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Taiwan Approves Red-Light Districts

Taiwan-born sex worker Niko, 47, poses for a photograph after an interview with Reuters inside a brothel in Taipei (file photo)
Taiwan-born sex worker Niko, 47, poses for a photograph after an interview with Reuters inside a brothel in Taipei (file photo)

Taiwan is allowing local governments to set up red-light districts, potentially bringing the island’s large underground sex industry out into the open. Prostitution inside special zones will be legal, but outside of them both prostitutes and their clients can be fined. Despite the new ruling, so far few local officials appear interested in legalizing the sex industry in their district.

Taiwanese officials have long been conflicted on how to regulate a sex trade that is widely tolerated today behind closed doors. As in much of East Asia, Taiwanese brothels are normally disguised as nightclubs, massage parlors or short-term hotels. Stephen Lakkis, director of the Center for Public Theology at Taiwan Theological College, has researched prostitution on the island since 2009.

“We have the view of the general public. I think the recent polls have really been showing that about 75 percent of the population says that they are approving of changes to the prostitution law and would consider favorably a legalization of prostitution so long as it doesn’t really happen in their own backyard,” Lakkis said.

About 600 times a year police detain lone sex workers who solicit on street corners, where they face fines of up to $1,000. On November 4, Taiwan’s parliament extended those police powers to the clients of prostitutes as well, acting two days before the expiration of a statute that would have called off law enforcement altogether. Legislators decided at the same time that prostitutes can freely work in red light districts wherever local governments allow them.

So far, sex worker representatives say they believe only a group of sparsely populated outlying islands has expressed interest in setting up a red light district. Prostitutes say they plan to lobby other local officials but also worry that the law will only make things tougher on the country’s estimated 100,000 sex workers.

Chung Chun-chu, chief executive officer with the 71-member Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters, says the laws passed in parliament do nothing for the world’s so-called oldest profession.

She says that sex workers believe the version of rules just approved, which punishes both workers and clients outside brothel districts, oppresses a group of already powerless people. She says that although the ruling party has said it wants to be more open in managing prostitution, the special districts have not yet been seen or experienced by anyone.

Chung Chun-chu’s collective formed in 1997 as Taiwan started cracking down on prostitution after five decades of largely ignoring ad hoc red-light districts, including several in downtown Taipei. Taiwan ex-president Chen Shui-bian, then Taipei mayor, ordered brothels shut down in the 1990s to squash the sex trade. But some sex workers knew of no other career and did not want to switch in their 40s or 50s.

Sex work has meanwhile gained favor overseas. In the past decade, Bangladesh and New Zealand decided to allow prostitution, subject to certain conditions, while Hong Kong and the United Kingdom allow walk-up brothels. Taiwan’s sex-worker collective also wants their government to follow the Hong Kong model.

Women’s groups and Christian churches have fought the sex worker lobby over the past two years, affecting the parliament’s decisions. They argue that prostitution lowers the status of women who should seek other jobs and exposes Taiwan to trafficking in women and girls from poor parts of China or Southeast Asia.

Taiwan’s government, which has been torn by competing lobbies periodically for more than 15 years over the prostitution issue, calls its decisions on Friday a compromise that will head off social instability on the island.