Thursday, May 3, 2007

Legalizing Prostitution: A Solution? N. Kristof Opines

NICHOLAS KRISTOF for The New York Times - A number of you have commented on my blog that the way to address prostitution is to legalize it and encourage unions of sex workers, thus empowering prostitutes and enabling sensible regulation and health outreach programs.

In the context of countries like India and Cambodia where I've written about sex trafficking, that would be a bad mistake. Let me explain why.

There may be a sound argument for legalization and sex worker unions in Brazil and South Africa, perhaps even China. My sense is that in those countries many women genuinely choose to be prostitutes because of economic pressures or opportunities. But in India, I have yet to find a single woman who made that choice - every single one of them first entered after being forced by a trafficker, her parents, or her husband. Later, after they had been prostituted, some continued to sell their bodies voluntarily. But the initial entry into prostitution was invariably coercive.

That means that if you validate the red light districts, then the new entrants will continue to be trafficked into it. And in India we have had something of an experiment, in which the legalization model has failed.

In the effort to combat AIDS, a union was established of prostitutes in Shonagachi, a red light district in Calcutta (one of the places in my video reporting of a year ago). The union, DMSC, purports to represent prostitutes and to dignify sex work, and it argues that it's important to empower the women by offering them respect and acknowledging their choice of occupations.

A DMSC brochure, for example, states: "Like other entertainment workers of the world we use our brain, ideas, emotion and sex organs, in short, our entire body and our mind to make people happy. As entertainment workers, we seek governmental recognition and fulfillment of our just professional demands."

Among liberals in the U.S. and India alike, that model has been treated respectfully. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and CARE have both shown support for that approach as a way to fight AIDS. I have lots of respect for both the Gates Foundation and for Care, and they do fantastic work around the globe--but in this case I think they've made a mistake.

The argument in favor is "harm reduction" - a sex worker union makes it easier to hand out condoms and educate women about AIDS. That's true to some extent, but the latest data we have actually show a rising degree of HIV among young prostitutes in Shonagachi. The data aren't good, but they don't demonstrate to me that the model works. In contrast, there is a health outreach model in Cambodia that really does reduce HIV and STD, through regular check-ups, without legitimizing the brothels and protecting them from raids. That's the direction to go in.

More broadly, many of the prostitutes from Shonagachi have told me that DMSC is just a front for the brothel-owners, a way of protecting them from raids and harassment. Likewise, the trafficking of young girls and forced prostitution seems as flagrant as ever in Shonagachi. That's also the judgment of two people whose anti-traffickng work I admire: Ruchira Gupta and Urmi Basu. Both live in Calcutta and see Shonagachi up close, and both oppose the legalization model. So even if DMSC achieved a mild reduction in HIV infection levels -
which it apparently hasn't - it comes at the expense of legitimating trafficking and modern slavery.

I'm particularly swayed by an argument of Ruchira's, based on the contrast with Bombay. Traditionally, the red light districts of Bombay and Calcutta have both been enormous, and Calcutta has DMSC while Bombay has in recent years seen more raids and harassment of brothels. The upshot is that Shonagachi is as big as ever and seems to have as much trafficking and more HIV than ever, while Bombay's red light district has shrunk dramatically. There still are some brothels in Bombay's red light district, but only a fraction of the number
there used to be.

Some skeptics say that the raids have only pushed prostitution out of Bombay's red light district and hidden it among neighborhoods throughout the city, making it more difficult to control trafficking and AIDS. There may be some of that. But if NGO's have trouble finding the brothels than customers do as well. And most estimates are that total prostitution in Bombay has come down a great deal because of the harassment.

In contrast, DMSC seems to legitimate a red-light district that is completely enmeshed with criminal gangs, trafficking and forced prostitution. The validation from DMSC probably makes it easier for police to take bribes from brothels to look the other way, and harder to order up raids and aggressive police coverage. So, quite apart from morality, it seems to me that Bombay's record comes out better than Calcutta's. Maybe legalization and sex worker unions can reduce HIV in Africa and Brazil where forced prostitution is less of a problem, but it doesn't work in India.

The model in the West that seems to have worked best is Sweden's, which involves decriminalization for prostitutes themselves, but seeks to crack down on pimping and on the demand side. By arresting customers, the Swedish model undermines the economics of prostitution, and it seems to have reduced the trafficking that one sees in the Netherlands and Germany.

Fundamentally, I think these kinds of disputes about legalization are a distraction in countries like India. Both left and right in the States do good work on trafficking, but the two sides can't even agree on what to call the issue. The left tends to refer to sex work and sex workers, to avoid stigmatizing people they want to work with. The right tends to use terms like
prostitution and prostitutes, to avoid euphemisms that validate such work.

One reason more hasn't been accomplished in the campaign against human trafficking is that the issue has become so polarized in the U.S. There's immense distrust and much less cooperation than one might expect. But the one thing everybody should be able to agree on is that whether or not prostitution should be legal for 18-year-olds who are on their own, it is appalling for 13-year-olds to be imprisoned in brothels and forced to sleep with customers.
And that is what is going on in countries like India.


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