By Christopher Rezel –
It’s time for Sri Lanka to decriminalize sex work or validate it in some manner in order to manage what is a decades-old reality.
Bringing prostitution within the bounds of legality will curb the spread of sexual diseases, including AIDS, and remove barriers that drive away social workers from providing these vulnerable men and women medical and counselling assistance.
It will eliminate underground criminal elements that now operate brothels and derive the most financial benefit, besides stop exploitation of the desperate and helpless involved in the trade.
In our attitude towards these and other less fortunate individuals in society, we must be guided by the Buddhist ideal of compassion.
Sri Lankan is a country of high literacy and the above observations would be self-evident. But there is a tendency in most of us to surrender our rights on ethical issues to the various religions that seek to monopolise them.
Media reports of occasional brothel raids in poorer neighbourhoods may grab public interest but has done little to stop an industry that is resilient and widespread. Police raids are scarce at the top end of town, on star-class hotels and other exclusive venues, where city-savvy prostitutes transact encounters.
In this regard, it would be naive to promote tourism and think that single male and female visitors spend their dollars on merely experiencing beaches, landscapes and archaeological artefacts. The reality is that after dark they seek out physical excitement and fulfilment in bars, pubs and clubs, such as they would normally do at home.
Police harassment of sex workers must only put greater burdens on the lives of men and women forced into the trade, mostly because of a lack of alternative employment or a social security network. In many instances, desperation and the need to provide for children would drive divorced or widowed women to the easy option of sex work. That reasoning should go for the thousands of child-burdened war widows, especially in the north and east, who have suddenly become breadwinners without education or employable skills.
If their lives are to be turned around, those women must be provided with education and skills. Subjecting them to the trauma of abuse and humiliation through arrest, production before a judge, fining and then releasing, is never a solution.
Police and judicial resources are better directed at major crime areas swamping Sri Lanka, such as homicides, armed robberies, illicit drugs and alcohol, gangs and associated illegal trades. These and other areas of dangerous and violent criminality bear little comparison with someone providing sexual services, at most a benign trade. In addition, sexual crime is bound to increase exponentially if brothels were to be eliminated.
The topic naturally brings to mind journalist Sharmila Seyyid and her call for sex work to be legalized and its providers protected (Colombo Telegraph, April 27, 2015. Protect Sri Lankan Muslim Journalist Sharmila Seyyid Who Supports Sex Workers’ Rights: Muslim Civil Society.) Sharmila’s call has led to a local Taliban element taking it upon themselves to “punish” her and her family, the usual reaction of men in patriarchal societies who hold fast to the view that their power over a woman’s body should never be challenged.
We must recognise that Islam is one of the world’s great religions and it is unfortunate that a few extremist give it a bad name by interpreting sacred text to suit their own twisted agendas. Such reprehensible activities are now helped by social media through which anonymous cowards can stir up those segments of society who are impressionable and like buffalos, look to a leader.
The authorities should stamp down hard on such deviants. Otherwise, the Taliban disease may expand here too and give rise to a plague of self-styled and scheming pseudo imams who victimise innocent citizen under the guise of protecting Islam. We do not want such loathsome instances, as has happened in Pakistan, where a young girl, Rimsha Masih, was arrested for allegedly desecrating pages of the Quran, a charge punishable by death in that country, and subsequently the man who had brought about the charge, imam, Hafiz Mohammed Khalid Chishti, being arrested for desecrating the Quran himself and planting the pages in Rimsha’s bag.
Rimsha too, like Sharmila, has been forced into exile in a foreign land because of death threats.
It is unfortunate that in Sri Lanka, as with most Asian countries, sex is a taboo subject. But it would be delusional to imagine that all Sri Lankan adults are asexual until marriage, except for that percentage coerced by religious or moral reasons, or because of physical or psychological failing that need remedial intervention.
However, it wouldn’t be far wrong in stating that most Sri Lankan males practise double standards and subterfuge when it comes to sex. We are all virgins and insist on our marriage partners being untouched as well.
In this regard, it would be interesting to know the number of Sri Lankans who own computers and access sex sites, keeping in mind that even lusting is sex, in a cerebral way. (Of course, we would all say we were only being curious.)
Religious barricades must be overcome if Sri Lanka is to decriminalize the sex industry. The paradox is the uncertainty of whether the country is a secular state, where there is distance between organised religion and the nation state, or a theocratic one, like Iran, where all important decisions must have clerical approval.
Buddhist, Christian and Islamic clergy (stated in alphabetic order) have always had a say in the nation’s political life, frequently with bloody effect. Policy-makers in turn exploit politicized clergy, aware of its ability to influence voters.
That is part of Sri Lanka’s tragedy. But in this, the 21st century, it may be time to bring about a clear separation of church and state. Clerical meddling in civil matters must be stopped. It is an area lawmakers are voted in to oversee. Mixing religion with a nation’s legal base is bound to cause strife between peoples, as it has devastatingly proved repeatedly.
After all, the clergy is also made up of fallible men and women and their weaknesses are universal. In Europe and Australia, where sex has been an open subject, the systemic sexual molestations or physical assaults conducted in religious institutions over the years has been under scrutiny and public discussion. Such openness may take yet more years to arrive in Sri Lanka and the rest of conservative Asia. But it may be time to stop suffering alone or, alternatively, laughing behind our hands at passed-on secrets. Instead, social taboos must be stamped out and conditions created for victims to come forward. Frank and open discussions are the only way to heal.
Let me end with an episode that may bring on a smile. My initial sex-related article, written in the early eighties, never got into print. At that time, I was a reporter on the Ceylon Daily News and my daily rounds brought me in contact with a specialist in venereal disease. He took me to the government clinic down De Saram Place, Colombo 10, and provided me with statistics and reports on the spread of VD, particularly the difficult to treat syphilis. His concern was that sexually transmitted disease was spreading wild and going untreated because of a lack of public information. Back at office, I wrote my report and submitted it to the news editor. Sometime later, the political stooge designated deputy editor, who never wrote and published a line, called me up and before spiking my story, told me to refrain from writing indecent reports because “ours is a family paper”.
It is my hope that Sri Lanka has left such backwardness behind.
It is also my hope that this article will promote further public discussion on sexual workers and their sad plight.
*Christopher Rezel, Australia. Writer and journalist; formerly a reporter on the Ceylon Daily News.