The shades-of-grey legal status of Hong Kong's sex industry means that it is rarely mentioned publicly. Only when prostitutes are brutalised or murdered, such as with last week's killings of four sex workers, does our conservative society broach the dilemma of how the industry should be accommodated.
Debate has been sparked on whether it is time to legalise prostitution to protect the safety and health of sex workers. They are, after all, among the most vulnerable people in our society because of the nature of their trade and the legal anomalies they work under. Their circumstances leave them open to abuse by clients, exploitation by gangs and prone to health risks. In times of trouble, because of their status in society, they are loath to turn to police.
Residents can work legally as prostitutes, but only within the tight constraints of decades-old laws. They must work out of their own flats, one person to each, and cannot solicit clients. Landlords can be charged with renting a flat to sex workers, and brothel security guards with living off the earnings of prostitutes.
Social norms have dictated such circumstances. Whether the situation should change is not a matter to be taken lightly, though; community sensitivities to prostitution require that there be exhaustive public debate followed by careful consideration. While this process takes place, the safety and welfare of those in the industry needs to be dealt with. The murders of the sex workers highlights the urgency of the matter.
Present circumstances mean the sex industry is, in effect, an underground one. Illegal forms of prostitution are flourishing through a wide variety of means, from karaoke bars and discos to massage parlours and saunas, internet websites and escort agencies to hotel reservation services and street walkers. Experts contend that beyond the 2,000 or so legal one-person brothels, there are tens of thousands of other women and men selling sex.
Prostitution has been around as long as civilisation and exists in all societies. Some governments, such as in Singapore, Australia and Europe, have determined that legalisation is the best way forward. Regulation of the industry, in theory, gives protection. Through registering and paying taxes like other workers, prostitutes are supposed to be given a legitimate voice and acceptance in society.
But while those supporting legalisation espouse a range of solutions, including brothels with two or more sex workers and red-light districts, there are also valid arguments against such proposals. Few in the community would wish to have such a zone set up on their doorstep. Nor should Hong Kong be sending signals that encourage growth of the sex trade.
Police and immigration officials have their hands full with the illegal side of the business. Tens of thousands of women and men from poorer parts of the region come here as tourists each year to earn money from sex work; one side effect is that a large chunk of our female prison population is non-residents serving time for soliciting or breach of conditions of stay.
Hong Kong has long been a financial magnet and there is debate on whether strengthening the legal status of local sex workers will eradicate the illegal side of the industry. Requiring registration and taxes may prompt some residents to work beyond the law, for financial reasons as well as those of anonymity.
As conservative an attitude as we may have towards prostitution, though, the killings last week highlight a problem that needs to be tackled head-on. While most immediately this is a matter for police to deal with, it is ultimately for the wider community to determine.
This can only be done through discussion and it is this debate that will decide the future direction of the sex industry.