Two weeks ago, Argentina’s Minister of Justice and Human Rights, Julio Alak pledged the passage of a law that would prosecute individuals for the consumption of prostitution during the 2014 legislative year. The minister’s statement brings to a head the contentious debate over the legality of prostitution in the Latin American nation that ignited with the proposal of a new bill targeting clients back in April of 2013. Currently, Argentina only outlaws external prostitution, or prostitution via pimping and/or in brothels, while individual prostitution behind closed doors and on the streets remains a legal practice. This new law would mark a historic shift in the country towards a program of prohibition of the institution.
The bill’s supporters in Argentina base their arguments against legalised prostitution upon two central claims: the legalisation of prostitution only entrenches its associated health and crime problems in civil society, and the practice perpetuates the cycle of gender inequality. Although the motives for passage of this new law reside in noble efforts to combat two major global social issues, prohibition legislation only undermines the rights and health of both sex workers and their clients.
The first argument emerges from a prevailing belief that legalisation will result in the creation of a lawless system perpetuating sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and crime rates. In fact, successful legalization strategies would implement a series of rigid regulatory practices that could improve both the health and physical safety of sex workers in Argentina.
Surprisingly, two models for successful legalisation efforts can be found within the United States. In terms of well codified health regulations, various counties of the US state of Nevada, which permit legalized prostitution in brothels, require weekly testing for most STIs and monthly testing for HIV as well as the mandatory use of condoms for oral sex and intercourse. Subsequently, no sex worker in any of the legal brothels in the state of Nevada has tested positive for HIV since 1986. In the US state of Rhode Island where indoor prostitution unexpectedly became legalised in 2003, an August 2013 study not only showed a decline in male and female incidence of gonorrhoea, but in reported rape offences as well.
Other nations are experimenting with decriminalisation and legalisation of prostitution and finding similar successes as well. In 2003, New Zealand introduced the Prostitution Reform Act, which legalised prostitution within a regime of regulations including the requirement for operators of brothels with more than 5 employees to obtain certification. Their Ministry of Justice in its first assessment of the law in 2008 found that this law had actually improved health conditions for sex workers and their willingness to report crimes to the police, especially in the certified indoor establishments. Similar remarkable improvements in sex worker safety and health across Asia and the Pacific even prompted the United Nations Development Programme and UNAIDS to endorse the regulated legalization of prostitution in a 2012 report.
The second major objection to the legalisation of prostitution rests on the basis that it only perpetuates a system of gender inequality. Here, proponents of the complete prohibition of prostitution in Argentina and across the world find a valid argument. Historically, the act of prostitution has exploited women, transexuals, and youth to satisfy the industry’s overwhelmingly male-dominated clientele.
However, the ferocity and longevity of the prostitution debate in Argentina may have laid the foundations for a domestic solution to the threat of dangerous gender imbalances in the institution. In 1994, a group of female sex workers joined together to create the Association of Women Prostitutes of Argentina (AMMAR) in order to advocate for their political and economic rights. Today, this unofficial trade union boasts a membership of over 15,000 female prostitutes, of whom 89% are mothers and 93% are the breadwinners of their families, and a growing level of political influence. Still, the Argentine national government refuses to officially recognise AMMAR as an official union, which presents a significant challenge for the establishment of any national legal regime reducing gender imbalances.
AMMAR represents one of the world’s first unionisation attempts for sex workers and the first in Latin America. The official incorporation of AMMAR into the debate concerning the legality of prostitution in the nation would allow for the creation of a regulatory system designed upon real world input by actual sex workers. In this case, Argentina stands in front of an opportunity to create a codified legal framework that could be the first in the world to legalise prostitution, while simultaneously providing a political voice to a historically under-represented segment of national society.
Yet, there may be substantial truth in the claim that the current legal status of prostitution in Argentina represents a faulty institution. Evidence shows that efforts to reduce HIV prevalence amongst sex workers are uneven and the police are often involved with illegal brothel-based prostitution rings. However, this does not implicate the existence of prostitution as the source for these pressing social issues in Argentina, but they reflect weak government oversight efforts and corruption. Thus, the failures of the current status of prostitution result from Argentina’s legal straddling of the issue, which allows for this civil freedom without implementing any form of measures to ensure its safe and responsible practice. The complete prohibition of prostitution would only force participants in the sex industry to go further underground and would place sex workers in greater danger without legal recourse.
Subsequently, any changes of the prostitution laws in Argentina should draw upon the Nevada and Asian-Pacific models to create a legalisation regime that provides for both regular testing for STIs. Furthermore, the incorporation of New Zealand policies would promote the establishment of a brothel certification system to offer a protected avenue for sex workers to report crimes and reduce sex crime incidence. Finally, to combat gender imbalances within the sex industry, Argentina needs to offer official political voice to organisations like AMMAR to ensure their protection. Although these policy models offer the potential for comprehensive and modern management of the “world’s oldest profession,” the success of these programs ultimately depends on the willingness of Argentina to stand behind them.