What about the welfare of sex workers? — Nine

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AUG 25 — A little over a week ago, a woman in Kuala Lumpur appeared in court for prostitution. The New Straits Times reported how she wept, pleading that she had to take care of her seven-year-old child as well as her elderly parents. “My life has been set with difficulties,” she said.

Magistrate Ashraf Rezal Abdul Manan responded by jailing her for six months, citing the “welfare of society”, a cloudy notion given that four individuals will clearly suffer as a result of his decision. Her imprisonment helps nobody.

The case didn’t seem to make much of an impression on the media landscape, but I did encounter a few views on the subject, some of which I’ll address here.

“She should have been fined instead.”

While a fine would have been less punitive than six months behind bars, the absence of other options deserves to be criticised.

Jail is no solution, but neither is a fine – how do you think a sex worker is going to pay it? Such a move allows the state to both condemn and profit from sex work at the same time.

“She should be provided with counselling.”

On one level, this idea is a positive and welcome one – counselling and other forms of therapy can be immensely beneficial to people facing all sorts of hardships.

But neither a fine nor counselling will solve the issue of financial need, which is what drives people to engage in survival sex work in the first place.

Any effective approach to the sex industry needs to find solutions to this financial need, rather than take away – or render more dangerous – what can be, for many women, the only solution remaining.

“Was she working in the industry voluntarily, or was she forced into it?”

Even these terms can be blurry, often used differently in different contexts to suit different agendas.

For some, force means physical violence and threats from a controller; for others, it can extend to economic circumstances, which is of course why most people engage in any form of work.

If the purpose of this question is to determine who deserves sympathy or support and who doesn’t, it’s not a distinction I’m interested in making.

The consent debate around sex work is a red herring, distracting from the issues of rights and safety which affect all sex workers, regardless of their reasons for doing sex work, regardless of whether they enjoy it or not, and regardless of whether or when they wish to stop.

Rather than telling their backstories, sex workers – when asked – often find it more pressing to highlight the conditions they work in: what’s happening now, as opposed to what brought them here. And the issues that they identify as most important include things like stigma and criminalisation, which increase their risk of being targeted for violence.

“Yes, but what about the clients?”

It’s true that sex workers are routinely punished while clients are ignored. However, calling for clients to be held accountable is a somewhat loaded demand, given the negative impact on sex workers’ safety in environments where clients are criminalised.

Such targeting of clients, whether it’s instead of or in addition to targetting those selling sex, is nowadays often framed as an egalitarian project, despite the fact that time and again it has led to a marked increase in sex workers’ vulnerability.

Put simply, it causes the sex industry to hide further underground, putting women at greater risk.

With the spotlight on them, clients understandably want to keep a low profile. And sex workers – having still seen no solution to their financial issues – need to go to where their clients are.

Not only this, but if policing does succeed in scaring off some of the clients, sex workers are left with fewer choices.

They have less scope to turn down the kinds of clients they would previously have refused to see – and the same goes for sex acts that they previously refused to perform.

And with a smaller pool of clients, it’s a buyer’s market. Some men will take advantage of the situation by demanding lower prices. This means that to make the same amount of money, sex workers will have to see more clients, all of this taking place under more volatile conditions.

Those for whom sex work is already a reluctant activity are the ones most likely to suffer. Sex workers in Malaysia are already extremely disadvantaged, as seen by the outcome of this particular case – I would not like to see things get even worse.

The welfare of society includes the welfare of sex workers.

One serious concern is the fact that the woman sentenced last week was not represented in court. Did nobody pause to wonder why? Was she even informed of her basic rights?

You could say that the odds were stacked against her.

Much like Justice For Sisters’ legal fund for trans women who have been charged in Shariah court, ensuring that sex workers have legal representation would be one practical way to support them.

A vulnerable woman is spending tonight in prison, cruelly separated from the family she was trying to provide for. Compassion and sympathy are not enough. Let’s face up to the fact that the system does not protect women, and let’s work towards justice for sex workers.

* Nine edits other people’s words, looks after other people’s cats, DJs at Rainbow Rojak and tweets at @supernowoczesna.

** This is the personal opinion of the writer or publication and does not necessarily represent the views of Malay Mail Online.

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