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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.

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.