers, Ludacris, name his latest album The Red Light District. The Red Light Districts have brought attention to Holland, as curious tourists visit to investigate the phenomenon of red neon windows that display barely-dressed prostitutes advertising their services. There are also guided tours of the Red Light districts, which sensitise visitors as to its history and purpose in today's modern world. As Jamaica seeks out new ways of bolstering the marketing strategies currently utilised to promote the island to the world, the Government should not discount the opportunities that legalised prostitution would provide towards that effort.

The country runs the great risk of undermining its social sector if it continues to brush prostitution under its moral carpet, as is evident by the many ways in which the sex trade affects our society. The Government must and has seemingly realised that it ought to be at the forefront of any debate regarding the legalisation of prostitution, as this is a national issue, with implications for the country's future development. The Sunday Observer reported in an article entitled, 'New push for gay rights debate' (July 31, 2005, p. 1), that the parliamentary committee on human resources and social development, chaired by junior education minister, Donald Rhodd, invited arguments for and against the legalisation of homosexuality and prostitution.

Critics of the legalisation of prostitution offer no alternative to a troublesome problem, but rather adopt the status quo model, which is virtually content with ignoring the problem and pretending that it is only associated with the diseased and social outcasts of our society. If moral obstacles prevent citizens from obtaining a government that helps its people while preserving freedoms, then a paradigm shift must be considered in order to effect real change. A movement away from values that are harmful is difficult only if one decides to cling to outdated, self-destructive traditions.

You can send your comments to infocus@gleanerjm.com

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