Jamaican Health Official Calls for Sex Work Decriminalization

When I was a teenager, some of
my male friends (with me in tow) would, on occasion, drive through the
dark streets around Barbados’ horseracing track in search of prostitutes.
For us it was a joke to drive by these women and try to see their faces.
I don’t think that at any point I ever saw those women as human, but
rather as mythical figures that represented the ultimate taboo.
The silhouettes of these unknown women standing on the side of the streets
and looking defiantly at a group of obviously bored teenagers was
like our venture into an unknown and highly forbidden world, a world
that I personally found both captivating and scary all at once.

For many people, prostitution
still maintains that almost-mythical status, a practice that many see
as the ultimate representation of the under-bellies of our societies.
Despite the pervasive nature of commercial sex work , which is
commonly referred to as "the oldest profession in the world," the
pracitce typically remains hidden. As with most hidden acts, in particular
those of a sexual nature, attempts to bring them to light are met with vehement opposition from moralists, who fear the impact that
such exposures will have on already "decaying" societies.

We saw this dynamic play out recently in Jamaica, following the assertion by Dr. Keith Harvey, a senior public
health official,
in the Government
that prostitution should be decriminalized, and further, that commercial
sex workers should be taxed as a means of generating income to
promote sexual health care.

As expected, the suggestion
that the taxation of sex workers could provide much-needed funds to support
education and rehabilitation programs to improve the sexual health
of vulnerable groups, such as sex workers themselves, has been met with strong opposition.
Responding to the proposal, leader of the Opposition
Party, the People’s National Party (PNP) Portia Simpson-Miller forcefully stated that sex workers need more skills training opportunities, calling on the government
to invest its energy in this area rather than in the decriminalization
and regulation of sex work.

Similarly, the Jamaican
Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, has openly condemned the statement made
by Dr. Harvey, assuring the public that his government
has no such intentions. Golding also went a step further to warn
that in the future, public officials can face
serious sanctions
if they
make public statements that run "counter to Government policy."

The suggested decriminalization
of commercial sex work was proposed as a viable form of regulating the now-unofficial
industry, potentially bringing in approximately up to JMD 3 billion
(approximately USD 428 million) annually. These much needed resources
could then be used to educate sex workers about effective condom use, and also
towards the facilitation of a safer, regulated sex work environment, thereby
reducing the transmission of HIV and other STIs within this vulnerable

This comes against the
backdrop of a political and policy environment in which there has typically
been "little support…for messages of intervention dealing with
risk reduction and increased access to treatment and care targeted at
certain at risk groups, among them sexually active minors, men who have
sex with men, incarcerated men, commercial sex workers and those in
places where other forms of transactional sex are practiced."

The absence of an enabling
environment has translated into inefficient support to make substantial
changes in protecting the rights and lives of those who fall within
these groups.

Admittedly, Jamaica, with
its strong presence of a vocal fundamentalist Christian society, is
not a country in which I can see the legalization of sex work happening without a fight. However, with research showing that (i) one in every four HIV-positive
poersons reported having had sex with a sex worker at some point, and (ii)
that the rate of infection in the sex industry is three times that of
the general population; it would be remiss of us as a society to ignore
the urgent health care challenges that the lack of regulation presents.

It is one thing to criticize
the suggestion to decriminalize and regulate the commercial sex work industry, but the
lack of strong alternative solutions to protect the lives of this vulnerable
group becomes a glaring shortfall in the arguments put forward by moralistic
factions. If not regulation, then what? The recent debate has
highlighted the need for wide-scale consultations that will address
alternatives. We cannot stand on moral principles alone. Let’s face
it; such approaches have not typically had a strong history of success
in protecting the lives and liberties of vulnerable groups, who by their
very existence challenge the status quo.

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  • http://wakemenow.wordpress.com/ invalid-0

    While I don’t live in Jamaica nor have I ever visited, this discussion comes up regularly across the globe and in American where I do live. As a prostitute, I must respectfully disagree with the above assessment and here are my reasons why.

    While prostitutes in Jamaica may experience a higher rate of STD infections, this does not hold true in all countries, particularly among many so-called First World nations. In more developed nations where prostitution has become more “sophisticated” over time, condoms are regularly used and STD rates may be lower than among the general population.

    My major concern is with formalizing the idea that it’s all right for governments and the public to exploit prostitutes further. By leveraging taxes and effectively controlling prostitution, have we created a system any different than sanctioned sexual slavery? Is this really our best bet for reducing the exploitation that’s currently run amok? To me it seems little more than transference where the State and public now have a vested interested in promoting prostitution as a means of generating tax revenue.

    This is truly scary, from one prostitute’s perspective anyway. Not because I’m opposed to paying taxes (I do) or because I think that public campaigns for STD prevention are irrelevant (they certainly are sorely-needed for ALL groups of people), but because I don’t trust the State in ANY country to focus near enough attention on the interests of the sex workers themselves and see much room for potential abuses. Prostitution can be difficult enough without additional hassles and constraints levied on the prostitutes.

    Besides this, the system seems unfairly biased. Female prostitutes may come into this line of work for a variety of reasons and from all walks of life, but most who do so aren’t rolling in dough. The clients are the ones with expendable income and who create the demand. Policies for legalizing prostitution always focus their attention on depriving the sex workers of their income through taxation while saying little if nothing about the male clientèle who are the ones financially capable of shouldering this additional tax burden. But is there a way to tax the clients without regulating the industry? Not to my knowledge.

    Another concern is the poor conditions typically offered in brothels where many legalization advocates say prostituted women ought to work. In Nevada brothels, prostitutes are often required to sign a contract with the agreement that they will not leave the premises during the contracted period. This can be weeks or months. By keeping the women on premise, the brothel is in the unique position of gouging prices for goods and services that must be delivered. They also have been known to charge high rents, effectively creating a situation where the women owe debts to the House. Also, without freedom to come and go, the prostitute’s finances are often handled by people on the outside whether that be a husband, boyfriend, or family member, which strips the woman further of her financial freedom and independence. This setup has been abused plenty already and there’s little reason for me to think that the government’s involvement would improve matters.

    And finally, it seems to me that our public understanding of what actually constitutes prostitution remains severely ignorant. How does one go about regulating something of this nature? How do we police the private lives of our citizens to ensure they aren’t accepting money in exchange for sexual behaviors, and where do the lines blur? Policing efforts have only been marginally successful thus far in rooting out prostitutes, so why should we assume this will improve? If policing improvements are possible, in what ways will they violate our collective right to privacy? It’s not as if all prostitutes are standing on a corner somewhere, advertising their status.

    Prostitution is a much more complicated matter than we give it credit. I do agree with the author that programs do need to be established to encourage condom use and STD testing simply for the sake of general public health. Perhaps a grassroots effort could accomplish much of the necessary training, though that would involve us as individuals choosing to interact with prostitutes, which I personally am in favor of. It would help if the public actually knew the people they claim to be trying to help. But legalization for the purposes of taxation and regulation is not something I personally can support.

  • http://wakemenow.wordpress.com/ invalid-0

    Please excuse the typos in the previous post. I thought I had caught them all.

    The author states:

    Let’s face it; such approaches have not typically had a strong history of success in protecting the lives and liberties of vulnerable groups, who by their very existence challenge the status quo.

    Exactly my point. So we do agree more than my previous post implied.

    As for alternative approaches…I’ve been wondering about this one for years. I used to be in the Decriminalization camp but after years of experience in this industry have had to abandon that position. You too may find it to be quite unpopular among prostitutes. The only approach likely to be effective is providing public education on these matters, not just on prostitution per se but also on gender relations, power and corruption, and encouraging critical thinking in terms of social, economic and political hierarchies that we all are born into. In other words, prostitution isn’t the real problem but instead a persistent symptom born out of deep-rooted inequality within a patriarchal social system. I’ve come to believe there isn’t any other way to combat the negative effects of prostitution without giving serious consideration to the social underpinnings that perpetuate the demand throughout the ages.

    The problem isn’t merely sex, and it isn’t money and commerce. I’d say the problem is directly related to corrupted power and a lack of respect for the roles of women in all societies. That sounds so simplistic but I would argue that it’s anything but. These concepts are interrelated with virtually all of our social ills, deserving more in-depth exploration from all members of the general public rather than remaining reserved for theoretical discussions among academics.

  • invalid-0

    Dear AM,

    Decriminalization of Sex Work comes before anything else, no matter what. Sex Workers are real people, not academic subjects.

    • http://wakemenow.wordpress.com/ invalid-0

      I was offering my opinion as a sex worker who’s worked in this industry for over 5 years, not someone pushing the notion that sex workers are “academic subjects.” Your brash statement could have been avoided had you actually read what I posted.

      You’re talking about deciding policy for prostituted people, so I thought this discussion was open to opinions from prostitutes who do have given serious thought to issue of decrimalization.

      Would I like to see prostitution decriminalized? Sure, but unfortunately as conditions stand, there are drawbacks to going that route, namely the threat of too much government intervention to where people wind up in more repressive conditions. Because we are people and deserve not to be treated (in our persons) as just another commodity is the reason I’m torn on the subject.

      When the public attempts to decide for a minority whether safety should take precedence over their personal freedom and autonomy, things tend to get out of hand in a hurry. Safety matters, but it’s not the only, or even necessarily the most important, factor we take into consideration. It’s an individual matter, hence why the development of any proposed solutions ought to involve the voices of the people its intended to help. For some prostitutes, freedom to choose for ourselves is preferred over state protection, especially since it tends to be a tradeoff. I’m just saying that before jumping to hasty decisions, in Jamaica or wherever else, it makes sense to ask the prostitutes about what measures they’d like to see taken instead of automatically assuming decriminalization (or rather, legalization since it’s unlikely to ever be decriminalized) is the special clearance we unanimously seek.