The Oldest Trade times of india/Editorial 8 Sep 2007
Prostitution may be as old as the human race itself, but our attitude towards it borders on the infantile. At best, we hem and haw. At worst, we argue with half-informed passion. Almost always, the debate is loaded with moral overtones. The absence of a frank discussion about the many dimensions — social and economic — of prostitution merely reflects our hypocrisy. But the age-old question is in focus again, thanks to proposed amendments to the Immoral Trafficking (Prevention) Act, 1956. The set of proposals seeks to decriminalise prostitution by treating sex workers as victims, not criminals. It calls for those behind the sex trade — pimps, traffickers, brothel owners and clients — to be punished instead. In our country, the law is ambivalent about prostitution. It is, per se, not illegal. However, it is illegal to solicit in public. A woman is free to operate independently, but cannot conduct her business in a brothel. If caught, it is she, and not the client, who is fined and put behind bars. Are the suggested changes going to make life better for our sex workers? Yes. And no. Yes, because it acknowledges that women become prostitutes either out of choice or coercion, and cannot be penalised in either case. No, because it is a half-way measure that replaces one set of ambiguities with another. It penalises clients and agents on whom sex workers depend for a livelihood. It still outlaws brothels. It does not recognise prostitution as a legitimate means of employment. Decriminalisation is of no use if not backed by affirmative measures. For instance, in countries where prostitution is regulated — such as Holland — sex workers undergo mandatory, regular health checks. This is crucial in the prevention of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases. They also have access to legal recourse if abused. No such provisions are being proposed here. There is no denying that a large number of those who are part of the industry — especially minors — are trafficked by force or false promise. But these issues fall within the pale of laws that guarantee human rights and must not be confused with those regulating the sex trade. Organised sex trade is a reality. It is a result of real compulsions. We must first acknowledge, then address the complexities of the issue. And, perhaps think seriously of legitimising the trade.