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Wisdom of Whores

When trawling through the RSS feeds that I subscribe to, occasionally I come across a
heading that may be off the subject that I’m researching, but makes me wonder what the
article is about. One such headline was The Wisdom of Whores - US pressure squashes
Cambodia’s HIV success Whores? US pressure? Cambodia? HIV success? Inevitably,
opening such an article is like opening ‘a can of worms’, or perhaps in this case ‘a can of
viruses’. Prostitution, like HIV itself, is not going to ‘go away’ and there is no remedy in
sight for either. What the article led me to is the debate about the ‘legalisation of
prostitution’. It would be simple to facetiously claim that the debate is between the ‘whores’
and the ‘do gooders’, and for do gooders read ‘some religious group’. But it isn’t as simple as
that. What is clear is the linkage between prostitution and HIV, and that ‘safe sex’ has at least
been demonstrated to work in the context of HIV prevention.

“So what else stands in the way of safe sex? There’s the pleasure thing. There’s the ‘he
seems like a nice boy’ thing. And there’s the second bottle of wine thing”.
Elizabeth Pisani - from The Wisdom of Whores.

In Cambodia four in ten sex workers were infected with

HIV before the government introduces a programme to
promote the use of condoms in the sex industry. As a
result, HIV infection rates came crashing down, halving
in just 5 years. It is estimated that condom promotion
had saved 970,000 Cambodians from HIV infection by
2007. Now, under pressure from the White House,
Cambodia has launched a massive crackdown on the sex
trade. Cambodian authorities have been persuaded by
rescue missionaries such as the International Justice
Mission (aka Cops for Christ – Pisani’s words, not mine)
that women who sell sex for $5 a day would rather sew
T-shirts for three cents a piece. I don’t know if earning
$5 a day selling sex beats sewing 167 T-shirts a day but
the sex workers beg to differ. Chanting “save us from
saviours” and waving placards saying “condoms protect,
police threaten,” hundreds of them demanded their
human rights be respected, asserting that they did not
need to be “saved” from their jobs in brothels, least of
all by lecherous, avaricious police officers.

A short article by the Adam Smith Institute uses Pisani’s book as a rationale for ‘Why
legalisation works’. It asks which is best? Reduce the ill effects of what people are going to
do anyway, or fail at stopping them doing it and ending up with all of those ill effects? On
this theme, South Africa is considering providing the best World Cup possible by legalizing
prostitution. In the UK The Royal College of Nursing has called on the government to
decriminalise prostitution to protect the health of vulnerable women and men who feel unable
to access NHS and social services. About 95% of street prostitutes had a history of drug
abuse; many entered the profession under 18 because they were vulnerable. They were
reluctant to access healthcare through the normal routes because they were regarded as people
operating outside the law.
Set against this, the Coalition Against
Trafficking in Women International
(CATW) puts forward ten arguments as a
rationale for not decriminalising the sex
industry. In Myths and Facts about
Decriminalisation of Prostitution, the centre
for Prostitution Research and Education
state that 95% of those in prostitution
urgently want to escape it. That they need
stable housing, social services, medical
treatment, and job training. It advocates
that it is this and not decriminalisation that
is needed. That it is the pimps, johns,
procurers and traffickers who use women
in prostitution and profit from selling them,
that should be arrested, that these are the
perpetrators of sexual exploitation and
abuse, not the women themselves.

Perhaps the most negative thing in all of this is that it seems to be impossible to break the link
between promoting ‘safe sex’ in the sex industry and campaigns to shut it down. The
Cambodia scenario would seem to be proof positive that promoting safe sex in the sex
industry reduces the spread of HIV. The issue of decriminalising the sex industry is
something else.