The United Nations is wasting its time…

…in recommending that prostitution be decriminalized in the Philippines, among other countries.

[UPDATE, for clarity’s sake: Based on the report, the UN recommends in general:

“Laws that criminalize sex work and the sex industry should be reviewed, taking into account the adverse impact of these laws on public health and the human rights of sex workers. To enable sex workers to fully enjoy legal rights to health and safety at work requires decriminalization. Decriminalization of sex work requires the repeal of:

a. laws explicitly criminalizing sex work or clients of sex workers;
b. laws that criminalize activities associated with sex work, including removal of offences
relating to: soliciting; living on the earnings of sex work; procuring; pimping; the
management and operation of brothels; and promoting or advertising services;
c. laws that require mandatory HIV or STI testing or treatment of sex workers;
d. laws that authorize the compulsory detention of sex workers for the purpose of reeducation,
rehabilitation or correction.”

On item C: the UN is careful about coercion and discrimination, but as the UNDP stated, “Removing legal penalties for sex work allows HIV prevention and treatment programmes to reach sex workers and their clients more effectively.”]

I’m not saying they’re wrong — in fact, I have a strong suspicion that they’re right (I’ve read the Philippine part — Chapter 6.7 pages 147-153 — of the UN report “Sex Work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific”) — I’m just saying that they’re addressing the wrong crowd.

This is the Philippines, where the Reproductive Health (RH) Bill has yet to be passed because of the conservative might. Religious or not.

Wearing condoms is still considered highly immoral. Giving them away for free to professional sex workers, courtesy of public funding? Tricky.

Certain cities have ordinances to address the provision of condoms and sex pamphlets to certain establishments, as well as checkups for their workers for sexually transmitted infections (STIs) in nearby social health clinics — but on a national scale? Again, tricky.

The Palace is hands off on this issue. They’re not touching it because it’s a losing battle, and they’re still lobbying for their priority legislation (sin taxes now lowered to P40 billion from P60 billion anticipated revenues, the RH Bill, etc.) without putting this new headache on the table.

The legislators? Goodluck. Re-election year, and this is going to be a messy debate.

Gabriela has already gone on record condemning this report. I haven’t read their entire statement, but here and here again you find an outright condemnation of the UN recommendation as being against basic women’s rights.

My beef with this is that they bring the Labor Code into the discussion, saying that the law will not guarantee that the workers get access to health benefits and improved working conditions. Poor reasoning. It’s not the law that’s the problem, but the enforcement of the law. Should we scrap the Labor Code then because of its perceived lack of guarantees?

How disappointing.

If you turn that reasoning on its head, you could also argue that criminalizing prostitution has NOT prevented prostitution from existing. It is the oldest profession in the history of mankind and remains to be so, even in countries like the Philippines that make prostitution illegal.

[EDIT (OCT.24, 6:05PM): To give Gabriela its due, they are saying that they object to legalization of prostitution, but not to “decriminalization” per se of prostitution, or in effect, amending the Revised Penal Code so that the prostitutes be protected but their pimps are not. See here.]

Let’s stick to the issue at hand. Why does the UN recommend decriminalization of prostitution, specifically for adults? (Prostitution is not solely a female issue; just ask the men, including the gay men. And Lord help us, the children too.)

(1) there is no standard for health practices in the sex trade, including testing and treatment for STIs, especially for freelance sex workers who function under the radar;

(2) added to which, some ordinances may promote the use of condoms in certain places, but our laws also use confiscated condoms as evidence of sex work, ergo, anyone caught with such can be charged with solicitation, and imprisoned;

(3) we are penalizing those very same people we say are being exploited — on top of their exploitation, our laws are punitive for establishment-based prostitutes (those defenseless women who hide under their hair during police raids), as well as freelance workers who troll the streets and are arrested for vagrancy as a lead-up to charges for solicitation;

(4) punitive laws create a situation with latent (some say existent) police abuse.

Let me quote directly from the UN report:

“The US Government has reported concerns about police corruption associated with raids: Allegations continued [in 2010] that police officers at times conducted indiscriminate raids on commercial sex establishments to extort bribes from managers, clients, and women in the sex industry, sometimes threatening women with imprisonment for solicitation.

“Sex workers working independently are more vulnerable to arrest and police abuses than workers at licensed establishments. A 2003 study conducted in Pasay City found that street-based sex workers often refused to accept free condoms from outreach workers because they feared police would use them as evidence of illegal conduct. Police impeded their access to HIV prevention services by confiscating condoms, using possession of condoms as evidence of sex work, or arresting them for vagrancy.”

On the one hand, the government wants to “help” the prostitute; on the other hand, the government has tied its own hands.

Are we protecting the prostitutes or are we protecting the sensibilities of people who say that prostitution is sexploitation through and through? Do we automatically define prostitution as “human trafficking” (i.e. sex “tourism” equated with sex exploitation and sex slavery)?

Taking out the moral question over exchanging money for the use of one’s body — of the commercialization of the sex act as an abomination — could we ask the question: are all prostitutes forced into the sex trade? Are all working prostitutes unwilling? Should we redefine “human trafficking”? Again, a tricky question.

Dare we ask another question: are we discriminating against the professional sex worker when we say that (1) this profession is not a choice at all, (2) this profession should not be licensed and given a “fair market value,” (3) this profession should not have any mandatory health benefits, (3) this profession’s workers should not be protected from abuse and the mechanisms by which to redress such abuse, and (4) a law should not be enacted to ensure that the rights of professional sex workers be protected, including the freedom to work in a safe environment?

And yet another question: Are we objecting to the invasive commercial use of the human body, or are we objecting to pleasure in the invasive use of the human body? How different is prostitution to, say, medicinal drug testing or surrogate motherhood? (Let’s not talk about organ transplants, another tricky area.) It’s an exchange of money for the use of the body. Prostitution, however, is “hedonistic” gratification/comfort — is that it?

Note that I have not read the entire report as yet, I may be missing something. Read UNDP for their edifying summation.

Download and read the original, as the case studies of all the 48 countries should be enlightening.

But even before the report was published, I have been mulling the following theory:

Decriminalizing — in fact, legalizing — prostitution could mean standardized work practices including:

(1) that prostitutes should be of legal age and the transaction should be between two consenting adults;
(2) that prostitutes have a standard wage rather than be “exploited” by handlers/pimps;
(3) that prostitutes have mandatory health checkups, and mandatory use of protective health aids such as condoms, as well as being obliged to undergo sex education (this is a thorny issue);
(4) that prostitutes not be threatened by imprisonment, or be in a position where unscrupulous people in power would use that threat of imprisonment to exploit them;
(5) that the children of prostitutes remain in their care rather than be separated from them when the state dubs them unfit guardians;
(6) that the legal mechanism shall be in place for them to address grievances, not only in terms of work conditions, but for abuses such as rape; and
(7) that prostitutes can be identified and provided alternative means of revenue, if they so wish to leave the profession (another thorny issue).

And if it’s not too distasteful for this government to think of earning from the backs of these men and women in the sex trade, the government benefits from taxes rather than have that money drain into the pockets of those who control the illicit sex trade.

Look, I’m just as squeamish as the next person about the sex trade; but I tend towards regulation rather than ignoring a problem. Let’s study how the Swiss do it. (No pun intended.)

A former prostitute in the UK, research scientist Dr. Brooke Magnanti (aka Belle de Jour), speaks in her blog for decriminalization of prostitution:

“The condescension heaped on people who do sex work is embarrassingly transparent. All this mealy-mouthed, ‘oh but we want to help them, really’. How’s that again? By saddling people with criminal records and taking away their children? Do me a favour.

“As well as the happy prostitutes there are unhappy sex workers in need of support. Society should protect the unwilling and underage from sexual exploitation and provide outreach for those who need and want it. We already have laws and services for that. Maybe the laws should be more intelligently enforced and the services better supported. But prosecuting the victimless crimes does neither of these. It helps no one.”

It’s food for thought.

But again, I doubt the decriminalization of prostitution will be acceptable in this country.

Even I am torn. However objectively one looks at this, at the core, I fear that prostitution by its very nature makes one vulnerable. Vulnerable to self-flagellation, vulnerable to discrimination and scorn, vulnerable to abuse. Sex makes us vulnerable, emotionally and psychologically. The toll will be enormous.

It would take a very strong person to withstand all that being a professional sex worker entails and remain whole.

So what happens now? How do we aid those in the sex trade who, by choice or by dint of coercion, persist in what is currently an illegal trade? Do we continue the charade of policing the shadowy world of illicit sexual commerce?


  1. There’s a press release floating about, titled “Women are not for sale!: UN’s recommendation to legalize prostitution in Ph, direct attack to women” from Gabriela.

    Other than the fact that it’s got lots of grammatical errors in it, it covers just about the same ground we’ve already addressed.

    May I just react to this part of the statement:

    “This would make the existence of syndicates of human trafficking, white slavery and child abuse, justifiable. This would further corrupt our society with the view of women as sex objects.

    In a patriarchal society like the Philippines women are treated lowly, they were oppressed economically because of unequal opportunities, and they were oppressed because they are women.

    To site (sic) an example, under R.A 9262 or the Anti-Violence Against Women and Children, a woman forced into prostitution by her partner is punishable under this law. What will be then the case of (sic) prostitution will be legal?”

    (1) The point of legalization is to bring the practice out into the light and get rid of syndicates. Working definitions of human trafficking and white slavery are being revisited. Child abuse is not and never was condoned by the UN. Ask them.

    (2) Yes, the Philippines tends to still have biases against women. However, we are also a nation that has had two female presidents; women enjoy practically the same privileges as men and compete directly with them for positions of power.

    Also, according to the World Economic Forum, in its 2012 Global Gender Gap Index, the “patriarchal” Philippines ranked 8th out of 135 countries. In terms of bridging the gender gap, we are actually the highest-ranked in Asia, ahead of Singapore (55th), Thailand (65th), Vietnam, (66th), Indonesia, (97th) and Malaysia (100th).

    Saying that women are victimized simply because they are women in the Philippines sounds like a tired old line. Be specific. If you want to trot out that argument, give us more than the line, give us statistics. Give us context. You are doing Filipinas a disservice by continuously calling them “victims” in a general sense. We might start believing it.

    (3) Being forced into prostitution is not the same as deciding for oneself to barter one’s body. This is at the very heart of the argument. But allow me point out, that in no way did the UN actually condone women being prostituted against their will. Again, ask them.

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