Working In the Shadows

There is some debate whether prostitution is ‘the oldest profession’ known to mankind. But ‘working girls’ have been around since the middle ages. Looking forward to the day, or night when sex workers can hang a shingle to their establishment beckoning patrons with a warm welcome, ‘open for business’, rather than parading on sidewalks leaning into cars, or dressed provocatively, unprotected by the laws of commerce and trade. Prostitution is good old-fashioned capitalism: an economic, political system in which a country’s trade and industry are controlled by private owners for profit, rather than by the state. In basic economics, demand refers to how much a product or service desired by buyers. We can all agree that this commodity is so desirable that men will be always be willing to buy at a certain price, depending on how much the market can supply.

Making sex work legitimate would bring women out of the underground secret shadows, free from traffickers, predators, and criminals. Sex workers are the most likely demographic of people beaten, stabbed, raped or murdered. Only lumberjacks, bush pilots and deep-sea fishermen experience more workplace dangers, and a more hostile environment. In addition, avoiding arrest and incarceration, and society’s judgement is a burden most other skilled occupations do not encounter; except for salesmen and lawyers.

The consequences of being arrested for prostituting, not only carries shame and disgrace, but also the inability to get a more socially acceptable job to earn a living; ineligible to rent an apartment for up to five years, a criminal record; with limited options, the only choice is to return to sex work. Meanwhile, the other participant in the sex transaction is guilty of a misdemeanor, gets a slap on the wrist and his transgression is forgiven and a second chance to redeem himself.

In 1985 in Amsterdam, the first World Whores Congress established the International Committee for Prostitutes’ Rights. A total of 75 participants from six European countries, three South-East Asian countries, the United States and Canada. Both sex workers and allies wrote a World Charter that demanded decriminalization of all aspects of adult sex work, the repeal of laws denying their freedom of association, to a private life, or to travel. They opposed systematic zoning policies, mandatory health checks, any law that limited their abilities to control their working conditions. In 2003, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers was found. Red Umbrella Project is an important symbol for sex workers’ rights recognized every year on December 17th.

In 2003, the New Zealand Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) fully decriminalized sex work. It is legal for any citizen over 18 years old to sell sexual services, street-based sex work, or run a brothel. Sex workers’ right is guaranteed through employment and human rights legislation. Opponents of the PRA had feared its introduction would to lead to an explosion of brothels, and of human trafficking. Five years after its introduction, the Prostitution Law Review Committee found, ‘the sex industry has not increased in size, and many of the social evils predicted have not been experienced’. The review committee also tasked the Christchurch School of Medicine (CSM) with carrying out an Independent Review. Quantitative and qualitative methods found that over 90 percent of sex workers believed the PRA gave them employment, legal and health and safety rights. A substantial 64 percent found it easier to refuse clients. Significantly, 57 percent said police attitudes to sex workers changed for the better.

Sex work is a caring profession that sells a service: including physical acts, of course, but also give comfort to the lonely, counseling, relieving stress, emotional connections and stimulating conversation and offer sex to men with disabilities who would otherwise had no opportunities for sexual expression and all the health benefits it can bring. A trailer for the Australian documentary Scarlet Road reveals a little-known side of sex work. Rachel Wotton an out-spoken young woman from Sydney, Australia, has been working legally as a sex worker; half of her clients are people with disabilities.

While decriminalization may not cure all the ills of this profession, however, an opportunity to see the sex worker, not as a criminal, but as an individual with rights who needs protection, and safety, healthcare, counseling, and treatment for drug addiction and mental issues, which may lead to economic empowerment.

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