Friday, October 24, 2003

Legalising sex trade may be answer to health, social issues

Most Barbadians have been quietly tolerant of prostitution, referring to Nelson Street and others areas of so-called ill repute with a measure of sanctimoniousness. Anecdotal evidence abounds of both women and men brazenly plying their trade around the Garrison Savannah under the light of the silvery moon.

"Girl, sometimes you can't tell the men from the women," a self-declared libertine revealed. Rumours also persist of "high class" prostitutes of both sexes carrying on a brisk trade at private residences to which the chosen few are admitted.

However, prostitution in Barbados is not a new phenomenon. It dates back to antiquity. Sturge and Harvey, British emancipationists who visited Barbados in 1837, condemned Bridgetown's hotels as houses of debauchery, "a number of young colored women being always procurable in them for purposes of prostitution". An even earlier visitor, Dr. George Pinckard, a British naval surgeon who was here in 1796, maintained that this service was the major attraction of the hotels, which were operated by black or mulatto women who had been "favourite inamoratas of some backra man" from whom they had gained their freedom. Rachel Pringle-Polgreen, who entertained Prince William Henry, is a colourful product of this tradition.

The reality is that prostitution has been endemic in human culture from time immemorial and experts with an intimate knowledge of the subject insist it is here to stay, legalised or otherwise.

Many proponents of decriminalisation have refused to be swayed by religious arguments. They contend that in this modern era, with the HIV/AIDS pandemic claiming thousands of lives daily, embracing sex workers into the legal fold and bringing the industry under state control would ensure health protection and labour rights. Prostitutes are human beings too, they insist, and entitled to the same human rights as everyone else.

Interestingly enough, in April of 2002, the Roman Catholic Bishop of Prague, Vaclav Maly, called for prostitution to be legalised in the Czech Republic. He warned that the sex trade was creating a "crisis in moral values" and destroying many lives. It is reported that thousands of prostitutes in that nation are subjected to beatings and other forms of humiliation from abusive pimps, are addicted to drugs and fall victim to diseases such as syphilis and HIV/AIDS. The Roman Catholic Church has unwaveringly denounced prostitution as a sin, but the Czech Bishops’ Council affirmed that while not condoning prostitution, it believed that legalisation might be choosing the lesser of two evils. Some social scientists support this view, explaining that most sex workers are forced into the trade by economic expediency. They suggest that decriminalisation is not only a way for governments to boost their coffers but, more importantly, it is a means of creating better working conditions for sex workers and helping to reduce the stigma and violence attached to the job. In June of this year, the New Zealand Parliament ended years of torrid debate when it passed a bill to legitimise prostitution by a narrow margin of just one vote. In addition to sanctioning the sale of sex, the new law will institute guidelines for the regulation of the sex industry with licensed brothels operating under stringent health, safety and employment rules.

Like their New Zealand counterparts, Germany’s 400 000 prostitutes are striving to be on par with workers in other professions. At present, for a percentage of their earnings, they can receive a package comprising health insurance, social pensions and a 40-hour workweek in sanitary conditions. In the Netherlands, which is seen as a model for this type of legislation, prostitution was given the state’s blessing about three years ago. That country’s estimated 30 000 sex workers are asked to pay 19 per cent Value Added Tax (VAT) for health and social benefits. The Dutch law also prohibits sexual exploitation of minors and trafficking in women.

Thailand has entered the fray and is seeking to make its massive sex trade lawful. An official government think tank is of the view that decriminalisation will weed out corruption, allow the industry to be taxed and provide sex workers with urgently needed health and safety advantages. Belgian parliamentarians also endorse this belief and are hoping to expand the treasury by 50 million euros annually when a bill is placed before their legislature.

In the United Kingdom, the sex business is also thriving. Britons reportedly spend £770 million annually on prostitution, more money than they invest in other forms of entertainment such as going to the movies.

After centuries of trying to stamp out prostitution, it is glaringly clear that it is still flourishing all over the world. Decriminalisation could be a viable option in helping to address some of the pressing health and social issues that now plague the trade.

(Betty Holford is a writer and commentator on social issues.)

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Created: November 19, 2003
Last modified: January 17, 2004
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