Issue No : 33 December 1999 - February 2000
Shouchin, Taiwan Association of Licensed Prostitutes (TALP)
Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters (COSWAS), Taiwan
Jean Chou, Pink Collar Solidarity, Taiwan
Taiwanese governmental control over the sex industry (Government policies on the sex industry in Taiwan)
The Criminal Act and The Social Order Protection Law
Taiwanese governmental control over the sex industry (Government policies on the sex industry in Taiwan)The sex trade is partially legal in Taiwan. Legislation controls licensed sex workers but their number is limited. The Criminal Act and the Social Order Protection Law prohibit involvement in the sex trade except for clients; managing brothels is also illegal. While sex workers are fighting for the right to work, conservative women's organisations are campaigning to amend the law. The amendment aims to penalise both licensed prostitutes and clients. The targeted groups will also include all sex workers, brothel owners, people who provide premises (e.g. renters, hostel owners), and people providing transport. All parties involved in the sex industry will be covered.
Taiwanese governmental control over the sex industry (Government policies on the sex industry in Taiwan)Under current legislation, only licensed prostitutes and brothels can operate legally.
Management and Regulation of Licensed Prostitutes
Licensed prostitutes are under the management of local police bureau. In Taipei for example under the Taipei Licensed Prostitutes Management Act enacted in 1973, a weekly medical health check is required for licensed prostitutes in licensed brothels. However, due to strict legal constraints over licensed brothels (e.g. death of brothel owner results in the brothels' closure as brothel ownership and location is non-transferable). In 1973, there were more than a hundred licensed brothels, with nearly a thousand licensed prostitutes. By 1997, the number of licensed brothels had fallen to 18, with only 128 licensed prostitutes. The average age of licensed prostitutes in Taipei is around 40 or above, 95% of who have junior secondary school education and limited social resources. Most of them entered the sex industry for economic reasons, as did many unlicensed prostitutes. The number of licensed prostitutes in other areas is also declining as few new, younger prostitutes are granted licenses.
If not for 1997 legislation which endorsed the ban on licensed prostitutes and provoked Taipei's licensed prostitutes to hold street demonstrations, many Taipei citizens would be unaware of them.
Brief Introduction on the Taiwanese Sex Industry
Eradication of Sex Industry versus the Growing Sex Industry and Right to Prostitution
The decline of licensed prostitutes does not reflect a similar decline in the sex industry. The most visible sign of the sex industry is not in formal sex establishments, instead the trade is transacted in hotels, massage parlours, teahouses, barber shops, and saunas in every corner of Taipei city. The Municipal Government is aware of the large sex industry, but it believes its eradication is best through indirect attacks - cutting off electricity and water supply is the main slogan for government leadership. Yet it will not be possible as the underground industry has strong links with both the police and the triads.
Unlicensed sex workers are working under many forms of exploitation from clients, brothel owners and police. They cannot refuse clients like drunks, those who refuse to wear condoms, and those demanding additional services. They suffer physical abuse, robbery and refusal to pay from clients, abuse and sub-standard working conditions from employers, and are denied social welfare benefits.
Views of Women's Organisations and Citizens
Recently, the concern of most women's organisations about the sex industry has been on the issues of trafficking and child prostitution. Despite the fact that trafficking is diminishing, there is an increasing willingness by women to join the sex industry. Most women's organisations still treat underage and adult sex workers as victims. The only recent attitude changes might be from condemnation to compassion for sex workers. There were no major controversies as in the west, until the emergence of the struggle of licensed prostitutes fighting for two years grace on the ban of licensees. This struggle has resulted in a split of the united women's movement into two camps. One side argues 'sex work is work', while the other advocates the eradication of sex work. Conservative women's organisations insist women's bodies should not be commodified, and sex must be accompanied by love. The radicals however, argued that under capitalism, every part of the human body is being commodified, and such analysis provides a basis for strategies to solve problems.
The Taiwanese public is still relatively conservative on issues related to sexual morality. Sex is not discussed in polite company, even with the opening up of society. Most first sex encounters happen under the age of 20, and one night stands are increasingly common, but sex is still a taboo subject and sex education is limited to sexual physiology. Society in general, still regards sex workers as those who demoralise society.
The Struggle of the Taiwanese Licensed Prostitutes' Right to Work
The Formation of the Taiwan Association of Licensed Prostitutes (TALP)
Under the above mentioned circumstances, the announcement of the ban on licensed prostitutes by the Taipei City Government in 1997 was a shock to Taiwanese society. The Government announced the ban on 4 September, effective from 6 September. The announcement annoyed the 128 licensed prostitutes and resulted in the public rally for their right to work. Apart from rousing public concern about their survival, their petition also forced the government to review the rationality of the ban. However licensed prostitutes are one of the smallest sectors of the huge sex industry. Banning licensed prostitutes would not mean the sex industry would be eradicated from the city. The symbolism in banning licensed prostitutes is much greater than its actual impact. At the same time, it also helped women's groups campaigning to abolish child prostitution to clarify the differences between voluntary sex work, trafficking and child prostitution.
The first struggle of licensed prostitutes has raised an intensive debate on sex workers' rights to work and government policy on the sex industry. It also generated controversial discussions on many levels: in following up the decision to wipe out licensed prostitution, it is the government's responsibility to provide appropriate assistance, such as support in job changes; banning licensed prostitutes is not the most effective way of dealing with them; as well as posing the questions: can sex be traded? What is the relationship between sex and love? Is sex work a job which commodifies women? Is attempted eradication of the sex industry meaningful or simply a showcase?
Struggle With Perseverance - One Year and Seven Months
The one year seven month movement against the ban on licensed prostitutes tried to bring changes within the establishment in the first four months (September to December 1997). With the announcement of the ban by the Taipei Municipal Government and City Council, the only hope for licensed prostitutes was to request the City Council to submit a motion for a two-year grace period. However, when the City Council passed two motions, Mayor Chen, the Municipal Governor, refused to implement the motions. Throughout 1998, the licensed prostitutes tried all means to generate discussions amongst all sectors of society on subjects related to the sex industry. They organised various academic seminars, street dramas, produced publications, arranged talks with communities, and hosted an international conference. In December 1998, they began to negotiate with the new Municipal Governor Mah and the newly elected City Council members for another three months, before the Municipal Government agreed to implement the motion for a grace period of two years. In March 1999, the licensed prostitutes started to work again, officially ending the 19 month struggle.
The Implications of the Licensed Prostitutes' Struggle
The struggle is a battle between a social movement and political power. In Taiwan, the interests of political parties are placed above those of its citizens. Thus, those who supported the licensed prostitutes were not optimistic about the possibility of influencing the policy. However with limited power, they did demonstrate such a possibility. The struggle also helped other marginalised groups to have a better understanding about political reality. These groups who originally pinned high hopes on the DPP, the strongest opposition party, came to realise that the DPP will not ultimately work for the benefits of marginalised groups. The DPP is only working for a 'clean and progressive' city based upon the values and interests of the middle classes.
From understanding the culture of licensed prostitutes, organisations have learned much about the personal lives of licensed prostitutes. We also discovered how society stigmatised and discriminated against sex workers, even the objectification analysis is a way to discredit the ability of sex workers to make decision over their own lives, and at the same time, to further our understanding of sex workers.
During such a process, licensed prostitutes are empowered and have managed to develop. From a group of women who travel from home to workplace, with limited resources and education, they have grown to learn to make judgements on politics and laws, and have engaged in dialogues with the public and other women's organisations. From accepting the stigma given to sex workers, they have learned to regard their work as normal. They have gained not only the support from other sectors of society, but also the respect of being a sex worker.
Women's Organisations Supporting the Control of Licensed Prostitutes
After licensed prostitutes marched in the street, the SFWW and PCS began working with them to facilitate the decision-making process at all levels. Unlike most women's organisations in Taiwan, SFWW and PCS do not agree with the 'objectification' argument which opposes the legitimate right of existence for sex work. With a substantial history of involvement in the labour movement, SFWW and PCS argued that the strategy to avoid commodification of workers under capitalism is not to abolish certain industries, but to support them against all forms of exploitation through becoming organised, such as by forming labour unions.
In contrast to the strategy of rescuing licensed prostitutes by focusing on helping them to give up prostitution and turn to mainstream, 'good' (i.e. moral) labour sector, SFWW and PCS believe that sex workers have their own autonomy, and can decide on what kind of working conditions suit their existing situations. Those who opt to change industries should be provided with resources for such change. Society should respect those who wish to remain in the sex industry, and must not impose its own moral standard and try to force them into the 'good' labour sector.
The Establishment of COSWAS
On 28 March 1999, the licensed prostitutes' struggle ended. The licensed prostitutes, activists in the SFWW and PCS and many other supporters formed the Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters (COSWAS) on 1 May 1999, Labour Day. The establishment of COSWAS aims to promote the public to adopt a practical attitude towards the rights and working conditions of sex workers. It also advocates the decriminalisation of sex work.