Part 2: Social menace or social need?
Amid a current scandal in Vietnam in which a celebrity is exposed by media to be a prostitute, discussions emerged in this fairly conservative country, dividing public opinions between the need to keep prostitution a felony and the need to decriminalize the profession.
In part one of this article, I argued that while some sex workers choose their job voluntarily, others can be victims, and hence, need not to be victimized one more time with punishment from the legal system.
Obviously, other arguments used to support the ban on sex work do not always come from the sympathy with the victim status of sex workers. Quite a contrary, these arguments target them as the source of social menace, the cause of ethics decadence and the reason why humanity is morally ruined.
In another words, sex workers are no where near the status of being victim, they are squarely and simply the culprit.
This picture taken on September 15, 2014 shows a prostitute waiting for customers at night time on a street in downtown Hanoi. Prostitution remains illegal in Vietnam, a traditional society still dominated by Confucian social mores, but a fierce debate over whether to legalize and regulate the industry has sprung up online and in the official press. Photo: AFP
Is prostitution being harmful to marriage?
Of all the arguments, this is the weakest one, since it is often used by those who inherently lack of confidence in their sexual prowess, a lack of trust in their partner's fidelity, or ability to maintain a stable marriage, or : “I oppose sex workers because my partner can cheat on me, and our marriage will be destroyed”.
Obviously, this argument is faulty since the burden of guilt should be borne by the unfaithful partners, not the sex workers.
The society is full of temptation: sex, power, money, beautiful jewelries, expensive cars, delicious food, and so on and so forth. Ethical people know exactly what they can obtain and what not. If fast food is generally needed but can be unhealthy if eaten too much, should we criminalize fast-food and shut them down, or should we control ourselves not eating too much?
Blaming fast food, or blaming sex worker is just another way to profess our weakness in self-control and regulation.
In another counter-argument, it has been proved that prostitution, if regulated well, can help to protect marriage. Single, inexperienced, or sexually frustrated people can safely find an escape without engaging in rapes or illicit affair with other people’s partners and hence, ruining an otherwise happy marriage.
In 2010, the Family Protection Society in Australia was forced to publicly apologize to Tasmanian sex workers for saying the industry is harmful to women and breaking up marriages. The message is clear, if you eat the forbidden fruit, you are the culprit, not the fruit. Evidence? We still eat apple until this day.
Is prostitution spreading STD to wider population?
Of all the arguments, this is the one that has been proven wrong at the strongest level. Study after study has shown that once sex work is regulated and decriminalized, sex workers have a much lower percentage of sexually transmitted disease (STD) infection, compared to the wider population.
Since the institution of mandatory condoms in Nevada's brothels in 1988, not a single sex worker has contracted HIV. In one Australian study carried out in 1998, the prevalence of sexually transmitted bacterial infections was 80 times greater in 63 illegal street prostitutes than in 753 of their legal brothel counterparts.
In the early '90s the Thai government began working with brothel owners to enforce 100 percent condom use. Free condoms were given to brothels, and sex workers were told to insist on condoms. Establishments that allowed unprotected sex were shut down.
As a result, condom use increased from 14 percent in 1989 to over 90 percent by 1994. Over the same period, the number of new STD cases among men treated at government clinics plummeted by over 90 percent. HIV infection rates among military recruits fell from 4 percent in 1993 to below 1.5 percent in 1997.
Understandably, criminalizing prostitution fuels the possibility of STD, as it is uncontrolled, workers unprotected, and in many cases, they are willing to succumb to customer’s requests of unprotected sex in order to reduce the time spent on the street, and hence escape the police’s attention.
Since condoms can be used as evidence and a form of harassment during street arrests, fear of felony charges can discourage safe sex, and contribute to the vicious circle of victim, being victimized, and then making others victims of STD.
Is sex an inappropriate commodity?
Very often, sex is regarded as a product that should not be put on par with other commodities since it is too intimate, too divine, or too vulgar. Let’s take this down one by one.
Sex is intimate. No doubt. But is sex more intimate than personal thought, than dirty, seedy, deep dark secrets and scandals that have been commercialized, manipulated, written and crazily advertised to fame-boost and make money for celebrities worldwide?
Have a look at some of the world’s famous biographies and you will know what I mean. From incest, rapes, sexual violence, cheating to sex tactics; from family hatred, friendship betrayal, unmasking of loved ones, to deepest personal fear and obsession…you name it. Are these less intimate than an ordinary intercourse?
Sex is divine. Well, maybe. To be precise, sex deserves that status only when it is combined with other wonderful emotion and relationship such as love. It is almost ridiculous to consider sex always a product of love and genuine feeling between two parties.
In its pure nature, sex is reproduction, and its foremost function is to help reproduce. This applies to everything on earth, from plants, animals, to humans. Of course sex as a result of love is the ideal, but this world is not populated by idealists, it thrives by realists who know all too well that we as human beings cannot rely on love to survive. If this planet was dependent on love to exist, none of us would be here today.
Sex is vulgar. For some, that is probably true, especially those who believe that humanity has been dammed for the original sin. In the end, sex contributes to the aftermaths of Adam and Eva being thrown off the Eden, and sex is religiously described as having only the function of reproducing. Having a pleasure from sex is taboo, since sex is not meant to be enjoying, but purely a process to make children.
But hey, hello! Criminalizing some product because it is religiously considered only for one specific God-given purpose does not seem to fit the idea of secularism, and still, it does not justify the verdict of sex work being harmful in nature.
Looking further beyond the tiny society we live in, many civilizations have honored sex as the source of life, and continue to do so. Sacred prostitution on the rivers of Tigris and Euphrates was practiced in the house of heaven where all women were ordered to give themselves to strange men once in their life time, taking their sacred money and refusing no one.
In ancient Greece, Hetaera often enjoyed their high status more than other women. Phallus worshiping, religious sex, sacred marriage, and many other sexual rituals are still the cores of many belief in civilizations from East to West. Vietnam, Japan, Bhutan and many other conservative countries still have festivals that focus on the glory of sex, of yin-yang harmony and revered origin of life.
Finally, the argument of seeing the body as a temple of God, and hence not appropriate to sell, meaning to let the consumer have the absolute right over it, is faulty. The more precise term for prostitution is that sex workers rent a part of their body in a fixed period of time with well-defined restrictions. Nobody owns their body, and hence, it is not selling in its conventional meaning.
In short, prostitution should be seen from a realistic angle of life. The profession has been here since time immemorial, and it is here to stay. Denial or defense simply is not sustainable, and frankly, a big fat lie to ourselves.
More than 70 countries have legalized it to varying degrees, including very conservative Muslim countries such as Bangladesh, Tunisia or strongly Catholic Mexico and many other in Latin America.
There should be no absolute urge to criminalize or venerate such a basic need as sex. To quote a comedian: "There is not much difference between going to a date and meeting a prostitute. In the former, you HOPE to get sex. In the latter, you are SURE to get sex".
* Dr Phuong-Mai Nguyen teaches Intercultural Communication and Middle East studies at Amsterdam University of Applied Sciences. Follow her blog here.
Her view is personal and does not necessarily reflect the editorial position of Thanh Nien News.