Before then-Taipei mayor Chen Shui-bian (陳水扁) put an end to legal prostitution in the capital, the city was the only place in Taiwan where it was allowed. Twelve years later, however, the wisdom of his decision is hotly debated. Now, legalizing prostitution is again on the table, with the Ministry of the Interior last week proposing to set up red-light districts.
The glaring reality is that forcing sex workers into the shadows has done nothing to put an end to the business — nor to the scourges of human trafficking and exploitation that often accompany the practice. Many observers and sex workers are concerned that outlawing the trade has exacerbated these problems and left some of society’s most vulnerable women with fewer options than ever to pursue a better life for themselves and their families.
Faced with this, the government has returned to the question of whether selling sex should be legal. Red-light districts would allow the authorities to monitor an industry that is notoriously abusive toward its workers. But the proposal ignores another option with potential for greater and more equitable results: Shifting criminal responsibility for prostitution away from sex workers and onto their customers.
Article 80 of the Social Order and Maintenance Act (社會秩序維護法) is a deplorable example of the chauvinist forces that linger in this society. As it stands, sex workers face prison terms and fines, while their customers have nothing to fear. The law effectively suggests sex workers are “temptresses” to blame for “social ills,” while patrons can be forgiven — even though it is their wallets that sustain the industry and its related abuses. This is incomprehensible unless one considers that the system that created the legislation was probably replete with people who themselves feared a run-in with the law.
The article is also completely ineffective and ignores the fact that the vast majority of sex workers did not enter the industry willingly — and are hoping for a way out. For prostitutes already working in wretched conditions, the threat of criminal prosecution could hardly be a better deterrent than other hardships faced on a daily basis. Threats are pointless if doors remain closed.
In April, Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) Legislator Cheng Li-wun (鄭麗文) proposed amending the law, but, like the Ministry of the Interior, suggested full legalization of the sex industry.
Legalized prostitution, however, has not stopped human trafficking and rampant physical abuse (including sexual assault) of sex workers in, say, Amsterdam.
The Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters has decried the criminalization of prostitution in Taiwan, warning that it has led to deteriorating work conditions and has allowed gangsters to strengthen their hold on the industry. But legalizing the sex industry is unlikely to cure these ills.
This is why the Swedish model is often cited by rights advocates who want to see an end to the prosecution of prostitutes without condoning the industry’s systematic abuses. Sweden has reported steady progress in reducing prostitution by punishing customers rather than sex workers.
In its annual human rights reports, the US State Department continues to cite human trafficking and violence against women as key concerns in Taiwan. Law enforcement efforts to crack down on the perpetrators of these acts must be redoubled.
At the same time, Taiwan needs to overhaul the law to end the counterproductive persecution of a marginalized and exploited segment of society. If the best our politicians can do is oscillate between legalizing and outlawing prostitution, decades may pass with no hope of improvement.