Opinion: Covid-19 Pandemic Supports Case for Decriminalizing Sex Work

Phnom Penh’s Riverside area in 2019. (tjabeljan/Creative Commons)
Phnom Penh’s Riverside area in 2019. (tjabeljan/Creative Commons)

It isn’t hard to imagine a scenario in which a Covid-19 outbreak in Cambodia becomes more difficult to handle due to policies that keep sex workers in the shadows.

After Cambodia’s Human Trafficking Law was passed 2008, making clear the illegal status of sex work in the country, the trade has been pushed underground. Researchers and NGOs say workers have been harassed by authorities, including being extorted, and at times beaten, with the law used as justification.

Imagine trying to contact trace a cluster of Covid-19 cases centered around sex workers and expecting them to report themselves to authorities for testing. Under the current policies, there is zero incentive for sex workers to comply.

This is why decriminalization is the answer.

Many in Cambodia feel some discomfort when talking about the buying and selling of sex. Sex work goes against many of the patriarchal Cambodian values that dictate what it is to be a woman in society. But that doesn’t change the fact that it is possible to uphold and recognize sex workers’ rights and to seek to better understand their economic motives without supporting the service they provide.

The conversation about sex worker rights might be uncomfortable, but it is long overdue, and the Covid-19 pandemic only further reveals how important it is to open this dialogue. The Covid-19 pandemic highlights not just how the criminalization of sex workers contributes to the marginalization and exclusion of these people, but also that driving these workers underground could contribute to a much larger public health risk.

Sex workers at the moment are struggling under a double-edged hardship.

For a start, the nature of the work makes social distancing impossible, and client numbers have dramatically decreased. Sex workers must choose between their own safety and making a living. Government economic support programs designed to offer assistance to Cambodians experiencing financial difficulties due to the pandemic have not included sex workers.

At the same time, they also face serious obstacles due to Cambodia’s criminalization of their work.

Cambodia’s laws that criminalize sex work push consensual sex workers underground and makes the already risky environment they work in even less safe. Laws like the 2008 Human Trafficking Law, for example, which was passed with the support and influence of the U.S., has been shown to even impact the rate of HIV infections.

Consenting sex workers would be able to seek help from authorities, including in the case of a pandemic, without fear of arrest.

In a 2014 paper, researchers studying the connection between sex work and HIV/AIDs in Cambodia pointed to the 2008 anti-trafficking legislation as a turning point that destabilized the sex industry in a way that increased health risks for workers. The paper notes that brothel closures and increases in policing related to that legislation “have been acknowledged as a cause of significant social and occupational upheaval” among sex workers, driving many women, especially former brothel-based workers, “underground.”

NGOs that do outreach for sex workers in Phnom Penh have also reported negative impacts of that 2008 legislation, including displacement and harassment for the people they serve as well as reduced ability to distribute condoms and connect sex workers to health care.

A 2010 Human Rights Watch report found that police officers regularly use the 2008 law not to legally crack down on sex work but to threaten to invoke the “soliciting” provision as a means of extorting money from sex workers, “telling them that if they fail to pay they can go to jail or be forcibly sent to a government shelter because their work is illegal.”

That same report also found that women and girls involved in sex work in Cambodia face beatings, rape, sexual harassment, extortion, arbitrary arrest and detention, forced labor, and other cruel and degrading treatments at the hands of police, public park security guards, and government officials. Sex workers have reported incidents of police officers beating them with their fists, sticks, wooden handles, and batons that administer electric shocks.

According to an United Sisterhood Alliance report from 2016, female entertainment workers experienced harassment, violence, intimidation, and abuse from clients, entertainment venue managers and  owners, and police. The current practices undermine sex workers’ rights to labor and workplace protection.

HRW notes that in practice, there is actually little evidence that the 2008 law is enforced as intended, or that prosecutions are pursued. Instead, “the law seems to be used mainly as a convenient excuse by police to rationalize further illegal actions against sex workers.”

On the sex trafficking side, decriminalization has obvious benefits — simply put, it would upend the business model for illegal traffickers. And for sex workers themselves, decriminalization would bring them out of the shadows. Consenting sex workers would be able to seek help from authorities, including in the case of a pandemic, without fear of arrest.

And, there is good evidence that decriminalization works, particularly in the case of a global pandemic. For example in New Zealand, a 2003 reform bill which was developed with input from sex workers themselves ensured that the sex industry in that country operates under the same health and safety rules as any other New Zealand industry.

This relationship developed between government agencies, including the police, and the sex work community saved lives when Covid-19 hit. New Zealand’s sex workers were able to get government benefits while unable to earn an income, and have been easy to contract trace when virus clusters pop up.

The government of Cambodia needs to recognize the unique challenges that sex workers face in this crisis. In light of these challenges, now is the time for policymakers to reconsider whether Cambodia’s current model for dealing with sex workers is actually working, and whether a more enlightened approach would be better not just for sex workers, but for Cambodian society as a whole.

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