Decriminalising sex work is the only rational choice to end stigma, discrimination and violence against sex workers

By Sally Shackleton, Elsa Oliveira, Rebecca Walker and Ntokozo Yingwana

Marcel van der Watt’s recent opinion piece on the effects of decriminalising sex work in South Africa makes such outlandish claims that it’s tempting to ignore him, if what he wrote wasn’t so disturbing and misrepresentative of the sex workers’ rights movement.

Marcel van der Watt begins his article in Daily Maverick, ‘Decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa will only bring more harm’ (17 April 2019), by describing his supposed “insider’s perspective” on issues of sex work, but attributes violence in sex work exclusively to involvement in sex work, ignoring the impacts of criminalisation and the broader context of chronic gender-based violence endemic in patriarchal societies, such as South Africa.

He cautions against the deafening voices of white privileged intellectuals in the “sex work vs trafficking” debate, but strangely opens his opinion piece by asserting himself as an expert. His closing call to save the “girl-child who will inherit our ‘village’ ” also reveals a lack of self-awareness of his own positionality as a privileged, white male.

Indeed, Van der Watt’s paternalistic view on matters pertaining to the governance of (mostly) women’s bodies needs to be brought into serious question.

Sex work is work and it remains an important livelihood strategy for many people in the world. While it is true that some people freely choose sex work as their occupation, it is also true that for other sex workers this choice is constrained due to a lack of available alternatives. That said, research in South Africa shows that selling sex often pays better than other low- or semi-skilled labour. Even women with tertiary education can earn 1.7 times more selling sex than they can in other forms of employment. To position adult sex workers as naïve and ignorant of their own realities is grossly to conflate poverty with ignorance.

Sex workers in South Africa support an average of four people through their sex work earnings, most of whom are their children and elderly parents. While some continue to struggle to cope with dire poverty, others have built homes and paid for their children’s education.

While some people may feel uncomfortable with the idea that a poor person might choose sex work above other labour options available to them, laws cannot be made on the basis of mere feelings and, especially not above the views of those most impacted.

Contrary to Van der Watt’s assumptions, the fight for the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa is about increasing sex workers’ safety. His disparaging claims about the international and national sex workers’ rights movement indulge tiresome rescuer-victim narratives so common in anti-trafficking discourses. Sex workers’ demands to be treated with respect and dignity inconveniently defy his rescuer narrative.

Van der Watt’s claim that South African researchers in support of decriminalisation have been criticised for “radically truncating” the definition of trafficking is supported only by a reference to his own work. He boasts about speaking to “countless people involved in prostitution” yet in the thesis to which he refers, only one active sex worker was interviewed among 91 respondents. Nine out of the 10 people he describes in his thesis as “sex trade professionals” were ex-brothel owners, ex-pimps, ex-brothel managers, a police informant, current owners of massage parlours, and an ex-drug addict biker gang member (no “wolverine traffickers” included).

The other “sex trade professional” was the one sex worker he interviewed. His research refers numerous times to an informant who spent one week as a brothel receptionist, relying more on this informant than the sex worker with nine years’ experience in the trade. Perhaps it was her support of decriminalisation that kept him from taking her seriously. Van der Watt clearly felt that a brothel receptionist told a more compelling story about sex workers’ agency than a sex worker herself.

In his opinion piece, Van der Watt infers that the sex worker movement in South Africa is somewhat invested in denying the existence of sex trafficking as a ploy to legitimise the decriminalisation campaign. This is notion is absurd. Fighting for sex workers’ rights means fighting against all forms of violence, including human trafficking for sexual exploitation.

He also infers that the sex worker movement is blinded to the realities of sex work and the exploitation that many sex workers face; choosing to ignore the large body of peer-reviewed research and publicly available materials (see selection below) produced by sex workers and their allies across the globe, including by SWEAT and Sisonke in South Africa, that speak to the everyday experiences of those involved in the sex industry.

The decriminalisation of sex work is supported by reputable and evidence-informed institutions in public health, such as UNAIDS, the World Health Organisation, the Global Commission on HIV and the Law, and by international rights organisations, such as the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.

A growing body of robust research indicates that decriminalising sex work, while not a panacea for the injustices faced by sex workers, will help efforts to end stigma and increase sex workers’ safety and well-being. More than 70 non-government organisations in South Africa also support the removal of criminal laws on sex work under the Asijiki Coalition for the Decriminalisation of Sex Work.

Decriminalising sex work is an important step in eliminating barriers to healthcare and promoting the safety and dignity of sex workers. Van der Watt claims this will increase human trafficking for sexual exploitation, but provides no credible evidence to support such a claim.

What robust evidence does clearly reveal, however, are the harmful effects of raid and rescue operations by anti-trafficking organisations on sex workers. Attempts in China to “rehabilitate” sex workers by sending them to labour re-education camps, and raids that forcibly removed sex workers from brothels in Cambodia were found to severely impact sex workers’ access to healthcare and other services.

Van der Watt also suggests that sex work in South Africa should either remain fully criminalised, or as a second option, be partially criminalised. The latter option, also known as the “Nordic” or “Swedish model”, aims to eradicate the sex industry by criminalising clients and third parties, instead of sex workers. At first glance, this might seem like a step in the right direction — a progressive step even. It is not.

While partial-criminalisation purports to end sex work by focusing on men’s demand for sex, ignoring all other factors such as poverty, economic exclusion and inequalities, it actually heightens sex workers’ risk and worsens their economic vulnerability — rendering sex workers more exploitable. So rather than putting a stop to what is often described as pimping, partial-criminalisation actually oxygenates the potential of abusive third parties.

Advocates of this model in South Africa seem to ignore the fact that sex work has been illegal in this country for more than 50 years, and that in 2007 increased sanctions for the buyers of sex were introduced. Neither of these measures has ended sex work or sex trafficking. Instead, sex workers consistently report severe and relentless abuse by police officers and violence by clients and non-paying intimate partners. They are often prevented from seeking help when they need it due to stigma and the criminalised nature of their work.

South Africa, faced with an important legislative decision on sex work, must first consider what sex workers are saying about their realities under criminalisation. Second, we must consider the vast amount of local and international peer-reviewed research that has been conducted on sex work. And last, we must consider what it means for a country with one of the most progressive constitutions in the world, founded on principles of human rights and gender equality, to disregard sex workers’ voices.

Sex worker activists and their allies will hold President Cyril Ramaphosa to his promise of decriminalising sex work in South Africa, alongside ongoing demands to address gender-based violence, police violence, and strengthen economic opportunities for everyone living in South Africa.

This opinion piece was originally published on the Daily Maverick on 29th April 2019. 

About Ntokozo Yingwana

Ntokozo Yingwana joined the African Centre for Migration & Society (ACMS, at the University of the Witwatersrand) in April 2016 as the Communication and Research Uptake Officer, and a PhD Candidate. Ntokozo holds a Masters in Gender and Development from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS, at the University of Sussex in England), funded by the Chevening UK Scholarship. Prior to joining ACMS she worked for IDS as the Content Coordinator for the Open Knowledge and Digital Services Unit.

Ntokozo’s experience and skills are in journalism, online media, advocacy, open access/knowledge and research. She freelances as an Online Media Consultant, Digital-storytelling Trainer, and Researcher. However, her main passion lies in gender, sexuality and sex worker rights’ activism in Africa. In the past she has worked for the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), the African Sex Worker Alliance (ASWA), and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP).

Under maHp Ntokozo supports the project’s communication and research uptake.