Should we legalise prostitution?

I spent last weekend in Mombasa in one of the beach hotels in North Coast full of tourists. I also took the opportunity to sample restaurants in the area and enjoyed the best of foods amid performances by live bands.

I noticed something not very common in other parts of Kenya: there were many young skinny and skimpily dressed girls. They walked in in small groups and mingled with the audience freely. Each would then identify mostly an old tourist, engage in happy conversations and within no time they would be gone as a pair.

“This is partly what makes our city popular as a tourist destination: the sun, sea, sand and sex!” a waiter told me amid staccato laughter, “and some of our girls end up rich because of this, but many are also treated like dogs.”

But it was not just the girls. Along the beach people were having fun. A man in his twenties showed his strength by carrying a woman possibly in her seventies on his back while swimming. They had walked to the beach holding hands and freely exchanging kisses in public.

“Those are our boys, they know how to entertain the aging women, and the women come year after year just to have a repeat of the experience,” a woman commented after catching my glance, sensing my unspoken questions.

“But it is not always fun for the boys and girls who do this work,” my tour guide said, “occasionally they face the wrath of the police, hotel owners, the public and even their customers because people think they are doing illegal things.”

“Would it be better if we legalised the work?” I asked absentmindedly to which my guard frowned.

Prostitution, the act of having sex for money or other material gains over and above the pleasure of sex itself, is one of the oldest professions in the world described in historical books including the Bible. The question of whether to legalise it or not is a controversial and one that is hard to resolve because either way, there are consequences.

The school of thought that advocates criminalisation of prostitution believes that people do not go into the trade out of their own volition. They believe that a number of girls are recruited into the trade in childhood. The girls come from poor families that encourage them to go into the trade. The moneys raised benefit other people, usually adults, owners of brothels and agents. The victim ends up hooked into the trade into adulthood, some get diseases such as HIV and die.

Further, advocates of criminalisation believe that most of the prostitutes have experienced some form of psychological trauma in childhood and their behaviour is a symptom of deviation from the norm to cure the hurtful experiences. They therefore believe that the victims are indirectly asking for external help to their circumstances through their behaviour.

Feminists and gender activists on the other hand believe that prostitutes are victims of circumstances; they find themselves in the trade simply because they are women. The activists view is that even though male prostitutes do exist, it is an exception rather than the norm because men have many opportunities in life. To them, female prostitutes have no options but to be prostitutes.

But the story does not end there. Advocates of liberalised prostitution laws argue that they stand for the rights of women. They see prostitution as any other form of work and feel sad that consenting adults having sex should be harassed by law enforcers. They argue that illegalising the profession makes it dangerous for women: it means that women cannot report violence to authorities and as such a number have been assaulted and even killed by their customers.

From a medical perspective, lack of a law to regulate the practice of prostitution means that prostitutes hide to do what they do. Evidence shows that in countries where the practice is legal, the practitioner is licensed, must undergo medical tests and is only allowed to continue if they have no disease. Their own safety is ensured and they pay taxes to the state.

Incidentally, liberalising the law has been shown to lead to growth of brothels and middlemen who go to the extent of trafficking women and children for prostitution. Drug use is also found to increase in association with the trade. If one has to make prostitution legal, therefore, measures must be put in place to manage these other eventualities.

An alternative model practiced in Sweden is to protect the prostitute by not criminalising them but target the customers. The customers soliciting and paying for sex are the ones arrested and charged. It is hoped that this reduces demand for the services and as a result the practice dies off naturally.

At the end of the day, however, the issue of prostitution is divisive. It is one’s values that ultimately carry the day in the perspective you come to adopt. But as time has shown from the ancient ages to date as seen in the Kenyan coast and other towns, the oldest trade seems to thrive amidst all odds.