Sex work decrim discussions continue

By maHp student interns Oncemore Mbeve and Bothwell Vumai

Discussions on decriminalisation of sex work have been going on for some time in South Africa. These have been between various stakeholders who include the academics and civil rights organisations. Sex workers have for long been viewed as victims and vulnerable groups in South Africa. Hence few consultations have been had with sex workers themselves. In addition, the government has not been paying attention to the demand for the decriminalisation of sex work by activists and sex workers. This has resulted in sex work being continuously socially stigmatised, and sex workers remaining marginalised by society (Gouws & Cuchi, 2012). Consequently, sex workers continue to face a range of barriers in maintaining and attaining good health, access to social benefits as well as wellbeing (Richter & Vearey, 2016).

In South Africa sex work is currently criminalised[1]. “Loitering” and “public nuisance” are offences that sex workers are often, without trial, detained for (Gould, 2011). The laws, municipal by-laws and other regulations create a difficult and threatening environment for sex workers, because they are unprotected and unable to access the legal remedies necessary to report crimes committed against them. The criminalisation of sex work reinforces stigma attached to it, resulting in sex workers, within South Africa and across borders, experiencing gross violation of human rights (Richter et al., 2012).

Owing to these challenges faced by sex workers the decriminalisation of sex work discussions continue in South Africa. One of these discussions was organised by the Gauteng Office of the Premier as a Roundtable on Decriminalisation of Sex Work, held on the 23rd of March 2018 at the University of the Witwatersrand’s Sports Hall. The roundtable was attended by various groups of civil rights organisations, government representatives, academics and sex workers. The civil rights organisations that attended were Sonke Gender Justice, Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Task Force (SWEAT), and Ikhaya Lethemba. The government representatives that were present, were the Commission for Gender Equality and the Office of the Premier. There were also academics from different universities.

One of the main issues that came out of the roundtable, which is also reflected in literature, was that criminalisation of sex work leaves sex workers vulnerable to morbidity, violence and abuse. They are also discriminated from accessing health services (Abel & Fitzgerald, 2010). The challenges faced by sex workers where emphasised in the discussions at the round table. Quotes below from participants showcase these:

He [referring to a male police officer] used to drive around with me […] He used to say I must suck him [referring to oral sex] without a condom and swallow his sperms to destroy the evidence if I don’t want him to arrest me. I have done it twice. Then he used to throw me anyway (Susan[2], Female Sex Worker).

I was working by Nugget Street. There is this guy who works for the government. He was a traffic cop, he took me to go and have sex with him after we agreed on the payment. But on the way he decided to turn and said we will have to go where he wants us to have sex. He had sex with me on the road, threatening me with a gun. We didn’t use a condom. He left me in the bush. I was only helped by another guy who left me at the police station. I said I want to open a case, but the police said, “how can a prostitute be rapped?” I was young that time. I left and went home. After three days I had so much pain. I went to Hillbrow clinic … they asked me, “where is your partner? ‘You have an STI [sexually transmitted infection]’. I told them that I am a sex worker.” They laughed at me instead of helping me. They took pills and gave [them to] me, and they said they are for cleaning STIs, they said “because your work is not safe.” They said ko-Mugabe [meaning that she should return to Zimbabwe, her country of origin where Mugabe’s was the president at the time] there is no prostitution. You come here from Zimbabwe to do prostitution (Twa, Female Sex Worker).

The testimonies shared above both involved personal interactions with the police and health service providers. These show some of the vulnerabilities and marginalisation that female sex workers continue to experience across the country. The testimony shared by Twa also highlights the xenophobic attitudes towards cross-border migrant sex workers in the country. These testimonies and the multiple everyday experiences of sex workers accentuate the need to continue discussions and efforts to decriminalise sex work in South Africa.

The roundtable also highlighted some important developments towards diversifying the gendered nature of the discussions regarding sex work in South Africa. This could be observed in the diverse gender that made up the attendees. The discussions of sex work have been viewed as concerning women and that is the gender we would expect in these kinds of the activities, as it has been the case in the past discourses. It was, however, not the case with this roundtable. A significantly big number of men were on attendance. All attendees were freely sharing their experiences in and about sex work. This is key in proving the heterogeneous nature of sex work thus correcting the general notoriety of contextualising sex workers as a homogenous group with the same interests and needs among policy.

From this roundtable and literature it is emphasised and we agree, there are significant benefits on decriminalisation of sex work. Some of the benefits are summarised below.

Benefits of decriminalising sex work:

  • Improves constitutional protection of the human rights of sex workers.
  • Reduces stigma associated with sex work at both the societal and institutional level.
  • Reduces discrimination of sex workers at public health and social service institutions, and therefore improving the health and well-being of sex workers. This could reduce the high number of HIV contraction among sex workers and their clients in South Africa and the sub-Saharan region at large (Kganakga, 2017).
  • Ensures a safe working environment for sex workers.

Noting the tenacity of the challenges faced by sex workers because of criminalization of sex work, and the benefits that decriminalization will have in this profession, the following are the recommendations that we make. Some of these recommendations are based on what occurred at the roundtable.


  • There is a need for continued support from all stakeholders to lure commitment from the government towards the decriminalisation of sex work.
  • SAPS (South African Police Services) including the Metro police, and other civil servants rendering public services to sex workers should attend dialogues, workshops and conferences which discuss the challenges faced by sex workers
  • It was recommended from the roundtable that an immediate stakeholder meeting with the police and the mayor should be held within two months.
  • The police, the public and health-care providers should undergo a basic training as a sensitisation process to ensure sex workers access legal justice, health-care and other basic social services.


[1] Section 20 (1A) (a) of the Sexual Offences Act 23 of 1957, Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Ammendment Act 32 of 2007 (Sexual Offences Amendment Act).
[2] All names of participants in this blog are pseudonyms.