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Red light fight: sex work in Taiwan

Plan to legalize prostitution has sparked debate between women's and worker's rights groups.

TAIPEI, Taiwan — Massive debts pushed her into prostitution. Now, after several false starts, she's pocketing $3,000 in a good month, turning tricks as a self-employed Taipei street-walker.

The money's good, she says, but there's just one problem: the cops. Prostitution is illegal in Taiwan, and the cops have several times hauled her in for three days in jail, or a fine up to $1,000.

If sex work is legalized in a year's time as now planned, though, she says her working conditions will improve.

"I can be more relaxed at work," said the sex worker, who gave only the name "Nadia," in an interview in Taipei. "I won't have worry so much about the cops; worry that they'll come and catch me. I won't be afraid of anyone bullying me."

Nadia is one of an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 sex workers in Taiwan, including hostesses that offer services short of intercourse in clubs and karaoke halls. They're at the center of a debate over whether prostitution should be legalized as planned next year, and if so in what form.

Taiwan's decisions could have implications for countries in Asia and beyond that are struggling to balance demands for social order with the protection of sex workers' rights.

Prostitution is legal in more than 70 countries worldwide, illegal in more than 100, and restricted in others. (See map from In Asia, Thailand and the Philippines are well-known sex tourism destinations, despite a legal ban on prostitution in both countries. China legally bans prostitution but lurches between looking the other way and harsh crackdowns, such as the public shaming of prostitutes and their Johns. Japan legally permits sex services short of intercourse, and hosts a thriving sex trade.

In Taiwan, the legalization debate has pitted women's rights groups against workers' rights groups. The former say the sex trade exploits women, is plagued with trafficking and ensnares under-age girls.

"We don't think it's just a question of workers' rights," said Wang Yueh-hao, from the Garden of Hope Foundation. "The sex trade does big damage to both sex workers and their families."

But sex workers rights' groups say the sex trade isn't going anyway anytime soon, that bans are counterproductive, and that prostitutes deserve dignity and good working conditions as much as any other laborers.

"They contribute to society, but society gives them the lowest status," said the Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters' (COSWAS) Chien Chia-ying. "That's the most unacceptable part." Sex worker rights activists in many other countries agree.

Part of the problem in Taiwan is that the laws don't make much sense. For decades prostitution was legal here. But since the 1990s, prostitutes have been punished under the Social Order Maintenance Act, COSWAS says. Pimps, middlemen and traffickers are dealt with under the criminal code, slapped with up to five years in jail or $3,300 fines. Johns aren't penalized at all.

That means it's perfectly legal to pay for sex, but illegal to sell it. Taiwan's courts found that arrangement unconstitutional in 2009, and demanded a change by November next year. So the government plans to scrap the penalty on prostitutes, and has mooted the option of legal "sex zones" in Taipei, or letting small brothels of five or six prostitutes run their own small business out of apartments anywhere in the city.

Women's groups take a dim view of either scenario. The Garden of Hope's Wang said that since 90 percent of sex workers are female, "We think it's an issue of gender inequality." They want the laws to remain as they are, at the very least, and ideally to make it illegal to pay for sex, too.

They say the government should do more to help prostitutes find a way out of the trade. "We need to give them other choices, so they don't think they have to sell their body to resolve their household problems," said Wang. And they say society has an obligation to curb a destructive trade as much as possible. "You can't improve their lifestyle and rights by legalizing prostitution," said Wang. "They will still face discrimination and be under gangsters' control."

Meanwhile, COSWAS is trying to improve sex workers' public image. Their ideal is a fully legal and open sex trade in which empowered prostitutes could hire third-party services to help them market their wares, and keep more of the profits. For that reason, they say the government's plans don't go far enough -- pimping and other third-party services need to be legalized, too.

Nadia. (Jonathan Adams/GlobalPost)

"You need to completely decriminalize the sex industry in order to protect sex workers' safety," insisted COSWAS' Wang Fang-ping. "If middlemen are still illegal, you will still have a lot of problems."

They say prostitutes kept 70 or 80 percent of the money when the trade was legal (giving the rest to pimps or other middlemen) — now it's more like 60 percent.

In an interview arranged by COSWAS, GlobalPost interviewed Nadia to find out the reality on the streets.