The Malta Independent 8 March 2021, Monday

Prostitution harms the most vulnerable

Sunday, 17 January 2021, 08:47 Last update: about 3 months ago

Roberta Metsola and Claudette Buttigieg

The political debate over prostitution can never lose sight of the women and girls exploited in the sex industry.

The government is in the midst of drafting laws that would legalise, as they have said, the selling and buying of sex, allowing for its regulation by the state.

The Coalition on Human Trafficking and Prostitution of 40 NGOs, academics, doctors, lawyers and service providers has been highly critical of the proposed reforms. They point to the lack of prostitution experts involved in the process.


The Nordic or Equality Model presents a legal alternative. This model is based on a system that decriminalises those who sell sex, while criminalising buyers and pimps. It acknowledges the exploitative and misogynist nature of the sex industry, providing exit strategies for women who wish to leave prostitution. The coalition also advocates for this legal model.

Government’s proposed reform would treat prostitution as a job: a voluntary transaction between two consenting adults. However, this is far from the truth.

The sex industry, both globally and in Malta, by an enormous margin, is made up of women and girls from poor and vulnerable backgrounds. Many have suffered sexual and physical violence before and after entering prostitution. Women from third countries are overrepresented in the sex industry, with prostitution for many often being their only financial option.

Dar Hosea, the only shelter for vulnerable women in prostitution in Malta, has stated that the “vast majority of women do not freely involve themselves in prostitution”. Research has shown that 89% of those in prostitution globally want “to escape prostitution, but did not have other options for survival”.

It should be clear that words such as 'choice'' and 'freedom' do not apply to prostitution. Yet, these terms are consistently used in the justification of its legalisation. This distorts the reality of prostitution, presenting a glossy version of the sex industry which we know to be false.

Classifying prostitution as work does little to rectify the exploitative reality of the sex industry. Rather, legalisation condones and legitimises the abuse and harm perpetrated against women and girls trapped within it.

A number of concerning legal and moral issues arise when we start to classify prostitution as work.

Firstly, if prostitution is treated as a form of work like any other, this enables the commodification of vulnerable women and girls. Knowing what we do about the reality of the sex industry, the regulation of prostitution risks the State becoming actively complicit in the abuse and exploitation of vulnerable women and girls.  

Secondly, issues arise around whether women from third countries would be given work visas for prostitution. If so, what would this mean for those women who wish to stop selling sex despite holding a work visa? Two options present themselves. Either, women would be deported for exercising their human right to refuse sex or they would be allowed to stay despite refusing to 'work', providing a migration loophole readymade for easy entry into Malta.

Thirdly, this reform threatens the legal boundaries designed to protect work. The same arguments made for prostitution could be made for other transactional relationships currently not deemed as work. For example, it is illegal to sell your organs, even if it is  a ‘voluntary' transaction between two consenting adults, never mind the fact that most people who sell their organs are vulnerable and easily exploited.

These arguments, among many others, illustrate the plethora of issues with prostitution that are not being acknowledged, let alone addressed. Considering the reality of prostitution, it is imperative that our focus is on the impact legalisation would have on the most vulnerable among us.

One question should be at the centre of this debate: who does this proposed reform benefit? Certainly not vulnerable women.


MEP Roberta Metsola is the first Vice-President of the European Parliament.

MP Claudette Buttigieg is the Deputy Speaker of Malta’s House of Representatives

  • don't miss