Exploitation is the real issue

Whether the intention is to ban prostitution, or legalise it, the actual aim of the legislation remains the same: to target the exploitation of sex workers

The question remains: which approach will lead to the lowest levels of abuse?
The question remains: which approach will lead to the lowest levels of abuse?

Prostitution is often described as the world’s oldest known profession. That is naturally debatable; but certainly, prostitution has always proved difficult, if not impossible, to regulate. Indeed, it is difficult even to agree on the precise nature of the problem itself.

Part of this difficulty is down to a question of perspective. At different times and epochs, the phenomenon has been judged on the basis of different moral and/or political precepts. Arguments based on public morality tend to cast ‘prostitution’, in its totality, in a negative light. But there is also a more practical approach that reasons (rightly or wrongly) that the phenomenon is too deeply ingrained to ever eradicate. Taken to its extreme, the liberal approach tends to argue that ‘paying for sex’ – so long as the transaction is between mutually consenting adults – is not, in itself, an act that should be banned at law.

Without entering the precise merits of either argument, it is possible to point out a flaw in both. Whether the intention is to ban prostitution, or legalise it, the actual aim of the legislation remains the same: to target the exploitation of sex workers (overwhelmingly women, though the same applies for male prostitution). The question therefore becomes, which legal method – prohibition, or regulation – can best achieve this goal?

According to the National Council of Women, the answer is very emphatically the former. Ostensibly responding to statements by Prime Minister Joseph Muscat before the election, NCW chairperson Dr Renee Laiviera said demand for prostitution, rather than supply, was the real problem. She urged the authorities to follow the Swedish model, and institute legal measures against clients seeking out prostitutes.

She said Malta should emulate the direction taken by Nordic countries: “We should take the initiative and introduce such legal measures in the shortest timeframe possible.”

Similar arguments have been raised before. In 2012, the National Centre for Freedom from Addictions argued that the legalisation of prostitution would legalise violence and abuse. On the other hand, finding alternative jobs for sex workers and education could lead to less demand for prostitution and to fewer women on the streets, according to chairperson Dr Anna Vella.

Dr Vella was speaking in the context of a summit about best practices to end modern slavery, organised by the Amersi Foundation, the Pontifical Academy of Sciences and the President’s Foundation for the Wellbeing of Society.

The regularisation debate resurfaced during the recent electoral campaigns, when the Labour Party pledged that it would be discussing the subject if elected to government.

Dr Vella, who has been working with prostitutes for 22 years, is against the legalisation of prostitution. She believes that those who have taken the prostitution route had no other choice.

“Many tell us that they cannot hit the streets sober and need to be intoxicated. So we asked what comes first: prostitution because they need the money, or drugs because they want to get into prostitution,” she said, referring to a European study that she formed part of.

“None come first. Instead, sexual abuse comes first. Women who have not been sexually abused find other ways to get their money for drugs,” she said.

All the same, it remains debatable whether prohibition can, in practice, achieve the desired effect. At a glance, Malta’s current legislative approach appears to confirm the contrary.

Technically, the crime of prostitution is defined as ‘soliciting’ – placing the criminal onus squarely on the prostitute, as opposed to the client (as recommended by the NCW) – but it is still officially an illegal act. Everyday experience confirms that ‘prohibition’ has clearly failed to eradicate prostitution. On the contrary, it has only succeeded in driving the practice underground, where – by definition – it becomes harder to monitor and control.

Advocates of legalisation cite this fact as one of their core arguments: regulating the profession would, they argue, bring it out of the shadows where it could be conducted with less risk to the practitioners.

It is however by no means a clear-cut argument. There is another level whereby the sex industry is very visibly present (albeit unregulated) on the island. The recent profusion of ‘gentleman’s clubs’ appears to defy Maltese prostitution legislation; and past efforts to secure convictions for lap-dancers have been thrown out of court.

Effectively, this suggests that the sex industry is legally tolerated – if not exactly condoned – under the present scenario. Does this mean that no exploitation occurs? It seems highly unlikely. Tolerated, prohibited, regulated or ignored, it seems that vulnerable people will always be exploited by the ruthlessness of the sex trade. The question therefore remains: which approach will lead to the lowest levels of abuse?

From this perspective, there is merit in the idea of a national discussion of the issue. There may well be other reasons to want to discuss it: on the legalisation of prostitution, Muscat said he was increasingly worried on international reports labelling Malta as a centre for sex slave trade, and as a country where women were brought over to be forced into the sex trade.

That is not a reputation any country would like to cultivate. Clearly, this is not a debate that can be postponed much longer.