Thu, 02 Oct 2003

Should prostitution be legalized?

The Nation, Asia News Network, Bangkok

Debate on taboo subjects, such as whether Thailand should decriminalize prostitution, whether the country should legalize abortion or how society should deal with teen sex, have been marred by ridiculous hypocrisy cloaked in incredible prudishness.

It was thus a refreshing break from past unproductive public discourses when Justice Minister Pongthep Thepkanchana sought to sound out public sentiment on the decriminalization of prostitution. Already, the conservative lobby is saying that the move could cause irreparable damage to public morality.

The more liberal groups are pushing for more realistic solutions to problems, reasoning that decriminalizing prostitution would enable more effective policing of the sex trade to eliminate exploitation of women and young people.

As a society, we refuse to acknowledge even the most basic, demonstrable fact that prostitution is very much part of the sexual mores that a large section of people indulge in.

Prostitution as a trade used to involve honest business transactions -- service providers offered instant sexual gratification to paying customers. As long as the transactions were made between consenting adults, society had no business interfering in what was largely seen as the private affairs of individuals.

Thai laws used to recognize prostitution as a legal trade. A law designed to fight venereal diseases of 1909 called for the registration of brothels and sex workers and mandatory regular health check-ups.

In 1960, prostitution was outlawed. Prostitutes were liable to a maximum jail term of three months or a fine of up to Bt1,000, or both. Prostitution became part of the underground businesses linked to organized crime, leading to more systematic and worse forms of exploitation of women and children.

The outlawed sex trade, which has won Thailand notoriety as a sex capital of the world, also contributes in no small part to rampant corruption among law enforcement officials, who are paid to turn a blind eye to its many guises and forms.

In 1996, the anti-prostitution law tried to curb demand for prostitutes, particularly those under 18. The law prescribes harsh punishment for people having sex with prostitutes under 18, while sex workers are liable to a maximum fine of no more than Baht 1,000.

The public debate on decriminalization appears to have got off to a good start. Statistics, including the total number of sex workers (estimated at 100,000 countrywide) have been publicized, including breakdowns on gender and age groups (70,000 women aged 18 and over, 4,000 men aged 18 and over, and another 26,000 underage youths).

The conservative lobby may yet be able to sway public opinion with their old argument of protecting everything good and nice about Thai society. But more people will reject such dogged arguments on the grounds of personal freedom and rights to privacy. The state has no business passing moral judgments on what happens between consenting adults, with or without money changing hands.

Decriminalization will not lead to an expansion of the sex trade because the younger generations appear more relaxed about sex. But the potential benefits to society are numerous. Corruption should be greatly reduced and police resources freed up to fight other crimes; sex workers would be better protected; and young people spared sexual exploitation.

It's time society came up with a lasting and realistic solution to problems associated with the world's oldest profession which will go on regardless of the sanctimonious, moral indignation dispensed by the conservative lobby, which prefers to sweep problems under the carpet rather than actually deal with them.