Singapore's sex soul searching
( 2003-11-17 10:43) (CNN.com)
Singapore, where prostitution is legal and oral sex is a crime, is doing some soul searching over morality, sexuality and the law.
In a country ranked last for two straight years in a global list of most sexually active nations, and where fertility rates are falling, debate over laws on sex is growing after a 27-year-old man was jailed for two years for receiving oral sex.
The man, a police coast guard sergeant, landed in court after a girl reported to police she had performed oral sex on him after the two met in an Internet chat room.
Local media said she was 16 years old, above the age of consent in Singapore. After days of furious public letters in newspapers deriding the law on oral sex as antiquated and out of step, the government announced that her age at the time of the incident was 15. The controversy is unlikely to die down, lawyers say, because of section 377 in Singapore's Penal Code that police used to prosecute the case.
That section says "whoever voluntarily has carnal intercourse against the order of nature with any man, woman or animals can be fined and jailed up to 10 years, or even for life."
That a law that effectively criminalizes homosexuality and oral sex between men and women exists and is enforced appears to have mortified much of the public.
"Does anyone not realize how archaic the law against oral sex is?" wrote Christopher Low Kin Siong in one of many letters of protest to the Straits Times newspaper. "There is no reason why the law should interfere with anyone's sex life."
"By enforcing the act, the state has made criminals of the majority of adults with a sex life."
Sustained public criticism of Singapore's semi-authoritarian government, and its laws, is extremely rare. But calls for the government to withdraw from the bedroom are filling Web chat rooms, buzzing around cafes and stirring protests from lawyers.
'Revise the law'
"We need to revise the law," said criminal lawyer Sarbrinder Singh. "We together with members of parliament are going to debate this issue in the parliament. Our aim is to legalize oral sex as long as the female is consented and no force is imposed."
Singh said a handful of his clients had gone to court because of oral sex and about 20 clients had consulted him on the issue in the past three years. "In Singapore, oral sex is very common, but going to court is very uncommon," he said.
Legal experts say the law is dangerously opaque. In one case detailed in the Straits Times, a wife had tried to punish her unfaithful husband by performing oral sex on him and then reporting him to the police.
The criticisms come as the government struggles to relax censorship laws that now ban Playboy magazine, clip racy scenes from movies and scissor drug references from pop cultural magazines -- rules that have helped earn Singapore the well-known sobriquet of Asia's "nanny state.
Although a ban on "Sex and the City," the hit U.S. TV sitcom about a quartet of single women in New York, was lifted in September along with a 21-year ban on Cosmopolitan magazine, authorities have yet to air the show or allow "Cosmo" to go on sale.
Officials say they need more time to ensure the conservative majority in the island's polyglot community of ethnic Chinese, Malays and Indians are not offended. Residents say they expect this to mean parts of "Sex and the City" will still be censored.
The public generally supports Singapore's tough laws -- including the death penalty for drug smugglers, bans on pornography and curbs on political dissent -- as part of a social contract that in return has delivered years of economic prosperity.
But laws on sex are different, residents say, exposing a raw nerve in a country that only this year revealed that gays now worked in the public service -- a low-key policy shift aimed in part at fostering a creative class and attracting foreign talent.
Meanwhile, prostitution remains openly legal.
On Singapore's most fashionable shopping street, for example, a plaza with dry cleaning services, jewelers and golf stores is also filled with escort services and several floors of discos known as gathering points for women selling sex.
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