The risks of prostitution reform

It is therefore paramount that this reform is guided by experts and social workers with clear knowledge of what is happening in the field. Anything less would run the risk of turning Malta into a paradise for exploiters of vulnerable women

A reform of Malta’s prostitution laws appears to be at a very advanced stage: with the Prostitution Reform Technical Committee already drafting a legal framework.

According to Equality Parliamentary Secretary Rosianne Cutajar, the main aim is to: “Decriminalise sex work; ensure the safety and well-being of sex workers by protecting them from coercion, exploitation and other violence;

“Safeguard the human rights of sex workers and protect them from exploitation, [and];

“Promote the welfare, health and safety of sex workers; while providing a framework that is conducive to public health […].”

On paper, those aims are commendable enough. Certainly, the present legal framework leaves much to be desired: as can be attested by the sheer number of (mostly inconclusive) cases of ‘loitering and soliciting’ currently brought before the law-courts.

As Cutajar rightly notes, “these offences do nothing but create more challenges and difficulties for sex workers”: without offering them any form of ‘protection’ from their exploiters.

But while the bill itself may be well-intentioned, there is nonetheless reason to approach this subject with extreme caution.

Beyond the arguments for and against decriminalisation, there is invariably another factor involved in the issue. Even where the practice is fully legal, the fact remains that prostitution – by virtue of its own nature - depends on the existence of international sex-trafficking rings to meet its labour demands.

So when it comes to regulating this practice, government must be fully aware of all the risks: not least, the risk of unwittingly facilitating matters for the criminal organisations involved in the international sex trade.

As the Coalition on Human Trafficking and Prostitution rightly warned in its reaction: “Prostitution and sex trafficking operate in parallel; and as such they should never be separated, but tackled collectively.”

“If the industry widens through legalisation, more vulnerable people will need to be trafficked for this purpose. […] Legalising prostitution will further encourage the exploitation and abuse towards individuals caught up in prostitution whilst facilitating the control that pimps, traffickers, and johns will have on those prostituted.”

The Coalition – which comprises former President Marie Louise Coleiro Preca, and representatives of six organisations active in the field of women’s/human rights – also argued that government’s proposal “naively assumed that prostitutes have the agency to choose”: adding that the vast majority of people in prostitution are either coerced or enslaved by the industry.

Similar views were expressed by the MWL – formerly Malta Confederation of Women’s Organisations – which also complained that the Prostitution Reform Technical Committee was devoid of experts and professionals working along prostituted and trafficked individuals.

Even more bizarrely, there are no representatives of any of Malta’s women’s rights organisations. It therefore seems that the Prostitution Reform bill is being drawn up without any input from the NGOs that have been working on this issue for years.

Regardless of the intentions behind this bill, then, government would be wise to heed these warnings. By normalising sex work without a concerted fight against trafficking and the exploitation of pimps, it might run the risk of creating a legal front for criminals to run ‘normalised’ prostitution rackets: without having removed the control of sex workers, especially women and vulnerable people, from exploiters.

As recent experience has taught us, even Malta’s highly-regulated Gaming and Financial Services sector has in the past been infiltrated by Mafia concerns. Not only does it take time and resources to flush these outliers out; but there is also the question of all the damage caused to our international reputation.

The government should learn from these experiences, and avoid making the same mistakes. Through regulating sex work, the chances are that we will be giving the hidden, mostly male owners of prostitutes - who arguably lack the agency or autonomy to be freed of this structure of exploitation - a new avenue that legalises the services of these women.

But that alone does not mean that these women lose their dependency on their exploiters.

On another level, the decriminalisation process itself is more complex than a simple change in legislation. Women in prostitution cannot be expected to transition seamlessly into a legal state, when they remain controlled by pimps or brothel-keepers, or do not have any visible form of ‘trade union-like’ representation to shepherd them from a state of illegality into one of legality.

It is therefore paramount that this reform is guided by experts and social workers with clear knowledge of what is happening in the field. Anything less would run the risk of turning Malta into a paradise for exploiters of vulnerable women.