Nearly a month after Taiwan amended a law legalizing prostitution by allowing cities and counties to establish designated red light districts, local governments have shown little interest in establishing such zones in their areas.
Under the Social Order and Maintenance Act (社會秩序維護法) amended on Nov. 6, prostitution is now legal in areas zoned as red light districts, but illegal outside those areas.
Customers and prostitutes caught outside the zones face fines ranging from NT$1,500 to NT$30,000, as opposed to previously when legal zones could not be set up and only sex workers were fined and not their clients.
Despite the lifting of restrictions, the five special municipalities and 17 counties and cities throughout Taiwan are uneasy about setting up red light districts, with many citing a lack of public support.
The only exception is Keelung Mayor Chang Tong-rong (張通榮), who has shown interest in doing so to attract tourism and boost the local economy.
Meanwhile, many people are questioning whether red light districts would be able to resolve long-existing problems in the nation’s sex industry and improve the safety and livelihood of sex workers.
Even groups that support decriminalizing prostitution have proposed very different methods of supervising the sex industry.
The Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters (COSWAS), which has been fighting for the rights, recognition and legalization of sex workers for 14 years, is in favor of allowing red light districts to be set up in business districts and decriminalizing both prostitutes and clients.
The group basically supports following Australia’s prostitution laws, COSWAS secretary Wu Jo-ying (吳若瑩) said.
In Australia, prostitution in general is legal, but regulations vary among states. Street prostitution is illegal in most states as long as brothels have permits, but in New South Wales, street prostitution is allowed as long as it is kept out of view of schools, hospitals and churches. A few states, such as Queensland, allow one-woman brothels.
“We’re in favor of the Australian model because it includes the opinions of sex workers … and opens up discussion with neighborhood residents,” Wu said. “Residents can oppose on a non-moral basis, such as parking problems, but the model rules out objections based on moral values.”
Australia’s laws are so detailed that they govern the appearance of the shop, how ads should be written and what kind of doors need to be installed, so the industry can keep a low profile and not upset neighboring residents, Wu said.
However, another COSWAS official said there are problems that would need to be addressed, including the monopolization of the zone by certain sex industry providers, limitations placed on the age and appearance of women working in the zone and whether the privacy of sex workers could be protected if Taiwan were to legalize the trade.
Another concern is that legalizing prostitution would lead to an influx of foreign sex workers and potentially a spike in the trafficking in women.
A study in 2008 by the European Network for HIV/STI Prevention and Health Promotion among Migrant Sex Workers said up to 70 percent of sex workers in the Netherlands’ red light districts were foreigners, mostly from neighboring European countries and countries in Africa.
The Garden of Hope Foundation, another Taiwanese organization that helps girls and women leaving the sex industry, said a surge in sex workers from Southeast Asia is exactly what they fear. It said it has received inquiries from the American Institute in Taiwan about the danger of an increase in the number of human trafficking victims.