In its 2020 human trafficking report, the UN Office on Drugs and Crime noted that of every 10 persons trafficked, five were adult women and two were young girls. The same report noted that data from 106 countries indicated 77 per cent of reported cases of adult female trafficking was for sexual exploitation (with 72 per cent for girls).

The numbers currently trafficked for sexual exploitation amount to tens of thousands yearly in an ‘industry’ estimated to be worth $175 billion plus; an industry managed and controlled in the main by criminal interests.

This is the undeniable global context for any serious discussion of prostitution. The destructive impact of the sex trade is recognised as extensive and cannot be reduced to a simplistic debate about the safety of prostitutes in the developed world. 

Those advocating the legalisation of prostitution for whatever reasons must take these realities into account. 

Arguing that some women enter prostitution by choice and that they have a right to protection and safety does not in any way mitigate the situation of the majority who are forced into prostitution for a variety of reasons. Making the argument based on the often well-paid and relatively safer ‘escort’ element of the trade to justify legalising all prostitution denies the reality of the trade. 

Prostitution routinely involves coercion, force, trafficking and inevitably violence and criminality at a host of levels. In such circumstances, distinguishing between individuals who are selling consensual sex from those who are not is well-nigh impossible. Experience from countries where prostitution has been legalised suggests that in such circumstances illegal and coerced commercial sex acts find it easier to masquerade as legal.

That experience also suggests that increased demand because of the decriminalisation of prostitution (as distinct from prostitutes) leads to more women, girls and others being coerced and trafficked to service that demand. 

Prostitution has long been stigmatised and decriminalisation runs the very real risk of increasing demand through the removal of both stigma and sanction. This could make sex trafficking yet more profitable, feasible and attractive to criminal organisations. 

The overall effect of the legalisation of prostitution could facilitate an increase rather than a decrease in the incidence of criminality, violence and trafficking.

The effective ‘management’ of a decriminalised sex industry in Malta would require high levels of effective monitoring and enforcement, neither of which could be realistically expected in Malta.

In such circumstances the prostitution reform law being proposed by the government risks leading to the protection of pimps, traffickers and men while doing little to reduce the harm done to those caught in the web of prostitution.

This is the view of the Coalition on Human Trafficking and Prostitution, which represents more than 45 experienced organisations and individuals.

Their concern is that the legalisation of prostitution could result in Malta becoming a sex hub with all its inevitable consequences. They argue that it would be a serious mistake to blithely assume that Malta could open the door to legal prostitution while keeping the international criminal sex trade under effective control. Instead, the coalition is arguing for the ‘Nordic’ model, which would decriminalise those who sell sex while criminalising buyers and pimps.

They argue the government’s claim that the needs of women in the trade are at the centre of the suggested reform is both misleading and dishonest.

The priority should be to help vulnerable women caught up in prostitution, ensure full protection to those who willingly enter the trade while castigating those who try to exploit them.

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