Govt shoots down proposal to legalize sex industry

The country is known for stories of the Divine Madman Drukpa Kuenley replete with ribald humor, and craft shops have no qualms selling wooden phallus products, but when it actually comes to legalizing sex, is it just talk or another taboo?

During the media advocacy on HIV and SOGIE (Sexual Orientation Gender Identity and Expression) workshop held this month, the Executive Director of Lhak-Sam, Wangda Dorji, said that a proposal to legalize sex workers in the country was put up by Lhak-Sam to the government. However, it was shot down.

Wangda Dorji said that commercial sex workers should be treated equal to other professionals. He said that legalization of sex industry in the country was proposed by Lhak-Sam as 35%-40% of the commercial sex workers are vulnerable to HIV and Hepatitis B plus sexually transmitted diseases.

Despite acknowledging the existence of sex workers in the country, he said that there has never been a study on how many commercial sex workers are there in the country. However, health officials confirmed that there are about 400-600 ‘high risk women’ in the country.

Lhak-Sam has found that many commercial sex workers admitted to not using a condom on demand from their clients for a few extra thousand notes, which he says is putting oneself at risk.

According to the Penal Code of Bhutan, Article 373 and 374, ‘a defendant shall be guilty of the offence of prostitution, if the defendant offers, agrees to engage, or engages in sexual conduct with another person for money or property’ and ‘the offence of prostitution shall be a misdemeanor,’ respectively.

“Because our law criminalizes commercial sex workers, they go underground while still operating,” said Wangda Dorji.

Many of the commercial sex workers whom Wangda Dorji spoke to said that they were physically and verbally abused and harassed, not paid after sex, and blackmailed to take the sex workers to police.

The Executive Director also said that legalizing commercial sex workers in the country would create safe space for all the sex workers to come together and discuss on issues involving themselves and also be able to avail the services provided to the Bhutanese.

Wangda Dorji said that if the sex industry was legalized, the number of rape cases would decrease because those who want to have sex can find a venue to fulfill their needs.

“If sex workers are legalized in the country, it would also assure jobs for those sex workers who are in hiding right now,” he said.

Talking on the issue, Health Secretary Dr. Ugen Dophu said the issue was not so simple as it appears and that there are both pros and cons to legalizing sex workers in the country.

“The pros are that the health ministry can make it mandatory for them to have periodic medical checkups and health can give them services that they are not availing right now of fear of being stigmatized,” said the Health Secretary adding that a major con is that currently the number of commercial sex workers can increase drastically. “We know that at the moment, there are majority of sex workers in Thimphu and Phuentsholing. The legalization will also address the problems faced by sex workers like being harassed, abused, and blackmailed.”

A minister speaking in his individual capacity said, “It is a little too early for Bhutan.”

Another minister also speaking in the capacity of a layman, however, slammed down the very idea. “I don’t agree and would not encourage it as legalizing means encouraging sex workers to be in the market.”

Bhutan Chamber of Commerce and Industry President Phub Zam said, “In a way it will be good as these people will be checked and clean and disease transference can be avoided. But our society is small and I do not know whether it will work here. Sex workers might get stigmatized or targeted if people know who they are.”

A senior judge on condition of anonymity said that the Penal Code already forbids it and it could only be legalized by the parliament.

Lhak-Sam is the first and only network of HIV positive people formed in 2010 to address the needs of people living with HIV.

Lucky Wangmo from Thimphu