A mannequin inside a local brothel in Taipei.
Credit: Sam Yeh

TAIPEI, Taiwan — On Friday, Taiwan passed a bill that legalizes commercial sex work, but only within officially designated red-light districts. The bill says that outside those districts authorities can penalize prostitutes and their patrons.

When sex work became illegal in 1991 after decades of the hush-hush tolerance typical of East Asia, authorities targeted the largely female sex worker population with fines, detentions and re-education campaigns.

In 2009, targeting prostitutes and not their patrons was declared unconstitutional. That law was due to expire on Nov. 6.

Since 2009, while parliamentarians have mulled the future of prostitution, the remarkably well organized sex-work lobby pushed hard to legalize the trade for both workers and patrons, including for the most frequent police targets: women on street corners.

The government's move on Friday is being touted as a vote of confidence for the island's thriving sex industry. 

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Still, sex workers in Taiwan aren't celebrating. As in much of East Asia, sex work in Taiwan has, until now, occurred in short-stay hotel rooms and behind storefronts advertising massages and karaoke.

Sex workers say the new bill will put an end to that thriving industry, and force local authorities to create red-light districts, which they aren't likely to do.

Critics say the legislation amounts to the central government passing the buck — in more ways than one.

The government admits it's not an ideal scenario, but says it's the best they could do.

“The passage of this bill, though not ideal, is still the best consensus among all sides of the issue,” the Taiwan interior ministry said in a statement. 

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Given the vigorous lobbying by sex-worker groups, the ministry also said that lack of action was not an option. It would “cause severe social unrest,” according to the statement.

Taiwan’s support for red-light districts puts it on a growing map of places around the world that allow some measure of prostitution.

New Zealand has let brothels operate freely since 2003, when parliament voted to overturn 100-year-old sex laws. A court in Bangladesh decriminalized the trade in 2000, but for women only. Hong Kong allows one-woman studio brothels.

In Taiwan, the government favors localized red-light districts, as they’re “easy to manage,” said interior ministry spokesman Chien Tai-lang. The bill says city and county governments can designate commercial sex-work districts within "suitable" distance from public schools.

One outlying island county indicated it would try for a red-light district, said Chung Chun-chu, chief executive officer of the 71-member Collective of Sex Workers and Supporters. But her advocacy group says other local officials have shied away from the idea.

“The main point is, who wants to set one up? Who wants to take on that responsibility?” Chung said.

“Since the local governments don’t want to face it, that means both sex workers and clients will be punished.”

Chung Chun-chu's Taipei-based lobby group believes that an estimated 100,000 sex workers are active in Taiwan. They would make a good living, she said, if police would stop catching them on street corners and fining them up to $1,000.

Authorities make about 1,000 sex-worker busts per year, Chung said.

Stephen Lakkis, director of the Center for Public Theology at Taiwan Theological College, said that the new legislation lets the central government shirk its responsibility.

“The policy ideas we have seen so far really suggest that the government aims to do the absolute minimum possible,” said Lakkis, who has researched Taiwan’s sex trade for the past 18 months.

“What this means in the real world is that NGOs, those for and against legalization, will be left holding the bag," he said. They "will find that they need to continue doing most of the work of caring for the welfare of women and children caught up in the sex trade.”

Women’s groups and Christian churches, while not a major political force in Taiwan, came out in support of the provision to target both prostitutes and their patrons outside of official red-light districts.

“Prostitutes are stuck in a system,” said Chi Hui-jung, chief executive officer of the women’s support group Garden of Hope Foundation in Taipei.

“We think the [government] should go after the demand — that is, fine the customers. If Taiwan allows prostitution to go on, then the status of women in Taiwan will decline.”

Opponents also fear that the sex trade will attract locals too poor to escape it, while also luring illegally trafficked immigrants, including minors, from impoverished parts of China and Southeast Asia.

About 10,500 people from China alone entered Taiwan’s sex trade between 2001 and 2007, immigration agency statistics show. About 2,200 of those came illegally.

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