Asia's Archaic Sex Work Laws

Across almost all of Asia, laws, policies and practices put in place to regulate prostitution do more harm than good, driving sex workers underground and increasing their vulnerability to HIV and a long string of other socially transmissible diseases.

In fact, just about every country’s approach does more harm than good, fueling stigma and discrimination, limiting access to sexual health services and condoms, and affecting the self-esteem of sex workers who may have no other avenue to earn income, according to a new United Nations report.

The 210-page report, "Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific," was issued by the United Nations Development Program and the UN Population Fund, in partnership with the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS and non-governmental organizations across Asia. It suggests that a radically different approach is necessary to control disease and make lives better for sex workers, including dropping the words “prostitute” and “prostitution” from the lexicon because they stigmatize those involved in the business.

"The term 'sex work' is preferred," the report says.

Organizations focusing on prostitution, HIV-AIDS and legal problems discussed these and other issues at a meeting in Bangkok on Oct. 18 in conjunction with the release of the report, written by human rights lawyer John Godwin.

"Nearly all countries of Asia and the Pacific criminalize some aspects of sex work," said UNDP spokeswoman Cherie Hart. "Criminalization increases vulnerability to HIV," she said, describing the dangers of contracting the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) which causes Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS).

Today across the world, each day, the HIV/AIDS pandemic causes approximately 6,600 new infections and 4,600 deaths, according to various UN studies. More than 900 children under 15 years of age are infected with HIV every day, most as a result of mother-to-child transmission of the virus. Without treatment, almost half of newborns infected with HIV will die before their second birthdays. Fewer than four in 10 children in need of HIV treatment had access to it and only 16 percent of pregnant women living with HIV in Asia received effective antiretroviral drugs to prevent the transmission of HIV to their children.

"There is no evidence from countries of Asia and the Pacific that criminalization of sex work has prevented HIV epidemics among sex workers and their clients," said the report which called for "decriminalization."

New Zealand and Australia's New South Wales are models of how decriminalization of prostitution boosted condom use and slowed the spread of HIV, resulting in "extremely low or non-existent" transmission among sex workers, the report said.

In fact, Thailand and New Zealand sound like the best places in Asia to be a prostitute because repressive laws, religions, traditions and other controls make sex workers' lives miserable, dangerous, violent and victimized elsewhere. The mere possession of a condom while appearing to work as a prostitute include China, Fiji, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Myanmar, Nepal, Papua New Guinea, the Philippines, Sri Lanka and Vietnam can be used as evidence that a person is an illegal sex worker.

"I would like to be a sex worker in New Zealand," said the UNDP's HIV, Health and Development Practice director Mandeep Dhaliwal when asked which countries in Asia were the best places for them to earn a living.

Thailand is also a relatively decent place to be a prostitute because although it is illegal, authorities usually turn a blind eye, enabling many upmarket Thai and foreign sex workers to enjoy higher wages, cleaner environments and less hassle compared with elsewhere in Asia, said Chantawipa Apisuk, who directs Empower, a Thai foundation led by sex workers.

"I want to live and work in Thailand," said Ms. Chantawipa. "I don't want to work in a country and be called a 'social evil.' In some countries they still call sex work a 'social evil'. In Thailand, although it's illegal, it's still open and a lot of people, my friends, are working."

Sex workers should enjoy the same labor conditions as factory workers or entertainers, said Ms. Chantawipa, who wore a T-shirt emblazoned with her favorite slogan: "Good girls go to heaven, bad girls go everywhere."

The report also studied three categories: "sex work in private, soliciting, and brothels."

In many Asian countries, the results were "illegal, illegal, illegal," said the report.

Problems are exacerbated when do-gooders and authorities voice shrill warnings about human trafficking and forcibly "rescue" prostitutes who do not want to be "saved."

"The language of some international and regional instruments have either implied a strong link between trafficking and sex work, or conflated these concepts," it said, adding that anti-trafficking laws should focus on people who have been coerced or deceived into prostitution, or minors, and not target voluntary sex workers.

"Often, sex workers are portrayed as passive victims who need to be saved. Assuming that all workers are trafficked, denies the autonomy and [choice] of people who sell sex." Prostitutes "rescued" against their will often suffer an immediate and devastating loss of income. Their colleagues, also working voluntarily, then often hide from authorities and end up in worse conditions where they are exploited and more vulnerable to HIV infection, the report said.

Arresting customers is also a failed strategy. "The UNAIDS Advisory Group on Sex Work has noted that there is no evidence that 'end demand' initiatives reduce sex work or HIV transmission, or improve the quality of life of sex workers," it said.

"Compulsory detention of sex workers, for the purpose of 'rehabilitation' or 're-education' is a highly punitive approach" used in China, India, Sri Lanka and Myanmar, also known as Burma. "In some countries, centers are used as a source of free or cheap labor," it said.