Sex workers ‘with agency’ must be part of prostitution reform

Gay rights and human rights NGOs are shining a new light on the reality of prostitution which may not always be informed by forced labour or trafficking

Mya Taylor (left) and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Netflix’s Tangerine, a comedy-drama about trans sex workers
Mya Taylor (left) and Kitana Kiki Rodriguez in Netflix’s Tangerine, a comedy-drama about trans sex workers

A host of human rights enjoys supporting a reform in prostitution laws have justified a stance in favour of giving sex workers “agency” through rights and protection with laws that take harsher action against pimps.

The coalition of LGBTIQ+ NGOs Gay rights NGOs MGRM and ARC, as well the Aditus Foundation, are taking a nuanced stance on prostitution reform advanced by the Labour government, suggesting that sex work should not be exclusively conflated with sex trafficking.

They also called out the lack of consultation with sex workers in the reform, arguing that criminalising sex buying would force sex workers to work underground, opening them to further opportunities for violence. “We can go on and on about the rights of sex workers, the Nordic model vs the New Zealand model, legalisation vs decriminalisation, but throughout this reform and the discourse around it, there is one voice which is notably absent; the sex workers themselves. Just like any reform affecting a group of people, it is important for those who will be affected by the reform to have a voice, to be empowered to speak up and contribute.”

But the NGOs referred to an anti-trafficking coalition’s concerns that legalising sex buying without tough action on pimps and traffickers would legitimise a criminal enterprise, by advocating a sole strategy that tackles human trafficking, rather than having it fall under the umbrella of sex work. “Forced sex work is just one of the reasons why humans are trafficked. So we must recognise that while there are a large number of sex workers who are trafficked and exploited, there are also those who choose that work willingly for a number of reasons.”

The NGOs are also shedding light on a different kind of sex work that affects people who might not have been forcibly trafficked into prostitution.

“For some persons, be they cis- or trans-gendered, heterosexual or otherwise, sex work is a way to earn extra money or simply a job just like any other.

“Discrimination or lack of opportunities in employment, poverty, lack of access to affordable healthcare are some of the reasons why non-EU nationals, undocumented migrants, rejected asylum seekers, other migrants residing here irregularly, and LGBTIQ persons might turn to sex work.”

Within the LGBTIQ community alone, globally, sex work was and still is a profession trans women turn to due to discrimination in employment and costs of gender-affirming treatment, facing harassment and violence for their gender identity, the NGOs said.

“Whether this is still a reality trans women and persons who identify within the LGBTIQ community, still face in Malta following the various legal protections for LGBTIQ persons, is yet to be studied.”

The NGOs said that sex workers recognised as workers, would entitle them to the same rights as any other person who works full-time, with health, tax, and national insurance.

The statement was signed by the MGRM - Malta LGBTIQ Rights Movement, ARC - Allied Rainbow Communities, Aditus Foundation, LGBTI+ Gozo, Checkpoint Malta, and Integra Foundation