World Policy Journal begins each issue with the Big Question, where we ask a panel of experts to provide insight into the cover theme. The question for the winter 2016/2017 World Policy Interrupted issue is: What do sex workers need to better control their working conditions? Below, Vanessa Ho argues that for real change to occur, sex workers must first be treated as workers, not as criminals.
By Vanessa Ho
Sex work has always been a divisive issue. Every nation thinks it has the best possible legislation—one that presumably balances women’s rights, human rights, and public health and safety. The type of regulation adopted indicates which aspect a nation prioritizes. In Singapore, we’re concerned about the image of the nation. We don’t want the reputation of Thailand, known as a sex tourism destination. Similarly, we don’t want the Netherlands’ too liberal reputation, not aligned with our conservative “Asian values,” as coined by the late Prime Minister Lee Kuann Yew. We’re a nation that believes in “pragmatism.” We understand we cannot eliminate this trade without driving it underground.
And so while our law says that sex work is illegal, there exists a secret system that enables brothels to operate under unknown terms and conditions. It is secret because the government denies that certain brothels are permitted despite the law, and due to this secrecy, the exact policy is not known to the public. However, it’s clear this system doesn’t prioritize the rights and safety of the individual sex workers, as they have no clear access to justice, regardless of whether they possess a work permit.
The main problem is that sex workers are seen as criminals first and workers second. The criminalization of sex work and related activities fuels stigma, and it disempowers and disenfranchises sex workers. They are excluded from many of the rights that others enjoy. Most sex workers’ greatest fear is to be caught and arrested, which means not only a loss of earnings, a criminal record, and deportation in the case of migrant sex workers, but also a loss of anonymity, exposing them to the stigma attached to people in the sex industry.
This fear of being caught stops sex workers from reporting crimes against them to the police. Sex work has its own set of risks: violent clients, clients who demand unsafe sexual activities, sexual harassment and assault, and robbery. Some are even more vulnerable due to debt bondage, agency agreements, and unruly or uncompassionate bosses. Despite the dangers they face, reporting to the police is rarely an option for many who fear they will be charged for working illegally as a sex worker.
Project X, a Singapore-based non-governmental organization, runs a service called “Abuser Alert,” a program that’s intended to create a channel for sex workers to speak out about the issues they face and to build a community through the sharing of information. The pilot in 2014 received a total of 40 reports, out of which only four cases were brought to the police. An additional three sex workers tried to file, but police turned them away. There were 72 reports in 2015, and only one-quarter were brought to the authorities.
Sex work is a chosen livelihood for many. For some, it enables them to break the poverty cycle; for others, it’s about financial independence and empowerment. Adult consensual sex work shouldn’t be considered a crime alongside rape, assault, and robbery, especially if it means perpetrators of violence are granted impunity, which only emboldens them to continue to target sex workers. Sex workers need to be seen as workers before we can begin to talk about granting them control over their working conditions. Decriminalization of sex work will enable that process by putting power back into the hands of sex workers.
Vanessa Ho is the project director of Project X, a local non-governmental organization that advocates the rights of sex workers of all sexual orientations and gender identities. Vanessa holds a BSc in economics from the University of Warwick, and a MA in gender, society, and representation from University College London.
[Photo courtesy of Steven Depolo]