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Why Southeast Asia Should Consider Legalizing Sex Work

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Why Southeast Asia Should Consider Legalizing Sex Work

Criminalization has opened the door to corruption and abuse. It’s time for a more rational approach.

Why Southeast Asia Should Consider Legalizing Sex Work

Signs in the red light district of Pattaya, Thailand.

Credit: Depositphotos

In March of this year, Thai lawmakers drafted a law proposing the legalization of engagement in prostitution for anyone aged 20 or above. The proposed legislation has initially been called the Draft Act for the Protection of Sexual Services. The proposed legislation is expected to replace the existing Prevention and Suppression of Prostitution Act, enacted in 1996, which criminalizes and penalizes those who are involved in the provision of commercial sex services.

When prostitution was first criminalized in 1960, the Thai government hoped that outlawing prostitution could eradicate the commercial sex industry. However, to date, Bangkok, along with neighboring Southeast Asian governments, acknowledges that criminalizing prostitution without simultaneously addressing the socio-economic and institutional root causes of sex work has failed to result in the elimination of commercial sex and sex tourism.

Women and children who are subject to chronic poverty, unemployment and a lack of education opportunities are prone to enter the sex industry because they are denied participation in the conventional labor market owing to their lack of social connections and educational credentials. The longer they are in the sex industry, the more social stigmatization and rejection they encounter from local communities, and the harder it is for them to leave the sex industry and join the conventional labor market.

Moreover, in many Southeast Asian countries, such as Thailand, the Philippines, and Cambodia, the commercial sex trade is magnified by corruption. In these countries, law enforcement authorities, such as the police force and immigration officers, frequently collect bribes from prostitutes, human traffickers and owners of conventional commercial sex establishments to turn a blind eye to their involvement in paid sex. Therefore, even if prostitution is criminalized, in many circumstances those involved in paid sex do not assume legal responsibility for their wrongdoings.

Legalizing prostitution may, however, be giving Southeast Asia hope concerning the crackdowns on the sex industry in the long run. Through legalization, Thai and other Southeast Asian authorities can control the sex industry, ensuring sex workers’ rights are better protected, and facilitating the implementation of measures and interventions to prevent the occurrence of child sexual exploitation and trafficking, including of children.

Legalizing prostitution is not intended to endorse prostitution or promote sex work as a tourist attraction. However, legalization would bring the sex industry out from the underground and include it under the remit of the law. Southeast Asian governments would be able to better regulate and monitor commercial sex and related activities, leading to safer and more secure working conditions for paid sex workers and clients. Under legalization, the sex industry can be better arranged, organized, monitored and regulated, improving the working conditions and heightening the protection of labor rights for those engaging in sex work.

A more regulated sex industry facilitates commercial sex establishments’ owners and prostitutes to earn income legally under fairer conditions, in turn enabling Southeast Asian governments to collect tax revenues on a regular basis. Tax revenues can be used for the application of more comprehensive social protection packages where local governing agencies can help underprivileged women and children to gain access to essential public services such as education, healthcare, and other social resources. The more socially protected and included underprivileged cohorts are, then, better incentivized to work outside the prostitution profession.

By legalizing prostitution, Southeast Asian authorities and policymakers would be able to identify the existing problems that challenge the labor rights, safety, health and well-being of commercial sex workers. These authorities, policymakers and even health specialists can better monitor the practice of (un)safe sex and the prevalence of child prostitution. In response, Southeast Asian governments are able to impose stricter, more punitive laws and regulations to ensure that all commercial sex workers are of legal age and not victims of human trafficking.

To date, Southeast Asia at large has limited to no regulations available to protect the interests of commercial sex workers, allowing them to be constantly physically and sexually exploited and abused. If prostitution becomes legalized, not only can Bangkok and other neighboring Southeast Asian governments legally intervene in the harms imposed against sex workers, they can also target prostitutes to be the main beneficiaries of social protection policies, allowing more paid sex workers to gain access to human investment and healthcare resources and protection from police and sex client brutality.

Legalizing prostitution would help provide a clear path for sexual victims to seek support that mitigates their adverse sexual encounters, their experience of multi-faceted exploitation and abuse, and their tolerance of poor working conditions.

Despite these anticipated benefits, there is a possibility that legalizing prostitution would increase the demand for sex trafficking, if the legalization per se results in the growth and expansion of the sex tourism economy. Therefore, Thailand’s proposed changes must be cautiously implemented and proceed alongside efforts to eliminate the major root causes of sex work.

When prostitutes no longer need to work in the underground economy, sex workers can enjoy better access to regular health check-ups and treatment for any form of sexually transmitted diseases they may suffer from. Sex workers also enjoy more negotiating power to bargain the use of condoms when performing commercial sex, so long as selling bodies for money is a legal profession. In doing so, Southeast Asia can better contain the spread of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and minimize the rates of unintended pregnancy. The sexual, reproductive and occupational health of sex workers is, hence, more protected.

Legalization facilitates law enforcement authorities to regulate commercial sex establishments, rendering the convenience of the operation of police raids to identify any practice of illegal sex crimes. Child sex trafficking victims are less likely to be exploited when child prostitution can be better identified and is prioritized for criminalization. Along with anti-child prostitution, law enforcement authorities will find it more convenient to sanction any form of sexual violence and abuse imposed on commercial sex workers, owing to the increase in the level of oversight within the sex industry. Pimps and sex traffickers will therefore have limited space to exploit and abuse prostitutes, including children.