Let’s talk about sex trafficking... | Lara Dimitrijevic

The Coalition on Human Trafficking and Prostitution has warned that the proposed reform of prostitution laws risk turning Malta into a ‘sex tourism hub’. LARA DIMITRIJEVIC outlines the major objections to ‘normalising’ the sex trade

Lara Dimitrijevic
Lara Dimitrijevic

It was recently revealed that a reform of prostitution laws is underway: and that it aims to (among other things) ‘decriminalise’ the practice of selling sex for money. The Coalition you are part of has expressed serious reservations about this plan. What are you actually suggesting, however?

Let’s start from the premise that prostitution, in itself, is not illegal. It is the soliciting and loitering, connected to prostitution, that is illegal.

What we understand, from what has been reported about the proposed reform so far, is that they are going to decriminalize soliciting and loitering: which is something we ourselves have been advocating for years. We don’t want the people involved in prostitution to be criminalized for the acts they are doing. These people are victims, not criminals.

However, if we are going to completely liberalise prostitution – without any forethought to proper regulation – we know from beforehand, even from the experience of what happened in Spain, that this will only open up the market to further exploitation. We already know the trends: prostitution and human trafficking go very much hand in hand.

So unless we come up with a tangible, functional legal framework – including proper exit programmes for the people involved – it would be the equivalent of telling pimps and traffickers: ‘Go ahead. It’s right there for you, on a silver platter. Just carry on doing what you’re doing, because… as far as society is concerned, it’s fine.’

But while, as you said earlier, prostitution itself is not illegal… ‘living off the earnings of prostitution’ is a crime. Are you suggesting that the reform will also decriminalize pimping?

No: living off the earnings of prostitution will most definitely remain illegal. But we also know – because we have worked with many women, including trans-women, involved in prostitution – that very, very few of them work independently. More often than not, there would be a pimp involved.  And even from a criminal law perspective: how many pimps have been prosecuted? Few and far between. It is usually the victim that is prosecuted.

So now, with this reform, things are going to be made much easier for pimps. They will be able to put those women out on the street, without a care in the world… without even having to worry that ‘their’ prostitutes might be picked up by the police, and prosecuted.

And this is one of our major concerns: this reform – at least, on the basis of what we have heard so far – will end up facilitating, or even encouraging exploitation. By decriminalizing completely, and by not holding anyone accountable… we are going to open up the market even more. It’s a case of demand and supply: the more open and liberal the market, the higher the demand.

We have already seen this when it comes to human trafficking for labour exploitation. Malta’s economy opened up very suddenly… there was a massive construction boom… and we even heard politicians talking about the need to ‘import’ workers: as though we were importing cattle.

In a nutshell: the demand shot up… and we couldn’t keep up with the supply. The same thing is going to happen here, too. If we liberalise the prostitution market, the demand is going to increase. The supply will have to increase as well. And… who will suffer as a result?

But we are talking about the demand for prostitution, which is often described as ‘the oldest profession in the world’…

That’s a myth, though…

Are you so sure? There is, after all, evidence that prostitution has been around for millennia…

But are we going to look at prostitution as a ‘profession’ Or is it an exploitative measure? That’s what I meant by ‘myth’. Prostitution is exploitative. You can’t call it a ‘profession’.

We always depart from the premise that people involved in prostitution are the most vulnerable members of our society. People who resort to prostitution – with very, very few exceptions: the percentage is minimal – are usually in desperate situations. They will be struggling to make ends meet. I have met and talked to a number of such cases: including a transgender person who couldn’t afford a sex-change operation, for example. Other instances involve people suffering from drug addiction.  These people are, in a word, vulnerable…

OK, but it remains a fact that the demand for prostitution has always existed… even when it is (or was) illegal. So isn’t it a bit unrealistic to suppose that the demand for prostitution can be ‘reduced’ by simple legislative measures?

No, it is not unrealistic. If you place the burden onto the person who is purchasing sex – as opposed to the person selling it – the trends have shown that it will definitely reduce the demand. This is, in fact, what has already happened in countries like Sweden and Denmark… the Nordic model has been very successful in reducing the demand for prostitution.

And we can accurately measure the success rate, too: because the rate of human trafficking in Nordic countries is also much, much lower than elsewhere… and especially, than the countries which have fully legalized prostitution. Germany and the Netherlands are a case in point. In those countries, the rate of trafficking has shot up since prostitution was legalized.

Not only that, but the idea behind legalisation was to empower those women by ensuring that they had their own agency – in the sense of being ‘self-employed’, and therefore not controlled by any pimp. But in reality… how many of them are actually registered as ‘self-employed’ in those countries? Only 4%.

We therefore know that the legalization model does not work…

What you are proposing, then, is a model that criminalises the buyer, and not the seller…

Yes; but that is only part of the issue. The Nordic model is based on a number of pillars. Apart from criminalizing the buyer – which has a proven track record of reducing the demand – it also involves raising the level of education; providing exit programmes for the people involved; and other measures aimed at ensuring that, first of all, the people involved in prostitution are safe; and also, that they are not viewed as criminals.

But at the same time, part of the aim is also to educate society that… no, it is not OK to buy a body. If you want sex… go out and meet someone. Do you have to buy a human being for your own sexual gratification? Is this the sort of message we should be sending out, as a society that calls itself ‘equal’?

With all due respect, you make it sound like it’s easy for any man to just go out and ‘meet someone’ for the purpose of having sex. Not all men are blest with confidence, good looks, charisma and sex appeal, however. What about those who have problems socially interacting?    

That is part of the problem, too. In fact there was a brilliant piece of research carried out by The Guardian recently. It was an interview with over 500 men, asking them why they went with prostitutes. It was very telling. The responses fell into two basic categories: one, men who felt very ‘macho’ and ‘superior’, and who thought it was perfectly OK for them to buy sex; and others who said that they did it because they had problems socializing. Isn’t that a problem in our society?

Yes, but that’s why I asked the question. What you’re suggesting is to criminalise those people: including the second category…

But… is it OK to buy a body? If someone lacks the confidence to go out and meet others… does it justify exploiting vulnerable people? Let’s not forget that research also proves that the people involved in sex work – apart from being vulnerable for all the reasons I’ve already mentioned – are also very often the victims of serious violence. We need to do everything in our power to protect those people. We have to ensure that they have the full support, so as not to end up in that situation.

Personally, I feel that our society is failing those people…

Let’s turn to the actual reform that is being proposed – or at least, the details that have so far been made public. The Coalition has complained that the committee working on the draft legislation ‘lacks the necessary experience.’ What sort of approach were you expecting?

At the very minimum, then, we expected that the committee would also include representatives from women’s organisations that have been involved in this issue for many, many years. I would have also expected it to include professionals who have a lot of experience working alongside the people involved – for instance, Dar Hosea, which has opened its doors to people in prostitution – so that at least, the voice of those people could also be heard in the discussions.

But most of all, I would have expected that – when coming up with such an important reform in our legislation – there would at least have been some proper research; not to mention decent consultation.

There was, admittedly a consultation process; we submitted our recommendations last October – not only us, as a coalition made up of all those organisations; but the National Council for the Promotion of Equality also made its own submissions.

We feel that all this has been completely discarded. How can the committee justify ignoring… never mind our own recommendations, but those of the NCPE – which is a national agency – when it comes to undertaking such an important reform?

You mentioned research. What would you say is missing from the equation, in terms of data?

One of the most glaring flaws is that, as yet, we don’t have any typology of the kind of prostitution that takes place in Malta: at least, not in the sense of a properly researched typology. This is what the committee should have worked on first; they should have mapped out the actual prostitution landscape, before trying to regulate it.

What we do know, however – on the basis of our own work alongside the people involved – is that there are different ‘models’, so to speak.

There is the ‘family business’ model: where it gets passed down over generations from the nanna, to the daughter, to the grand-daughter, and so on. And it is viewed as a ‘family business’, because these people quite simply do not know any better. I feel they have not been given enough opportunity to try anything else.

Then there are those who are pushed into prostitution by drug addiction; and there is also a growing category of foreigners who are ‘imported’ as sex workers… precisely because the demand is so high.

We also know, from talking to these people, that many of them will have experienced violence; they often had difficult childhoods, and for various reasons ended up feeling that this was the only way they could survive. They would see that the demand in Malta is high; so they would come here to try and make some money.

So again, we have to depart from the premise that these people are extremely vulnerable. But by opening up the market, the demand is only going to become more ‘normalised’.

Is this acceptable? Is this really what we want, as a society? I would say… no, it’s not acceptable. Because this is harming women; this is harming people in our society; and it is harming our children, too… because we are now looking at upcoming generations of children who will brought up in a society which views buying human beings as ‘normal’.

But it isn’t ‘normal’. It’s wrong… and we have to teach that to our children, too.