Jamaican Health Official Calls for Sex Work Decriminalization

Danielle Toppin

A senior public health official in Jamaica recently called for decriminalization and taxation of commercial sex work. Other government officials decried the proposal, but have few effective suggestions of their own.

When I was a teenager, some of
my male friends (with me in tow) would, on occasion, drive through the
dark streets around Barbados’ horseracing track in search of prostitutes.
For us it was a joke to drive by these women and try to see their faces.
I don’t think that at any point I ever saw those women as human, but
rather as mythical figures that represented the ultimate taboo.
The silhouettes of these unknown women standing on the side of the streets
and looking defiantly at a group of obviously bored teenagers was
like our venture into an unknown and highly forbidden world, a world
that I personally found both captivating and scary all at once.

For many people, prostitution
still maintains that almost-mythical status, a practice that many see
as the ultimate representation of the under-bellies of our societies.
Despite the pervasive nature of commercial sex work , which is
commonly referred to as "the oldest profession in the world," the
pracitce typically remains hidden. As with most hidden acts, in particular
those of a sexual nature, attempts to bring them to light are met with vehement opposition from moralists, who fear the impact that
such exposures will have on already "decaying" societies.

We saw this dynamic play out recently in Jamaica, following the assertion by Dr. Keith Harvey, a senior public
health official,
in the Government
that prostitution should be decriminalized, and further, that commercial
sex workers should be taxed as a means of generating income to
promote sexual health care.

As expected, the suggestion
that the taxation of sex workers could provide much-needed funds to support
education and rehabilitation programs to improve the sexual health
of vulnerable groups, such as sex workers themselves, has been met with strong opposition.
Responding to the proposal, leader of the Opposition
Party, the People’s National Party (PNP) Portia Simpson-Miller forcefully stated that sex workers need more skills training opportunities, calling on the government
to invest its energy in this area rather than in the decriminalization
and regulation of sex work.

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Similarly, the Jamaican
Prime Minister, Bruce Golding, has openly condemned the statement made
by Dr. Harvey, assuring the public that his government
has no such intentions. Golding also went a step further to warn
that in the future, public officials can face
serious sanctions
if they
make public statements that run "counter to Government policy."

The suggested decriminalization
of commercial sex work was proposed as a viable form of regulating the now-unofficial
industry, potentially bringing in approximately up to JMD 3 billion
(approximately USD 428 million) annually. These much needed resources
could then be used to educate sex workers about effective condom use, and also
towards the facilitation of a safer, regulated sex work environment, thereby
reducing the transmission of HIV and other STIs within this vulnerable

This comes against the
backdrop of a political and policy environment in which there has typically
been "little support…for messages of intervention dealing with
risk reduction and increased access to treatment and care targeted at
certain at risk groups, among them sexually active minors, men who have
sex with men, incarcerated men, commercial sex workers and those in
places where other forms of transactional sex are practiced."

The absence of an enabling
environment has translated into inefficient support to make substantial
changes in protecting the rights and lives of those who fall within
these groups.

Admittedly, Jamaica, with
its strong presence of a vocal fundamentalist Christian society, is
not a country in which I can see the legalization of sex work happening without a fight. However, with research showing that (i) one in every four HIV-positive
poersons reported having had sex with a sex worker at some point, and (ii)
that the rate of infection in the sex industry is three times that of
the general population; it would be remiss of us as a society to ignore
the urgent health care challenges that the lack of regulation presents.

It is one thing to criticize
the suggestion to decriminalize and regulate the commercial sex work industry, but the
lack of strong alternative solutions to protect the lives of this vulnerable
group becomes a glaring shortfall in the arguments put forward by moralistic
factions. If not regulation, then what? The recent debate has
highlighted the need for wide-scale consultations that will address
alternatives. We cannot stand on moral principles alone. Let’s face
it; such approaches have not typically had a strong history of success
in protecting the lives and liberties of vulnerable groups, who by their
very existence challenge the status quo.

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