While prostitution, ubiquitous as it is, never quite looked illegal in the country, the Supreme Court on 26 May recognised ‘sex work’ as a profession, directing the police to treat these ‘professionals’ with dignity. The highest court said that equal protection under the law should be provided to the prostitutes and police should refrain from harassing them.
A bench comprising Justices BR Gavai, L Nageswara Rao and AS Bopanna said on Thursday that the police were not supposed to arrest, penalise, harass or victimise sex workers. If clarification was at all needed, the Supreme Court said that while voluntary prostitution was legal in the country, running a brothel was not — which leaves a big question of regulation. For, in several countries where prostitution is legal, running brothels is not illegal either but those sex trade centres are regulated by the state.
The apex court ordered that children of sex workers should not be deprived of the mother’s care based on the fact that she is in the sex trade.
The apex court said that a sex worker who lodged a complaint of criminal, sexual or any other offence could not be discriminated and police should take action in accordance with the law. A sex worker who is a victim of sexual assault is entitled to facilities provided to other survivors, including immediate medico-legal care.
Now that prostitution is a legal profession in India, let’s take a look at other countries where it is not illegal to engage in sex work.
In a number of European countries including Germany, Switzerland, the Netherlands, Austria, Greece, Hungary, Latvia and Turkey, prostitution is legal and regulated.
The Netherlands: The Netherlands is one of the first countries in Europe to legalise and regulate prostitution since 2000, even though the sex trade was popular in the country for decades. It legalised prostitution with the hope that it would root out organised crime, improve sex workers’ access to healthcare, limit human trafficking and make sex work safer. Amsterdam’s De Wallen is one of the most famous red-light districts in the country and a famous destination for international sex tourism.
Germany: Germany has a long history of sex tourism. Organised prostitution in Germany dates back to the 13th century. The country legalised prostitution in 2002 and has state-run brothels.
Reeperbahn in Hamburg is one of the world’s most famous red-light districts. Sex workers in Germany are treated as regular employees and are provided health insurance, have to pay taxes and receive social benefits like pensions. The idea to treat prostitution as a job was to wean women away from pimps who run the sex trade.
New Zealand: New Zealand decriminalised sex work, passing the Prostitution Reform Act in June 2003. Before the law was in place, sex work was illegal in the country. In the 19th century, prostitutes who loitered in public places were fined or imprisoned. Those who behaved in a “riotous or indecent manner” in public places were imprisoned for about three months.
The Crimes Act 1961 made brothel-keeping, procuring sexual intercourse or living on the earnings of prostitution illegal, leading to five years of imprisonment. With growing public awareness of the sex industry, the call for decriminalisation of prostitution intensified in the 1990s. At present, the country has licensed brothels which operate under public health and employment laws. Sex workers are entitled to all the social benefits.
France: Although prostitution is legal in France, buying sexual acts in public was outlawed in 2016. The legislation was introduced with the hope to crack down on sex trafficking. While introducing the law, the French government had estimated that 90% of the country’s 20,000 to 40,000 sex workers in 2016 were victims of sex trafficking networks in Nigeria, China and Romania.
Canada: Prostitution laws in Canada came into effect in 2014, which decriminalised part of the sex trade, but criminalised acts of purchasing sexual services, communicating for offering sexual services, receiving money or other benefits for sexual services and recruiting a person for sex work.