Sex may soon be for sale legally again in Taiwan. The government is likely to end a 20-year-old ban that penalizes prostitutes, but not their clients, by the end of the year.
The world's oldest profession will still come with some strict rules, however. It will be restricted to red-light districts, away from residential and religious zones. Brothels and sex workers will be required to apply for licenses and prostitutes will have to undergo periodic health checks.
The interior ministry is putting the final touches to a draft Bill that will be unveiled next week and submitted to the Executive Yuan, or Cabinet, in mid-May, an official told The Straits Times.
"We cannot allow the sex trade to pervade the city," said Liu Wen-shih, counselor and executive secretary of the ministry's legal affairs committee, which is drawing up the Bill.
Still, supporters of the trade want more. They argue that such rules continue to stigmatize the trade and encourage a thriving underground sex industry that numbers as many as 100,000 workers by some estimates.
"As many as 80 per cent of sex workers are forced to ply their trade under the guise of masseuses, bar hostesses and so on," said Wang Fang-ping, secretary-general of Coswas, short for Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters.
"Sexual transactions are just a form of commercial transaction and should be seen as a normal industry."
Prostitution was banned in 1991 under the Social Order Maintenance Act. Under Article 80 on "penalties for damaging benign social mores", any individual who engages in sexual conduct or cohabitation for financial gain can be detained not more than three days, or fined not more than NT$30,000 (US$1,033).
Existing licensed brothels and sex workers were allowed to continue operating, but could not transfer their permits.
As of last year, only 42 legal sex workers remained in business, Liu said.
The ban was the culmination of a gradual reversal of a 1959 law. It legalized an industry that emerged under Japanese colonial rule in the late 19th century.
In 2009, Cheng Li-wun, a KMT legislator, tabled a Bill to decriminalize prostitution. Her move prompted a ruling by the Council of Grand Justices later that year that Article 80 discriminated against sex workers but not their clients, was unconstitutional and should be repealed by November 6 this year.
Since then, the interior ministry has held consultations and forums with local governments, women's and religious organizations, sex workers' groups and academics.
A survey commissioned by the ministry last November showed that 76.5 per cent of those polled supported "conditional liberalization" of the sex trade, 14.5 per cent wanted a complete ban, and 7.6 per cent favored complete legalization.
About 70 per cent agreed that prostitution should be restricted to areas designated by the government.
Following a briefing by the ministry on the new regulations last week, Premier Wu Den-yih said "appropriate liberalization" was key.
Yet many Taiwanese oppose the move, fearing it will only make matters worse.
The Anti-Sexual Exploitation Alliance, which is made up of several women's groups, held a press conference at the Legislative Yuan last Friday at which it called for a referendum on red-light districts.
"Legalization of the sex trade would only spawn pornography, gangs, drugs and human trafficking. Society will pay a huge price for it," the alliance said in a statement.
The leaders of more than 10 counties and cities, including Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-pin, have said they will not allow prostitution anywhere in their wards.
For Xiao Hong (not her real name), a licensed sex worker in the northern county of Yilan, said the imminent easing of the law is cold comfort.
"The police conduct checks on us every so often even though we have permits," Xiao Hong, who is almost 50, told the Central News Agency.
"I have to pay NT$300 (US$10) for two health checks a month. Illegal prostitutes don't have such trouble, neither are they scrutinized by the police. Sometimes I think I should just give up my license." The Straits Times-ANN