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Towards a regulatory approach to prostitution

Dear Editor,

Crackdowns on prostitutes have resulted in allegations of maltreatment and abuse of sex workers by some authorities. Efforts to suppress prostitution have generally been futile, and have led to serious outcries from streetwalkers and their advocates.

The 2008 Anti-trafficking Law allows for voluntary prostitution, but prohibits certain acts associated with prostitution, such as public solicitation, procuring for prostitution and providing and managing places for prostitution. It is hard to deny that prostitution is the world’s oldest (perhaps biggest) and most resilient profession that has survived across most socio-economic, cultural and religious contexts. Notwithstanding the harshness of punishment, prostitution is hardly suppressible. Some forms of prostitution reportedly existed under the Khmer Rouge regime despite being punishable by the death penalty.

The continuing demand and supply, compounded by numerous other factors will defeat any bids to exorcise prostitution. Closing small brothels will only make room for the large and well-protected brothels to take over the market. Raids on sex workers simply force them to go underground, disperse and relocate, making it difficult: (1) for sex workers to survive, to shun exploitation and abuses, to gain protection when necessary and to access health care services; (2) for the NGOs to locate their target groups for provision of assistance; (3) for the government to monitor the sex industry and to contain crimes engendered by clandestine prostitution activities; (4) for johns to have access to safe sex and to avoid the risks associated with patronising covert sex establishments. Indeed, repression of prostitution may result in more harm than good.

Perhaps we can learn from the past. Viewing prostitution as immoral and iniquitous, the French Résident Supérieur in Cambodia in the 1870s argued that people can neither sell themselves nor be sold. He took a firm stance to stem prostitution, but this was fruitless. Viewing Cambodia as a “colony of exploitation”, the French resorted to harness this necessary social evil (prostitution). They introduced a wily win-win solution. The French endeavoured to regulate the business: registered brothels were allowed to legally operate at designated locations, and were taxed. Sex workers were obliged to register and to undergo a weekly medical examination. Unregistered brothels and streetwalkers faced harsh treatment by authorities.

A regulatory approach is possibly more effective. In this view, the government regulates prostitution. Brothels and sex workers can legally operate at designated locations (containment approach). Sex workers should be encouraged to undertake regular medical check with a certificate of good health being issued to them. Women who are sick must be treated before they can operate again. Unsafe sex by any parties is subject to severe punishment. A strict prohibition on forced or child prostitution must be instituted. A partnership between authorities and brothel owners/sex workers needs to be built so that cases of involuntary or child prostitution, and unsafe sex practices are immediately reported. By allowing brothels and prostitutes to function legally in a regulated environment, the government can then invest the resources intended to be used for suppressing prostitution to provide skills training and rehabilitation services to sex workers wishing to leave their profession. Education, training, and rewarding jobs also need to be available to girls and women to provide them with viable alternatives to entering the sex industry.

Chenda Keo
Canberra, Australia

Send letters to: or PO?Box 146, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. The Post reserves the right to edit letters to a shorter length. The views expressed above are solely the author’s and do not reflect any positions taken by The Phnom Penh Post.



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