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What is Sex Work?

Sex work is the act of exchanging money, goods or services for sex.

Who are sex workers?

A sex worker is a person who engages in sex work. Sex workers can be male, female or transgender. They can be any race, come from any cultural background and can have any sexual orientation and gender identity. In Malaysia, sex workers are one of the key populations most vulnerable to HIV transmission.

Why do people engage in sex work?

People become sex workers for many different reasons. For some empowered sex workers who do it willingly by choice, it is simply a convenient and lucrative source of income. However, there are also sex workers who do it due to lack of choice which may be due to family circumstances, poverty, lack of other job opportunities, lack of education/qualifications/skills and even lack of citizenship (for migrants). Unfortunately, there are also sex workers who had no choice and were forced into it, for example as human trafficking victims of gangs/syndicates/mafia or were coerced into it by their partners, pimps or even loan sharks.

Why are sex workers often at increased risk of HIV?

People engaged in sex work are at increased risk for HIV because they often have more sexual partners. They also are subjected to an increased threat of violence in sexual encounters, there are often no condoms or PrEP available when they have sex, and clients often ask them to use substances during sexual encounters, further increasing the risk of unsafe sex occurring. Finally, sex workers, for reasons of opening hours and health care worker stigma, often have limited access to health care services.

While sex workers may be committed to using condoms with clients, their adherence depends on the cooperation of the client. Sex workers are often pressured by their clients to have unprotected sex: they argue that using condoms will decrease their pleasure; that they will not be able to maintain an erection; that it will take too long for them to achieve orgasm. Clients may also offer financial incentives, paying sex workers more for sex without condom. In some cases, clients may use coercion and violence to force sex workers to have unprotected sex.

Harassment by uniformed services and the stigma attached to sex work and sex workers hinder accessibility of HIV and other health services. Sex work is often represented in a negative and stigmatising way in mainstream society media. This is also reflected in the attitudes of health care workers. For this reason, sex workers often avoid seeking treatment for STIs and reproductive health issues at public health care clinics. Even when they do seek treatment, they may not be willing to be frank about their sexual health issues with the healthcare providers.

Is sex work legal in Malaysia?

In Malaysia, sex work is technically not illegal, under civil law which prohibits only solicitation, not the act of sex work itself. Pimping, or knowingly living on the earnings of a sex worker, is also illegal according to civil law. In Sharia law, which applies to Malaysian Muslims, selling and buying sex, as well as profiting from sex work are illegal but the exact specifications differs from state to state. Sex workers should understand that they cannot be arrested or prosecuted under civil law for the job they are doing. However, other laws are often used by police officers to extort bribes or demand free sexual services from sex workers, including laws related to maintaining public order.

What is important for sex workers to understand is that sex work is technically NOT illegal under civil law. This is because in Malaysian civil law there are no specific laws making prostitution illegal, only the usual situations leading up to prostitution are covered under the Penal Code. One of the biggest problems around prostitution is human trafficking. Hence, section 366 of the Penal code makes it a crime to kidnap women for the purpose of subjecting them to a life of prostitution. Section 372 of the penal code is a long section that widely covers any form of exploitation for the purposes of prostitution in widespread scenarios such as penalising trading (buying, selling, hiring etc.) for the purposes of prostitution and trafficking, harbouring or restraining any persons for the purposes of prostitution. Another section 373 of the penal code penalises owning, managing, and assisting in managing a brothel.

Why do health care workers sometimes stigmatise sex workers?

As mentioned earlier sex work is often represented in a negative and stigmatising way in mainstream society media. This is also reflected in the attitudes of health care workers. Discrimination and stigma from health care workers comes in many forms. It can range from being overt to being unintentional or even subconscious. Many health care workers are not aware of how their own attitudes stigmatize sex workers. It is the duty of health care workers to provide good health care to all clients regardless of their profession.