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GET THAT WOMAN OFF THE ROAD : Why the Global Commission on Law and HIV must recommend legalisation of ‘pimping’ too

Sensible people also agree that sexual abuse of children, trafficking with violence and coercion associated with sex work should be criminalised, and heavily so.   Men who pay children for sex are abusers not clients and there is no such thing as a child sex worker.  We can certainly be confident that the Commission will agree that existing laws against crimes of violence such as rape, kidnapping and procurement by fraud and sexual crimes against children should stay and even be strengthened and more widely enforced.

 But agreement among even the most sensible minds seems to collapse when we turn to the laws that prohibit  brothel keeping, people smuggling involving  sex workers; sexual exploitation of consenting adults ; controlling a prostitute for gain; living on ‘the avials’ or ‘immoral earnings’  – in other words the large range of offenses commonly recognised as aiming to stop so-called ‘pimping’.  These laws  criminalise all third parties in the sex industry from landlords and brothel managers to washerwomen and taxi drivers and sex workers lovers and husbands,  not just the  ‘bad man’ of myths and movies. 

Although some of the squeamishness or ambivilence to the ‘pimp’ is understandable, and indeed shared by many sex workers, it is here that the key question must be answered – is sex work work or not? If it is, the sex worker is clearly entitled to be make the same business arrangements as others, including being an employee.  And he or she is also entitled to have those arrangements supported and protected by administrative, labour and contract law. 

 Anti-pimping/sexual exploitation/trafficking laws should be removed not because they violate those who employ, or facilitate consenting sex workers, but because they violate sex workers rights and place sex workers in danger.  Some Commissioners will already know this. But it is also likely that some of them will be torn about recommending removal of ‘pimping’ laws, out of genuine concern for the welfare of sex workers.

 Any such doubts should be dispelled by the shocking picture above of a woman in what must be among the least safe working conditions imaginable (and that’s before any consideration of any sex she might have if she survives the traffic long enough to get a client ) She is not in this appalling position because ‘sex work is illegal’ as people frequently assume. She is working in a wealthy European country where selling sex is not in fact illegal.  It is the laws against ‘pimping’ that deprive her of the option of working in a safe work place.   

This woman needs far more than freedom from arrest.  She also needs more than an outreach worker bearing a condom and a pamphlet with the address of an STI clinic.  She needs walls, a bed, sanitation, heating or cooling, a place to store her things, to prepare food, rest and go to the toilet.  She needs advertising, security and the many other normal services upon which an orderly and safe work life depend.  If she is HIV positive she needs access to ART so she can stay well and avoid transmitting HIV, but if she an immigrant she is unlikely to get it.

So when I look at this and other pictures of outdoor sex workers conditions on Google Street view  I see a powerful case for removing the whole raft of laws against profiting from the prostitution of consenting others so that sex industries can evolve in ways that don’t  ruin lives and threaten public health  That these pictures are taken where  brothel keeping  is illegal, but selling sex is not, is strong evidence that there is no practical value in some agnostic, middle way in which the sex worker is decriminalised but the sex workers has nowhere to go to work safely because of the  laws against sex venues.

Although this point is clear to most sex workers  it escapes many people and that may be true of some Commissioners.  I hope these pictures help us to focus on the importance of convincing the Global Commission on HIV and Law to recommend removal of all of the criminal laws around adult sex work as a necessary first step toward sex workers accessing safe, fair working conditions.

The next picture illustrates that there is at least one thing that the all the myths, prejudices and laws about so called pimps doesn’t prevent the roadside sex worker accessing – a ‘pimp’ !!


Cheryl Overs is a Senior Research Fellow at the Michael Kirby Centre for Public Health and Human, Rights, Monash University Melbourne, Australia;  a Visiting Fellow at the Institute of Development Studies, Sussex University, UK and a member of the Technical Advisory Group of the Global Commission on HIV and the Law.

For further analaysis and comment on the social and legal meaning of the category and term ‘pimp’ and its impact in debates around law reform see:

Overs C, The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Constructions of Masculinity and Contemporary Understandings of Sex Work in Politicising Masculinities Edited by Andrea Cornwall, Jerker Edström and Alan Greig Zed Books 2011

Overs C. Pimp My Rights PLRI Blog http://plri.wordpress.com/page/3/