Image courtesy Global Press Journal

Who is a sex worker? Is she an attractive woman with loose morals who is too lazy to find any ‘real’ work? Is she a young desperate mother of two who has no choice? How many sex workers are there? And who are they?

The numbers we use to quantify sex workers in Sri Lanka is uncertain. Some say 40,000 others say 50,000. At its present state there is no way of knowing if this is true. Our idea of who a sex worker is, what she (or he) looks like, what they do, where they live, why they are sex workers, how much they earn or how many there are remain facts and  figures that still dependent largely on anecdotal information.

The study that came up with this number was conducted in 2010 in four districts of the country, and the number extrapolated from this research captures only the most vulnerable of sex workers. In 2014 this may have changed as rapidly as the streets in Colombo. These facts aside, does it matter that we advocate for 40 or 50 thousand? If it were 1 million sex workers would it merit some attention? 5 million? 10 million? Or would we see them as human beings if they were a smaller number like 15…easily distinguishable?

It is a fact that sex workers in Sri Lanka come in literally all shapes and sizes. Ages range from children to those over 60. They are both male and female. They are tall, short, old, young, fat, skinny, with families, single, Sri Lankan and foreign. They can earn anywhere from 200 rupees to 50,000 rupees a day, based on what we read in the news.

It is a fact that some people who work as sex workers do so to supplement their income. Nine to five they can be your banker, your receptionist, your waiter…

It is a fact that we have met sane sex workers whose “vocation” is a conscious choice and we have met those who if given a viable alternative would do something else. I say ‘viable’ alternative because making an incense stick or cleaning a public toilet might not seem like financially feasible options in comparison to the income generated by sex work.

There was an idea of offering alternate employment to sex workers in one region of Sri Lanka as caterers. The single most prominent question that was asked by the organization working with them was “who would buy food that sex workers made?”

Sex workers range from those who live in makeshift shelters on the banks of a lake to those that work out of five-star hotels.  Sex work is not trending… it simply exists and has for a very long time. The difference is that sex workers are now becoming more than just our dirty little secret.

Legalization is not an all-in-one solution. If implemented it does not mean trafficking will cease, or that exploitation, violence, rape or death will end.

It could, however, mean better regulation. It could mean that more and more of the 50,000 have regular health check-ups and therefore avoid contracting and spreading Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs).  It could mean that we have a better idea how many sex workers are in a certain area and we could reduce the number of children who are trafficked and work as sex workers.  It would mean that a sex workers’ money is more his or her own rather than money payed to pimps and law enforcement to keep them out of prison.

If the 65 year old sex worker still chooses to work and has done so for the last 40 odd years then the sustainability of sex work cannot be completely rejected. Again if she is in her sixties and is engaged in sex work she is still functioning in what we’d imagine to be an age dynamic market.

There is a question of morality in sex work, of social and environmental implications. Where then is the morality in not protecting the human rights of a sex worker who despite all protest is first a human being? What about the health implications of unregulated sex workers who contract Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs)? What about the environmental implications of sex workers who live on streets, on river banks and under trees, as no one will rent a house out to them even though they have the money for a house deposit and rent? Questions about the cost to society of permitting this profession to exist seem void to me, because permitted or not it does exist, and always has.

If female sex workers are considered less than human and not worthy of any protection, then male sex workers fall a few rungs below that, and yes male sex workers do exist in Sri Lanka. Studies have been conducted, which also record levels of abuse at the hands of clients and law enforcement, given that their sexual orientation alone positions them outside of our laws.

Those advocating for sex worker rights do not all do so because tourism is booming, or because it’s economically lucrative or even because it creates work. Granted, some may do so, but there is also the reality of sex workers increasing because of the increase in tourism.There is the possibility that human trafficking and STIs increase with it, and there is a very real chance that the amount of bribes and violence increase with it. It is not about the money or even legality of it. It is simply that while we sit and debate sex worker policies, while we decide what the best solution is, while we look at the morality of it, sex workers – human beings – are falling through the gaps. They are being violated, exploited and used. The point of sex work has never been any one of those things; it is immoral, economically unsound, unhealthy and unethical to assume that terrible things must happen to sex workers because it is part of the job.

If people choose sex work because of poverty then viable options, alternate jobs, better education and a more tolerant mindset are required on our part.

If people are being trafficked we need to be able to find out, by whom, where, when and why. Right now all sex workers – whether trafficked or not– remain hidden, and if the setting remains unchanged they will continue to do so.

If lack of stewardship by family and elders is a reason perhaps Accurate and Comprehensive Age Appropriate Sexuality Education would help as would a more tolerant and understanding society.

If it is choice, then as adults they should have the right to choose their work.

There are no clear solutions to the sex work debate but there are two ways we can go. The first is to abolish and criminalize, which is the path Sri Lanka currently is on. The second is to legalize and decriminalize.

Both these ‘paths’ so to speak have their own pros and cons. I argue that perhaps it’s time to look at legalizing for a few reasons, not because I believe it is the end all-be-all solution, or because I think trafficking will completely end because of it. I do not firmly believe that legalization and regulations would mean sex workers will actually go for their health check-ups and not for a moment do I think that pimps and businesses will not continue to exploit sex workers.

I say it’s time for something else because so far abolishing has not worked.The existence of health-checks and regulations may mean that at least some of the sex workers who need medical assistance or regular check-ups will be able to gain access to them, because if a woman has been kept as a sex slave for months or years and raped repeatedly she will have the option of getting help and legal redress should she come forward. I propose regulations because I believe in including a group in the policies we advocate and create for them rather than handing them policies when we know nothing of them. I say legalize because that would afford more appropriate services for sex workers, including drop-in centres and comprehensive and non-discriminatory health services, as well as rights-based services for victims of trafficking.

I say legalize because I believe in choice and should a sex worker for some sane or (to some of us looking in from the outside – insane) reason want to be or stay a sex worker they have the choice to do so, they have the choice to set the standards of their identity and self-worth. We need to move beyond a National HIV & AIDS policy that has a couple of lines on why it is important to work with sex workers.

Sex workers are the dirty little secrets we all know exist but refuse to acknowledge. If a sex worker is raped, abused, sexually or otherwise assaulted or even killed it somehow matters less because in our eyes they matter less. They were clearly ‘asking for it’.

If a journalist or a soldier or a fisherman dies it’s a tragedy even though they too were performing a job in which the risk of death or violence was higher in comparison to some other jobs. There are health and safety standards, risk reduction protocols, life and health insurance etc. to mitigate the damage in some jobs in others there’s at least a sigh of sympathy for the victim. In the case of the sex worker…is there a victim?

Shilpa Samaratunge has a degree in journalism from the University of Queensland, and works with the Grassrooted Trust.

[Editors note: The author is also part-time with the Centre for Policy Alternatives, the institutional anchor of Groundviews.]