[WATCH] We cannot talk about ‘sex-work’, and not ‘migration’ | Maria Pisani

More than two years after a government white paper to regularise the sex industry, the local debate remains mired in strategy disagreements. Dr MARIA PISANI, of the Integra Foundation, explains why she favours decriminalisation… and why the conversation has to also include migration

“While I can understand that the intention behind criminalization might be to ‘protect’, or ‘save’, sex-workers… but really: if we are going just to ‘send them back to that burning house’… can we really claim to be ‘protecting’ them, at the end of the day?”
“While I can understand that the intention behind criminalization might be to ‘protect’, or ‘save’, sex-workers… but really: if we are going just to ‘send them back to that burning house’… can we really claim to be ‘protecting’ them, at the end of the day?”

Usually, the debate on decriminalizing prostitution seems to be divided between those who believe it would lead to a human trafficking ‘disaster’; and those who make a distinction between ‘prostitution’, and ‘sex work’. First of all, am I correct that assessment?

I’m already going to have to go with: ‘it depends’. There is no doubt that what we’re talking about here is a very complex issue, that obviously goes way beyond ‘sex work’. Let me speak for myself, personally: a couple of years ago, there was a consultation process – which kind of ‘came out of nowhere’, really; I, for one, certainly wasn’t expecting it – so we had to rush to come up with a position.

But I think that now, it is important that we unpack where we’re at; and explore what the situation really is, on the ground. And looking at it from the outside: yes, it does seem like we are in ‘two camps’, right now. There are those who are advocating for the Nordic model, for example; and then, there are people like myself – including numerous NGOS, both local and international – who are advocating ‘decriminalisation’.

Nonetheless, I think there is broad agreement on some of the key issues. Essentially, we all want the same thing: and that is, ‘how to best protect the interests of sex workers’… in this case, in Malta.   And we also agree on the decriminalization of selling [as opposed to buying] sex.

But there is a difference: mainly, between how the two camps understand the terms ‘sex work’, and ‘prostitution’; and naturally, this has very important implications for how we then go on to address the issue. Another difference concerns the various international ‘models’ that are cited: part from the ‘Nordic model’ – which is also referred to as ‘the Equality model’ – there is the ‘New Zealand model’, and so on.

So there are a lot of differences in terminology; but I’ll stick to ‘decriminalisation’; and I won’t take it any further than that, because – while we can obviously learn from other countries; and New Zealand is a model worth looking at – the reality is that: this isn’t New Zealand. This is Malta… and any response to ‘sex work in Malta’, would need to be a situated response, that looks at the peculiarities of the local context…

Could you on the elaborate on the specific differences between those two models, though? What, for instance, does the ‘Nordic model’ entail?

I hesitate to simplify, because it is, as I said, a complex issue… but if I were to bring it all down to the core, I would distinguish between two different ways of looking at things. On one hand, there’s: ‘Sex work AND violence’… and on the other, ‘Sex work IS violence’. That, I think, is where the differences lie.

Those who are advocating for the Nordic model: first of all, they use the term ‘prostitution’, because they argue that ‘sex work’ cannot be considered as ‘work’ at all. As such, their position is that it is always an ‘act of violence’; and therefore, it can never be ‘consensual’. And I feel that this is sometimes conflated further: for instance, if it can never be ’consensual’… then it is always, by definition. ‘rape’. And this is how, I think, we could end up on a slippery slope, that leads to trafficking.

And whilst there are definitely overlaps, I think we need to address the issues differently - or at least, to look at them differently – in order to be able to address the complexity of it all.

But when talking about sex work, I want to be very clear. I think that, for many, many people who are engaged in sex work – the majority of whom are cis women: but not exclusively, that’s for sure – there is violence. And we need to talk about that violence; and to see how best to address it, so that the best interests of the sex workers are seen to.

Also, sex work is gendered… just like poverty is gendered.  It is certainly no coincidence that the vast majority of sex-workers are women; just as it is no coincidence that the majority of migrant care-workers, in Malta, are also women. We could look at the gendered mechanisms that are at play, just there…

But I think it would be a fallacy to argue that ‘prostitution is always rape’; or that there can ‘never be consent’ in sex work. I think that takes away from the agency of anyone who is already engaged in sex work: some of whom choose to engage, because this is the work that they want to do… while others – the majority, perhaps – also choose ‘sex-work’; but not necessarily under the conditions that they end up in.

And that brings us to the broader complexity, of why people even turn to sex work in the first place. For those who advocate the Nordic model, the answer invariably boils down to the Patriarchy; and roles that are imposed upon women, by men.

But I’m not that convinced, myself. Let me use you, as an example. You’re young; you’re attractive; you’re a woman… I am sure that you have been exposed to sexual harassment – and possibly, even sexual violence – at some point in your life.

But I’d also hazard a guess that you’ve never thought of yourself as being ‘vulnerable’, to the extent that you could actually be ‘trafficked’. So what else is at play, here? When I look at all this complexity, and what feeds into this phenomenon… my argument is that: there are other factors – violent factors - at play.

And for many people who are forced to make decisions, in their lives: they would argue that these factors – this violence, that they face – is ‘bigger’ than the Patriarchy. Or that is has a greater control over their lives …

One of the problems with the local debate is that ‘sex work’ – if not ‘sex in general’ – is still a very stigmatised subject. As such, there is little or no input from the sex-workers themselves. Instead, it falls to NGOs such as the Integra Foundation, to ‘’speak on their behalf’. Do you think this absence, of the voice of sex workers, is hindering us from mapping out what is really going on in the sex work industry?

Let me start with this: there is absolutely no doubt, that the face of the sex-worker, in Malta, has evolved over the years. And when talking about the situation today: first of all, it’s very diverse. Are we talking about lap-dancing? Street-work? Telephone-work? Massage-parlours? Does it have to involve penetration?

I think we need to have this discussion, in Malta. As you say, we’re not very good at it; but we do need to be having this sort of conversation.

Another issue we also need to be talking about more is… migration. The vast majority of sex workers, in Malta today, are migrants. So you cannot have a conversation about sex-work in Malta, without also talking about migration; without talking about the politics – and violence – of borders; or the violence that is pushing those people to migrate in the first place.

But to answer your question more directly: there are two issues, there. First of all – and now I’m speaking as an academic – we have very limited research on the subject. To be fair, the little research we do have, is all very valid… it’s very in-depth… but it’s also very narrow. So the question becomes; how reliable is it, when looking at the various aspects of sex-work today?

The bottom-line is that nobody really knows what the situation is, in Malta. So I would find it very difficult to come up with a workable policy, when so much of what we ‘know’ is actually guesswork. It’s a case of taking a couple of conversations, here and there, and saying: ‘this is how it is’.

And I think that’s dangerous, personally: especially, to the people we are trying to actually help. So we definitely do need more research; and of course, the sex-workers themselves definitely need to be part of this conversation.

Unfortunately, at the moment they’re not. Again, I could always say: “But I spoke to a couple of sex-workers; and this is where they told me…” and others can always do the same thing. But I think it is important that sex-workers contribute themselves: first of all, to the knowledge-base… through their understanding of ‘what’s actually going on’… but also, to policy-development.   

And if they can’t be a part of that conversation; then we really have to ask ourselves why.

Moving a little beyond our own shores: in nearby Spain, sex-work was fully decriminalised in 1995. This gave rise to a booming sex industry, with an estimated workforce of 300,000, that has so far generated $26.5 billion for the Spanish economy. Do you expect that a fully-decriminalised model in Malta, would generate the same kind of (mostly international) demand? And if so: how would Malta actually cope with an industry on that scale?

Well, I’d say we ARE already coping with it. To go back to my previous point: the face of sex workers in Malta has already changed – it is already ‘the migrant’ – and I think we’re already experiencing the same kind of ‘boom’. It’s just that we haven’t actually addressed it.

Likewise: we know that there is violence, when it comes to sex work in Malta; but we’re not addressing it. In fact, our approach so far has been to ignore the violence – and to pretend that certain things ‘aren’t going to happen’.  Meanwhile, there have been some efforts on the trafficking front; but we’ve seen no great conclusions, really, going through the judicial processes.

In a nutshell, we’re doing nothing to really address the issue. And to make matters worse: in some cases, our own response has sometimes been… violent.

Recently, for instance, there was a news item about two women – both engaged in sex work – one of whom was taken ill, and needed medical assistance, while out on the street. So she called the police, for help… but when the police went into their apartment, they discovered that they ‘may or may not’ have been using the premises for sex work purposes… and the women were consequently deported.

So I would argue that our own response, in that case, was ‘violent’. Either way: we can’t realistically claim to be ‘protecting’ those women, can we? On the contrary: we are just ‘punishing’ them…

And this is also partly why I myself advocate for decriminalization. Because ‘prosecuting the client’ – which is the approach favoured by the Nordic model – would do nothing, absolutely nothing, to solve the situation for the women involved. In the case I just mentioned, above: they would still have been deported, all the same...

There is, however, the argument that by ‘prosecuting the buyer’, the demand for sex work would decrease. Am I right in understanding that you disagree with that argument?

I don’t agree with that, no. Partly because I have an issue, in the first place, with this sort of simplistic ‘supply-and-demand’ argument; which I think also reconfirms the ‘objectification’ of sex-workers, as well.

It’s not as simple as ‘supply and demand’. Even if you stop the demand altogether – and we can have a separate conversation about that; because I don’t think it would work, myself. I think it would simply push sex-work further underground… and expose sex workers to even more violence, as a result – but let’s, for argument’s sake, say that we do manage to ‘stop the demand’, by criminalizing the buyer.

It does nothing to address the structural factors, that lead to women crossing borders, and engaging in sex-work in the first place. To put it another way: it remains me of a migrant I was working with, a few years ago – a man, by the way – who had his application for asylum rejected.

He said to me: “It’s like, my house in on fire… I’m running out of a burning house…  and you’re telling me: ‘No, you have to go back inside!’ Who would push someone back, into a burning house?”

So while I can understand that the intention behind criminalization might be to ‘protect’, or ‘save’, sex-workers… but really: if we are going just to ‘send them back to that burning house’… can we really claim to be ‘protecting’ them, at the end of the day?