February 24, 2020
Sweden seems to have uncovered an excellent approach—a pioneering law has made selling sex legal but buying illegal.
The myth remains that prostitution is the oldest profession in the world, whereas feminists argue that it proliferated along with the inequality within the patriarchal hierarchy. Today, prostitution is widespread, and its practice is debated—over its social and moral acceptance rather than its legal restraints. Studies and discussions are polarised into viewing a prostitute as either a victim or an entrepreneur. In Europe, prostitution is big business. The estimated number of sex workers across Europe ranges somewhere between 700,000 to 1.2 million, and its legality varies from country to country. In Africa, it is common in practice and remains one of the drivers of the spread of AIDS. In America, only Nevada has legalised prostitution, that too in rural areas.
Prostitution is illegal in Nepal under the Human Trafficking and Transportation (Control) Act, and criminalises the act, and living off its earnings, by including it in the definition of human trafficking. The Joint United Nations Program on HIV and AIDS (UNAIDS) suggests that there are about 49,000 prostitutes in the country living with the underlying harassment, abuse and crime. Feminist leaders, social workers and women rights activists in Nepal have debated over adopting the best legal approach to prostitution from time to time, but nothing so far has been formulated.
Legalisation or decriminalisation
Legalisation involves direct regulation of prostitution by the government. Decriminalisation is the complete removal of laws and regulations. Under this model, prostitution is treated as any other occupation. A fully legalised practice of prostitution can provide liberty to the flesh trade, removing all criminal charges from the business, whether it remains harmful or not. However, decriminalising prostitution and allowing open sex trade is also not the answer to all problems. It’s only a starting point from where prostitutes can begin to defend themselves, organise and advocate.
While the world still struggles to find a way to tackle the problem, Sweden seems to have uncovered an excellent approach to outlawing the purchase of sex. It has been a model for other countries since it was introduced by a feminist-led social democratic government in 1999. Sweden’s pioneering law has criminalised the purchase of sex while allowing its sale—putting the criminal burden on the buyer, not the prostitute. In other words, it has made selling sex legal but buying illegal. The Nordic model has been a key to regulating and remarkably reducing prostitution in the nation.
Since the Swedish model of the Sex Purchase Act was adopted, prostitution has been nearly halved, and trafficking has been greatly alleviated. It can be conceived from the statistics that the law has considerably helped to change people’s attitudes towards buying sex. Criminalising sex workers, who are already victims of violence, is never the solution. By making prostitution illegal, governments, of course, attempt to reduce or eliminate the market for sex work. But as the prohibition of alcohol, drugs and gambling has taught us, banning something doesn’t make it disappear. Instead, buyers and sellers simply go into the black market.
Prostitution is a work that many voluntarily choose. To deny sex workers the right to work legally infringes on their other rights to legal aid and recourse. It obviously makes their condition more vulnerable and prone to violence, harassment and sexual assault. Prostitution should be regulated, but sex workers should never be criminalised. If it is criminalised, it is impossible for a prostitute to report harassment, fight or even raise their voice against it. Statistics given by the World Health Organisation suggest that globally, female sex workers are 13.5 percent more likely to be infected with HIV than other women of reproductive age. In Asia, the likeliness for female sex workers to be living with HIV is almost 30 percent and can be higher in poorer countries.
Women bounded by their financial hardship and family disruption often end up choosing prostitution as a medium to pay their bills. Nobody can be convicted of a crime when there is no victim. Apparently, prostitution involving consensual sex turns out to be a victimless crime, where no one can be subjected to any charges or terms. Some feminists view prostitution as an act of consuming women as a product, and we cannot deny this viewpoint. Sexism serves to justify and reinforce gender inequality and has traditionally degraded women by expounding that it is convenient to exercise some dominance over them, and that it is legitimate to force women into submission and restrict their roles and rights. Thus, violent behaviour towards women was associated with culturally reinforced attitudes. It is always the psychological restraints that consign abhorrence towards prostitutes.
It is a crime to force anyone into prostitution. But while in consent, they should have no restrictions or fear about encountering punishment or discrimination. If the client is behaving decently, the relationship between a sex buyer and a sex worker must be considered a matter of an entirely private transaction. It is important to understand that a prostitute is no different than any other person. It is important to include them within the umbrella of common jurisdiction, and accept them with our fullest heart. We can then focus on rescuing the real victims who have been forced into prostitution, and whose lives have been spoiled. Government-funded programmes aimed at helping sex workers exit the business and build a new life outside it, and providing them legal support, child care and emotional and psychological support can be run effectively.