Legalising prostitution: the two sides of the argument
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One Saturday morning about a year back, I was walking down a road in one major suburb of Colombo (Sri Lanka’s commercial capital). It was 6 am and the road was deserted, far from the image of the bustling city you’d see in the day time.
About 20 feet in front of me was a woman. Probably in her late 40s, this plump woman was eyeing both sides of the road suspiciously, walking backwards and forwards on nervous feet. I passed this woman without taking much notice that day.
Later when I heard my friends talking about seeing this same woman did I get to know that she was a sex worker who could be seen frequently in the area.
Prostitution is an illegal profession in Sri Lanka. To be frank, it is regarded as a social menace, let alone a profession. In the conservative Sri Lankan society, this fact seems to be one crucial determinant in living up to the namesake of the ‘‘Dharmadweepa’’ – the Land of Virtuousness. It is safe to say that the legal, religious and social barriers have resulted in developing a sense of detest towards prostitution and also an inherent aversion of getting involved in or practising the same. This is largely in fear of punishment and public humiliation.
It is good to know that legislations has discouraged people from engaging in a potentially harmful and non-advisable activity. Unfortunately, every law has its drawback; while causing disinclination, it also causes inclination to do things on the sly. Grab a local newspaper and you can see how many brothels are raided every week, but there doesn’t seem to be an end. The “franchise” continues.
Sadly, the ground realities are almost always ignored.
In many occasions, the young women who are arrested in the raids in Colombo are from remote villages in many parts of the island. They have travelled to Colombo in search of employment several years back, only to end up as sex workers thanks to the wide network of “procurers”. Many factors are at play, which facilitates this rather inhumane yet ubiquitous process. Lack of knowledge and exposure of the rural youth and lack of decent employment opportunities forces them to resort to this seemingly lucrative (although illegal) activity. What really happens is that they are physically exploited, to be eventually shunned and ostracized in the society.
Therefore legalising prostitution would mean that this whole process is encouraged.
On the other hand, the legalisation process can be developed to a state where certain restrictions are imposed in entering the profession. To cite an example would be to introduce a status of “professional sex workers”. As such, it should aim to prevent innocent youth groups from being forced into this activity against their will. The profession would also become a good boost for the GDP and arguably a plus point for the tourism industry.
Another vital factor that should be considered is the spreading of STDs. Legalising prostitution would mean that more and more sex workers would enter the market, and since safe sex practices can’t always be guaranteed, there’s a high probability that STDs would become the next big national issue. As I have argued before, the fact that prostitution is illegal does not mean that it is eliminated in the society, but at least the propensity is restricted to a certain extent, which would basically mean lower numbers of STD incidents.
And finally, there’s the question of social acceptance. In the Sri Lankan society, will a sex worker ever be recognised as a professional? Therefore are we creating yet another bubble of societal awkwardness?
Leaving all this apart, one rather ridiculous fact I’ve seen is that the conversation mostly involves females, when there are enough and more male sex workers based in various parts of the country. As with many other issues, the female gender is associated in a discriminating manner, and the back-flush effect brings about the projection of quite a wrong image in the eyes of an outsider. In a largely patriarchal society where men are responsible for all things virtuous and women are the root of all evil, this makes things worse.
This is a debate that that we’ll have to face sooner rather than later. The best is to keep things simple and to do what’s best for the community. After all, we are a democracy.