Sex & Relationships

Jamaican Health Officials Call for the Legalization of Prostitution

Decriminalizing and regulating prostitution will help protect the lives and liberties of sex workers.
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 practice 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 group.

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 one in every four HIV-positive persons reported having had sex with a sex worker at some point, and 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.

This story was originally published on RH Reality Check.
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