Sex work has long been stigmatised and criminalised in South Africa, creating a shroud of secrecy and shame around it. But the fact is that sex work is simply a way to earn a living, and ironically, it’s the criminalisation and criticism of it that makes it seem immoral or degrading to women.
So you’re saying it’s okay to be a prostitute?
First off, terms like ‘prostitute’ and ‘prostitution’ are derogatory and demeaning to those in the industry. Many prefer to use the terms ‘sex work’ and ‘sex workers’. These terms reinforce the fact that a service is being provided between two consenting adults, and that it’s way for a person to make a living, like any other job.
In countries where legal sex work exists, sex workers are granted the same rights as any other kind of labourer, and they’re not excluded from social, legal and health services.
And just for the record: Yes, we’re saying it’s okay to be a sex worker! It’s okay to be anything you want to be, as long as your choices are consensual.
Why should sex work be legalised?
Sex workers face terrible dangers every day. Because they aren’t protected by law, they are at risk of a great many abuses – abuses which they can’t safely report to the police, because what they do is considered illegal.
Criminalising the sale or purchase of sexual services makes it difficult for sex workers to access health services, safely negotiate with clients, or carry protection, for fear that these things could be used as ‘proof’ that they are sex workers, and lead to prosecution.
What risks do sex workers face on an average day?
Sex work is one of the most dangerous and unregulated professions in South Africa, as service providers are usually at the mercy of their clients, and are often in a position of vulnerability. On any given day, a sex worker could face risks like:
- Physical violence
- Human trafficking
- Being arrested and detained without legitimate reasons
- Violence and abuse by police officers, clients and/or members of the public (as sex workers are too afraid to
- report this, for fear of being prosecuted for their work)
- Discrimination and harassment, including being forced from their homes
- Denial of healthcare services
- Lack of support by police and legal services
- Increased risk of exposure to STIs and HIV
Can decriminalising sex work really help to reduce these risks?
Yes, most definitely. When sex work is legal, service providers are protected by law. They have access to all the same rights, healthcare services and legal support as anyone else, and feel confident to insist on protecting themselves against STIs, HIV and unplanned pregnancy. Most importantly though, it helps to safeguard sex workers against violence and abuse. Ultimately, it’s not sex work in itself that puts workers in danger; it’s the criminalisation of it.
Decriminalising sex work would:
- Give sex workers access to justice, and the ability to report violence and abuse.
- Reduce HIV risk among sex workers. Legalising the practice empowers sex workers to insist on using protection. Studies have found that decriminalisation has the greatest potential to reduce HIV infection among female sex workers.
- Promote safer working conditions by setting rules in terms of healthcare and employment practices, and giving workers rights that are backed by law.
- Challenge the state’s control over a person’s body and sexuality, and how they use their bodies. It gives people – especially in the LGBTI communities – the freedom to have full control over their bodies and sexuality.
How can Marie Stopes help, if sex work isn’t yet legal in SA?
We can help by providing a safe place for anyone to come for HIV and STI testing and treatment, safe and legal abortions, access to birth control and other forms of contraception, and women’s wellness services, like pap smears. We’ll never judge, and we’ll treat you with dignity, respect and confidentiality, no matter who you are or what profession you’re in.
Find your nearest Marie Stopes centre or book an appointment online.