Rasna Warah - Proposal to legalise prostitution is based on reality, not mere morality

Let me say at the outset that I do not think that prostitution is a healthy way to earn a living. Apart from being morally wrong and exploitative, prostitution is fraught with risks. Male and female prostitutes are under constant threat of being physically abused by their clients, of being beaten, arrested, and harassed by the police and of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.

Because prostitution is illegal, prostitutes are seen as criminals, and therefore have to operate under the cover of darkness — literally. But apart from the physical hazards associated with
the profession, there is the psychological trauma of having sex with multiple partners with whom one has no emotional relationship.

There is something deeply degrading and soul-destroying about being paid to perform sexual acts for strangers. Women, in particular, need intimacy and emotional connection during sex. Prostitutes have to shut down this emotional side in order to do their job.

Then there is the stigma associated with the profession.

Prostitutes are looked down upon — there are derogatory words in every language for
women who engage in prostitution. (Ironically, there are no such words for the clients of prostitutes.)

The dark — and often unrecognised — side of this profession is that many prostitutes are trafficked and sold. Many do not enter this area of work voluntarily — they are often threatened,
drugged, forced, and beaten into submission. They tell harrowing stories of being victims of rape or incest, of drug addiction induced by pimps (who then use the addiction to extract money
from them), and of being sold into prostitution by their own relatives.

Some voluntarily become prostitutes simply because they cannot find other types of work. When children have to be fed and schooled, the single mother with no job may turn to prostitution to
put food on the table. Having said that, it is also true that prostitution — often referred to as the
oldest profession in the world — will not go away simply by criminalising it.

Throughout the world, red light districts have formed an integral part of cities. Brothels, pimps, and high class “escort services” can be found everywhere, from London to New Delhi. Even in very conservative societies, where women’s sexuality is heavily guarded by social mores, prostitution is seen as a necessary evil that allows young men to gain sexual experience. In
fact, in these societies, men often have their first sexual experience with female (or male) prostitutes. (Women have to wait till they get married.)

During Mughal rule in India and in Japan’s geisha culture, for instance, prostitutes had a special,
elevated place in society. They were trained not only in the art of pleasing men physically, but cerebrally as well. Many undertook years of training in the arts, such as dancing, singing, and

As long as there is a demand for paid sex, prostitution will exist. This does not mean it should be encouraged, but it does warrant some sort of regulation so that the so-called sex workers are not exploited and abused. Legalising prostitution will mean that prostitutes would be able to conduct their business without fear of harassment by the police. They would be able to sue clients and
pimps who physically abuse or exploit them. Because it would be recognised as a legal profession, prostitutes would be able to form unions and associations.

With labour rights, they could demand leave days and pensions from brothel owners. And because they would not have to lie about what they do, prostitutes would be counted in surveys
and targeted appropriately by social services, including HIV counselling.

Moreover, since they would be part of the formal economy, prostitutes and their clients would be subject to taxation, thereby contributing to the national economy.

It was perhaps these thoughts that crossed Nairobi mayor George Aladwa’s mind when he recently suggested that prostitution be legalised. Perhaps he should also extend this debate
to other towns as well, especially tourist resorts.

In Mombasa and Malindi, tourists openly pay for sex with girls and boys, while locals look on helplessly. Wrinkled octogenarian mzungus can be seen “dating” Kenyans young enough to be their grandchildren. The legalisation of prostitution could curb child prostitution as regulatory bodies would, ideally, play an oversight role.

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