Red light fight: sex work in Taiwan

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.

The interview took place in a former brothel dating back to the 1950s. It's tucked into a narrow street fragrant with incense curling out of a next-door temple, in one of Taipei's jumbled, old commercial districts. The building is now used for legal health and counseling services. Inside there's peeling wallpaper, claustrophobic rooms, bead curtains. Dim yellow lighting bathes the hallway. Photos of one-time madames dot the walls, scraps of the brothel's long-past heyday.

There are still seven or eight small, illegal brothels nearby, said Wang, but "you have to know where they are."

In the decades following World War II, this and other Taipei brothels and clubs did brisk business, helped in part by a steady supply of U.S. military men. Taiwan hosted huge U.S. bases before formal ties were broken in 1979, and the island was an R&R destination during the Vietnam War. Taipei still boasts a now down-on-its-luck bar district dubbed the "Combat Zone" by U.S. servicemen.

But in the 1990s, a Taipei mayor, inspired by New York City's Rudy Giuliani, backed an anti-smut drive as a way to gain support from conservative middle- and upper-class voters, according to Wang. Outside Taipei, only 20 to 30 legal brothels remain, still open under a loophole.

Wearing a bright pink, puffy winter jacket, Nadia took a seat in a small office, two gold rings circling bony fingers. She appeared to be in her 30s ("Why don't you guess my age," said the rail-thin sex worker, when asked).

Nadia's story doesn't easily lend itself to either side of the legalization debate. She rejected the womens' rights groups arguments, at least for self-employed sex workers like herself ("We are absolutely not exploited," she said. "We don't have bosses.") But she told a depressing tale that hardly speaks of empowerment.

Asked how she had started in the sex trade, Nadia's wary expression crumbled into choked-back grief. She said her husband left her in 2006, abandoning also a son, now 7. Saddled with huge debts (she didn't want to go into why), she turned to prostitution. But her initial attempts failed. "This work isn't as simple as it looks," she said.

First she joined a "Thai shower" joint, where customers picked girls out of a line and paid about $65 for an hour's shower, massage and sex. She only kept about $35 per customer, giving the rest to her bosses. The money wasn't enough, so she left after four days.

Then she worked at a secret "spa" with a private elevator requiring a key. There the terms were even worse: $150 a trick, of which she kept only $50. After a month, she switched to a sex "studio," where she kept $65 out of $100 per customer. "No matter which place it was, my cut wasn't fair, and there was the problem of where to get customers," she said.

So she began walking the streets. Now at least she can choose her customers, and reject any who seem too shady. She charges about $35 per 15 minutes and can clear up to $2,800 a month after paying her rent and all other expenses — although $1,500 to $1,650 per month has been more typical lately, she said.

She works 60-hour weeks, takes only one day off per week, and lives in a building with more than 50 other sex workers. Despite what women's rights groups say, she says she has no contact with gangsters, and said the only reason some sex workers sometimes have to get gangsters' help is that the trade is illegal.

Sitting beside her, COSWAS' Chien said "I can't say there's no exploitation, but I think [sex workers] are exploited a lot less than most workers are." Chien added that do-gooder plans to switch prostitutes into other work typically offer them salaries a fraction of what they can make selling their bodies. Said Nadia: "I would like to change jobs, but I don't have the ability to do other work."

Now, Nadia's top concern isn't gangsters or pimps, but police stings. She and COSWAS allege that Taipei cops routinely set up prostitutes for arrest by arranging for friends or a paid third party to approach them. Once a sex worker negotiates a price, she can be busted; meanwhile the customer is considered a "witness" to the infraction but is not fined or held. 

COSWAS led protests against such set-ups last year, drawing a pledge from the mayor to end them. But with new regulations on the sex trade still in limbo, the group — and Nadia — say not much has changed.

"I'm afraid of the cops, not my customers," said Nadia.