The sex trade has long been a conundrum for Barbados.
On one hand, sex workers and sex work are condemned and ridiculed in society but on the other, the so-called world’s oldest profession is practised seemingly without prejudice.
Whether or not we want to bury our heads in the sand on another taboo subject, sex work has been thriving in Barbados since European and Africans settled here almost four hundred years ago. In the 1700s Rachel Pringle Polgreen, a free mulatto, operated a “hotel” for the (sexual) entertainment of British Naval officers.
Today, the activities that take place nightly along Bush Hill, in some popular City nooks and crannies, in some sophisticated locale on the South Coast or the Platinum Coast reveal a thriving business.
Needless to say, there are even more direct methods of procuring sex workers on the internet.
Thus, the senseless fatal shooting of sex worker Caroline Baird, 44, on Bush Hill last Friday has reignited debate on sex work and the people who ply their trade.
Her slaying rightly demands condemnation no less than if she were the proverbial pillar of society. Caroline Baird was a human being who deserved to be alive today.
Many have called for authorities to pay some attention to the very trade that many pretend does not exist.
We welcome the response by Minister of People Empowerment and Elder Affairs Kirk Humphrey that Government ought to address the safety of sex workers as he described the incident as “unfortunate”.
He also noted that while sex workers are often disregarded and mistreated, society has to do more to reach out to women to help them change their lives. We should hold him to his ministerial word.
We take note, too, of the response by adult entertainment advocate Charles Charlie Spice Lewis who has offered to help the authorities to develop a regulatory framework for the protection of sex workers that includes finding safer places for them to work.
Lewis lamented that over the years, there have been reported and unreported cases of sex workers being raped, assaulted, abused, and taken advantage of in various ways.
“Nobody wants to do anything until something has happened to them or somebody they know,” he said. “So perhaps this is a good time for both sides of the fence to come together and get involved in that narrative and make things happen.”
Lewis’ position triggers another debate in a country where prostitution remains illegal.
He and other proponents suggest that the sex trade should be legalized since there will always be demand and supply. They contend that decriminalisation will remove the stigma, increase protection for workers at risk for abuse, and provide access to health care and other benefits.
Lewis’ opponents are equally adamant that there is no way to really make sex work safe. They point out that women are invariably abused, trafficked, degraded and exposed to HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted infections.
There is also a third way.
When and if a mature and evidence-based discussion occurs here in conservative Barbados, it must consider the research conducted by the registered charity Jabez House that facilitates the transition process for sex workers to alternative economic empowerment opportunities.
On VOB’s Down to Brass Tacks on Tuesday, Jabez House’s founding director Shamelle Rice pointed to a 2017 study, The Experiences and Needs of Women Engaged in Transactional Sex Work in Barbados, which revealed that the primary motivator for women entering and staying in the trade was the opportunity to provide for their children.
Rice said: “I would be hard-pressed to find five, three even [sex workers] who would say I want to remain in this profession. I enjoy doing this, this is good. The women that we meet, the women that we serve at Jabez House are saying I am only out here or I am only doing sex work because I can’t find another job because my family situation is this way or whatever, I have children to feed.
“More than 95 per cent of women who are sex workers are mothers who are having a rough time.”
Initiatives like Jabez House deserve full support.
Still, we are aware there are those sex workers who may simply choose the life because they consider it their right to choose their own path – even if it leads to a trade that operates on the moral and legal fringe.
We believe that it is time to approach the discussion of the decriminalisation of sex work with a high respect for the workers and their entitlement to dignity, safety and security, and a greater understanding of the social inequality that propels women into the trade and continues to subjugate them. The discussion should pay rigorous attention to facts and evidence and be dedicated to providing lasting solutions.
In the meantime, let justice reign. May the authorities be swift but sure in bringing Caroline Baird’s killers to book.