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Time to Decriminalize Prostitution

Published:Wednesday | March 25, 2015 | 12:00 AM

It is unfathomable why adults are still being prohibited by law from engaging in sex work - whether as an individual providing or receiving such services - in and outside of Jamaica. To make matters worse, it is also illegal for you to 'knowingly' benefit from the proceeds of sex work regardless of your relationship to the individual and whether you had a hand in the individual deciding to engage in such activities.

This is preposterous. In Jamaica, sex work is criminalised in the Sexual Offences Act, the Offences Against the Person Act and the Towns and Communities Act.

'Under the Sexual Offences Act, these activities are set out in sections 18 and 23 and deal with: procuring a person to become a prostitute (section 18), knowingly living off the earnings of prostitution (section 23(a)) and soliciting for immoral purposes (section 23(b))' (Voices for Equal Rights and Justice, 2014). The penalty for these offences are up to 10 years in prison or both imprisonment and a fine and up to three years in prison or $500,000, respectively. However, should this sentence be handed down in the Circuit Court you can be sentenced for a maximum term of 10 years in prison.

Question: Since the law makes it illegal for a person to benefit from the proceeds of sex work, does that mean the child of a sex worker is to be imprisoned for up to three years or 10 years depending if he or she is charged in the Resident Magistrate of Circuit Courts?

According to attorney-at-law Tenesha Myrie, the law makes no specific distinction 'between: (i) those who exploit prostitutes; and (ii) those who receive a material benefit from the prostitution by virtue of family relationships (spouse, child and dependents for who the sex worker owes a duty of care and responsibility).'

So a child whose parent works tirelessly as a sex worker to send him or her to school and all the 'necessary' extra lessons every day, can, in fact, be charged for benefiting from their parents earnings from sex work. I guess 'every child can learn, [and] every child must learn' as long as they aren't benefiting from their parents' occupation. This also means that if you are the parent of a sex worker with a chronic illness such as cancer, you can be charged for allowing your daughter to pay for life-saving chemotherapy. What would you do if the person who supports you financially is a sex worker? Would you still feel the law is justified - that prostitution should be illegal?


susceptible to arrests


Under law, persons engaging in prostitution can be arrested for minor offences - living off the proceeds of prostitution, soliciting for immoral purposes and becoming a prostitute - without a warrant under Section 18(2) of the Sexual Offences Act and Section 80 of the Offences Against the Person Act. VERJ argues that these individuals therefore 'have limited constitutional protection with respect to their liberty by virtue of the exception to the constitutional protection of freedom of person set out in section 14 (1) (f) of the Jamaica 2011 Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms.'

In the Towns and Communities Act, Section 3(r) stipulates a person who 'shall loiter in any public place and solicit any person for the purpose of prostitution, shall be guilty of an offence.' Luckily for those women on 'Back Road', for example, the penalty is only is no more than $1000.

Section 68 of the Offences Against the Person Act, which deals with the suppression of brothels, permits the arrest of any person found on premises suspected to being 'used as a brothel or for the purposes of habitual prostitution' and 'to seize any article found therein which there is reasonable ground for believing will afford evidence as to the commission of any offence of an obscene or immoral nature.'

Can you guess how many unapprehended 'offenders' might be in your community? What really is the utility of such offences and their purpose in making this country a safe, just, and cohesive and prosperous place for all of us to live?

I sincerely hope that this will be one of the recommendations from the Joint Select Committee that is reviewing the Sexual Offences Act and other related acts.

It is crucial that going forward we decriminalise the activities relating to 'prostitution' so we can, as Tenesha Myrie suggests, 'better protect the safety, health and security rights of persons choosing to engage in sex work'.

• Jaevion Nelson is a youth development, HIV and human rights advocate. Email feedback to and