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Trawling through the classified section of a Joburg newspaper back in 2001 I came across a notice from Christina, a young Thai who, in an attempt to draw attention to her services, boasted that she could suck a mouse through a garden hose.
For some reason this so intrigued me that I carefully cut it out and taped it to the cover of an anthology of Allan Boesak’s love poems, some of which were written while he was in prison for fraud.
Of course, as the Mahogany Ridge regulars so often tell me, I was much more naive and thoughtless back then. These days, rather than muck about with attempts at postmodernism and the ironic gesture, a classified notice like that would have me on the phone most pronto to the animal welfare people, if not the Advertising Standards Authority. I mention this only because there have been some stirrings in the trousers of the popular press following the Commission for Gender Equality’s call to decriminalise “sex work”.
According to commissioner Janine Hicks, this is the preferred term, in terms of trade description for this type of labour, chosen by the scrubbers themselves, rather than “prostitution” which, because of its unfortunate pejorative associations, didn’t come to the party with much in the way of boosting self-esteem.
The commission believes the rights and dignity of sex workers should be protected, and the repeal of laws that prohibit their activities is the only way to achieve this. Criminalisation, it argued, violated those sections of the constitution regarding the right to human dignity, the right to security of the person, and the right of trade, occupation and profession.
Sex work, they argue, must be regarded as “ordinary work” - which, I’d imagine, is not the sort of phrase bandied about by any self-respecting escort agency when describing what’s on offer for the modern businessman or out-of-town executive - and the industry should be governed by existing labour and business laws that are intended to prevent exploitative, unsafe and unfair business practices.
The commission compared various international approaches to sex work and found that, even when they didn’t ban it on religious, moral or feminist grounds, most countries got it hopelessly wrong. In the UK, for example, it was permissible to buy sex from someone, but any other related activity - brothel-keeping, procurement, soliciting, and so on - was outlawed. Which effectively criminalised everything. No fun there, then.
However, they apparently got it right in New Zealand, of all places. The commission claimed that studies there proved that decriminalisation allowed sex workers to protect themselves, improved the relationship with the police and had no impact on demand for their services.
Here, though, we will pause dramatically for the usual tired round of sheep jokes. Finished? Good. Onward then.
Decriminalisation, it is claimed, would also guarantee better working conditions, and allow sex workers to report brothel owners involved in such crimes as trafficking or exploiting children as sex workers. Furthermore, the commission argued, sex workers would also have to declare their earnings and pay tax - which would give a fresh impetus to the perennial complaint of being screwed by SARS.
Anyway, there was such an egalitarian wholesomeness to all this - and who’s not for giving everyone some of that human dignity? - that reporters were duly dispatched to street corners to speak to whoever they found there on the game. The story they came back with was not so much that the activities of, let’s say, Lebo (“not her real name”) or Lola (“not his real name”) should be decriminalised, but rather that we must do all we can to keep the police away from these people.
The Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Task Force - which scares the horses under the very unappealing acronym of Sweat - recently completed a national survey of sex workers and found that 76 percent of them claim to have been robbed, raped and unlawfully arrested by the police. Given that there are more than 150 000 sex workers in the country, that’s a pretty large chunk of alleged rape and robbery.
“We believe our human rights as sex workers are violated by the police,” Snowy Mamba, spokesman for the Sisonke Sex Worker Movement, told a reporter. “If it was decriminalised, everybody would live freely and we could work hand in hand with them.”
Now, I know what you’re thinking. Hand in hand? That’s surely not the way it’s done, is it? And Snowy Mamba? That may or may not be his real name, but… let’s just leave it at that. We started with a mouse and ended with a snake, which has a certain ring to it.