Dubbed the world’s oldest profession, commercial sex work is a solution to many people’s economic woes. For centuries humans have traded money for sex and society today is no different. This practice has been legalised in some countries, but it remains a criminal act in South Africa.

Countries including France, Germany and Argentina have legalised commercial sex work on certain grounds. According to the website, “In other places prostitution itself (exchanging sex for money) is legal, but most surrounding activities such as soliciting in a public place, operating a brothel and other forms of pimping are illegal, often making it very difficult to engage in prostitution without breaking any law.” In other countries like Sudan and North Korea, prostitution is still punishable by death.

The legalisation of prostitution is an age-old debate that comes with many pros and cons. SWEAT – Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce – carries the vision of a South Africa where people who choose to sell sex are able to enjoy freedom, rights and human dignity. SWEAT says there are four things you need to know about criminalising sex work: it harms sex workers, it enables corruption and abuse against sex workers, it drives stigma and it erodes our efforts to end AIDS.

Many residents of areas that carry high prostitution rates are against the decriminalisation of the act and wish to have it more seriously illegalised. In a News24 article, residents of an area in Pietermaritzburg complained about “littering, especially of condoms”. An article published in 2003, titled “Ten Reasons for Not Legalizing Prostitution And a Legal Response to the Demand for Prostitution” on the website argues against the legalisation of sex work, saying that it does not control the sex industry, it expands it. The article goes on to say that through legalising this practice, prostitution has been transformed into “sex work,” and pimps have been transformed into entrepreneurs.

In Cyril Ramaphosa’s National Sex Worker Sector Plan of the South African National Aids Council launched in March 2016, he set out to protect the humanity and inalienable rights of people who engage in sex work. Ramaphosa says that “sex work is essentially work as well”. He went on to say that “South Africans should show compassion, understanding and love towards sex workers.” When asked about the anthropological perspective on commercial sex work, Dr Fraser McNeill, a lecturer from UP’s Department of Anthropology, said that “sex is always transactional. If you look at a normal, healthy boyfriend-girlfriend relationship, you will generally find that the man is paying for everything and there’s a certain expectation that he will get some kind of sex in return. So, why is that not prostitution?”

A major source of concern is the initial reason people choose this way of life. Research from the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) show that 75% of street based sex workers entered the industry due to a financial need. Dr McNeill also says that street sex work, also known as survival sex, is only one form of a very complex system of commercial sex work. The same study found that sex workers managed to make three to five times more than they could through other jobs. The ISS estimated that 47% of sex workers were threatened by police and 28% of them had previously been asked by a police officer for sex in exchange for release from custody. McNeill says that sex workers are in a very vulnerable situation and “[these types of allegations] are one of the main reasons why sex work should be legalised in South Africa, because the allegations are that the very people who are supposed to be protecting the sex workers are actually either abusing them or taking some kind of sex act as a bribe or in some way abusing their situation.”

Amnesty International says that the decriminalisation of sex work does not mean the removal of laws that criminalise exploitation, human trafficking or violence against sex workers. These laws must remain and can and should be strengthened. Street sex workers encounter as much brutality from people who are not clients as from people who are. Many argue that it would help to legalise small co-operative brothels, but The Guardian says “in the end the law only deals with the symptoms, not the desperation that drives women on to the streets and into danger”. According to a TimesLive article published on 5 May titled, “Buying sex, not selling, will be a crime”, the Swedish Ambassador for Combating Trafficking in Persons, Per-Anders Sunesson visited South Africa on 4 May because South Africa is considering adopting the Swedish developed Nordic Law, which criminalises the buying of sex but not its sale.

Photo: Tshepo Moagi

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