Nearly a month after Taiwan amended a law legalizing prostitution by allowing cities and counties to set up designated red light districts, local governments have shown little interest in establishing such zones in their areas.
Under the Social Order and Maintenance Act amended as Nov. 6, prostitution is now legal in areas zoned as red light districts, but illegal outside. Customers and prostitutes caught outside the zones face fines ranging from NT$1,500 (US$50) to NT$30,000, while before, legal zones could not be set up and only sex workers were fined rather than their clients.
Despite the lifting of restrictions, five municipalities and 17 counties and cities in Taiwan are uneasy about setting up red light districts, with many citing lack of public support as the main reason. The only exception is Keelung City, whose mayor, Chang Tong-rong, has shown interest in doing so to attract tourism and boost the local economy.
Many people meanwhile question whether red light districts will be able to resolve long-existing problems in Taiwan’s sex industry, and whether they can improve the safety and livelihood of sex workers.
Even groups that support decriminalizing prostitution have proposed very different methods of supervising the sex industry. Which model to follow: Australia or Sweden?
The Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters (COSWAS) that has been fighting for the rights, recognition and legalization of sex workers for 14 years, is in favor allowing red light districts to be set up in business districts and decriminalizing both prostitutes and clients.
It basically supports following Australia’s prostitution laws, said COSWAS Secretary Wu Jo-ying.
In Australia, prostitution in general is legal, but regulation details vary among states. Street prostitution is illegal in most states as long as brothels have permits, but in New South Wales, it is allowed as long as it is kept out of view of schools, hospitals and churches. A few states such as Queensland allow one-woman brothels.
“We’re in favor of the Australia model, because it includes the opinions of sex workers … and opens up discussion with neighborhood residents,” said Wu. “Residents can oppose on a non-moral basis, such as parking problems, but the model rules out objections based on moral values.”
The laws are detailed to the point that they govern the appearance of the shop, how ads should be written and what kind of doors need to be installed, so the industry can keep a low profile and not upset neighboring residents, Wu added.
However, the COSWAS official said there are problems that will need to be addressed, including the monopolization of the zone by certain sex industry providers, limitations placed on the age and appearance of women working in the zone, and whether the privacy of sex workers could be protected if Taiwan were to legalize the trade.
Another concern is that legalizing prostitution would lead to an influx of foreign sex workers in Taiwan and potentially a spike in trafficking in women.
A study in 2008 by the European Network for HIV/STI Prevention and Health Promotion among Migrant Sex Workers (TAMPEP) noted that up to 70 percent of sex workers in the Netherlands’ red light districts were foreigners, mostly from neighboring European countries and countries in Africa.
The Garden of Hope Foundation, another Taiwanese organization that helps sex workers, said a surge in sex workers from Southeast Asia is exactly what they fear. It said it has received inquiries from the American Institute in Taiwan (AIT) about the danger of an increase in the number of human trafficking victims.
“(The U.S.) has been pressuring Taiwan’s National Immigration Agency, warning that if Taiwan legalizes red light districts, it will become a hub for sex workers from Southeast Asia,” said foundation Chief Executive Officer Chi Hui-jung.
The foundation is in favor of the Swedish model, which decriminalizes sex workers, but heavily penalizes patrons to a maximum of six months in prison, Chi explained.
Swedish prostitution laws have proven to be effective in reducing the size of the industry, Chi said, adding that it has also reduced sex trafficking cases.
Her group does not support the setting up of red light districts because doing so does not follow international trends, she said.
The Netherlands, for instance, plans to gradually shut down a quarter of the shops in the red light districts in Amsterdam by 2012 and Rotterdam plans to shut down its district completely, because they have found a lot of the workers in the zones are victims of trafficking, Chi explained.
She noted that Australia’s prostitution laws probably would not work in Taiwan, due to Taiwanese people’s conservative attitude toward sex and the lack of support for red light districts being set up in people’s neighborhoods.
“A recent survey conducted by the government showed that 75 percent of Taiwanese people support the sex industry, but when it comes to setting up red light districts in their neighborhoods, 100 percent said no,” Chi said.
Underlying issues in Taiwan’s sex industry
Despite supporting different approaches to decriminalizing prostitutes, both COSWAS and the foundation agree that a main reason why many women wind up in the industry is due to economic need; most of them are from socially disadvantaged families burdened with debt.
“The problem with the sex industry is it is based on structural inequalities”, Chi noted.
“Many of the sex workers might have been physically abused at home, economically disadvantaged, or come from single parent families. They might have learning difficulties and were expelled from school and when they enter the job market, they end up in adult entertainment sector because they do not have any professional skills.”
Women from these socially disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely than others to be pressured into working in the sex industry, she noted. Since they have little choice in entering this industry, they should not be criminalized, she added.
Chi said her foundation hopes to reduce the scale of the sex industry by providing an exit strategy for such women.
Yet, many social support applications restrict the type of people who can apply, discriminating against young single mothers. There are no educational subsidies for these young girls, giving them few options but to work in the sex industry, Chi noted.
Two to three decades ago, many sex workers in Taiwan were girls from economically disadvantaged indigenous tribes, said Chi. Their families were tricked into thinking their children were going to get jobs and signed contracts that sold their children for around NT$300,000 (US$9,960), she said.
She noted that the trend has changed somewhat over recent years, with an increasing number of underaged sex workers from urban areas, such as runaways, middle school and high school dropouts, and in a few cases, adolescents from affluent families who end up in the sex industry due to parental neglect.
There are also different classes in Taiwan’s sex industry. High-end sex service providers, such as hoteliers, pubs and night clubs, will try and get young and pretty ladies, but sex workers in this category have less freedom to bargain and manage their incomes, and may receive less payment because of the numerous fees managers collect to provide clients safe sex services, undisturbed by the police, said Wu.
Sex workers who work individually have the most freedom in setting prices, but face the highest risks because they are easily identifiable and easy targets for the police, Wu added.
Those at the higher end of the industry can earn NT$2,000 to NT$3,000 per session, but at the lower end, individual workers might get paid as little as NT$500-NT$700, an unnamed police source said.
Rights groups believe the real issue at hand is probably not how Taiwan amends its laws, but whether social services are available to keep vulnerable women and underage girls out of the industry. By Judy Lin, CNA Staff Writer ENDITEM/cs/J/tc
(This article is an excellent debate on the issues of sex workers, sex trafficking and the obstacles to legalizing prostitution. While in theory, I think most people believe women should be able to choose to sell their body as a living. America says about abortion “Our body, our Choice” yet prostitution remains illegal in all states except Nevada!!
EDITORIAL: The stigma against sex workers isn’t going anywhere regardless of how much everyone loves porn! That hasn’t changed since the beginning of time so why think it will change now??
I do believe that most sex workers would do something else if they had skills and true opportunities instead of the .72 on every dollar a man makes (and in some countries, women have no choice for independance). If a country has a “red light district” or in America’s case, 80% of the world’s pornography production, it is a clear indication that that country has failed it’s female population. It is not treating it’s women as equals and is not providing viable opportunities to succeed in life. America is no different. In my opinion, governments do this intentionally to be able to exploit females. We must marry to afford to live. We must work under men in order to work. How many countries is this found?? You tell me!!
The biggest issue with legalizing prostituion is there’s no way to protect those same women from the bloodsuckers and bottomfeeders that swarm any industry related to sex. Prostitution has always been a giant magnet for criminals just like the porn industry and strip clubs are infested with them. Young girls too often are tricked by these men and they don’t realize what they’re involved in until they are prisoners. At that point, they think it’s too late to escape!!
The only way legalizing prostitution could possibly work is to raise the age for sex workers to 21 or even better, 25. If we all want to be truthful about this subject, the problem is too many older men want to have sex with young girls. That’s condemned everywhere in the world so raise the age and let men who want to have sex with REAL WOMEN do their thing and let the WOMEN do theirs. Then, lock up the criminals selling girls under 21 and the johns buying them. Now you’ve got a game that’s definable, discoverable and controllable.)