Sex work is transactional and should be defined that way, meaning the term commercial sex work is preferred over prostitution, according to an expert. Picture: Brenton Geach/African News Agency (ANA) Archive

Durban – Sex work is transactional and should be defined that way, meaning the term commercial sex work is preferred over prostitution, according to an expert in the field.

“A sex worker gets money for the services she provides, it is transactional, there is supply and demand. The word prostitution is derogatory because what sex workers do is work, it should be called commercial sex work,” according to Jan Thathiah of LifeLine Durban.

Thathiah was speaking at a public discussion at the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s Howard College Theatre on Wednesday afternoon, which addressed “Sex work in South Africa: Implications for sexual violence and public health”.

Thathiah is also the former head of the Sex Worker Programme for the Global Fund in the Ugu district and former head of the United States President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR) in eThekwini.

She was joined by, amongst others, Dr Monique Emser, a research associate at the department of public law.

The discussion, with audience participation, included the definition of sex work, the difference between legalisation and decriminalisation of the industry, human trafficking, health challenges and other topics.

Thathiah also highlighted the important role of peer educators in the industry when it came to making other sex workers aware of human rights and of identifying underage sex workers.

“Peer educators are taught to screen for minor sex workers,” she said. If underage workers were identified, the Department of Social Development was alerted and the young woman was encouraged to return to school, she said.

Sex work is illegal in South Africa, although the governing African National Congress resolved to decriminalise the industry at its national conference at Nasrec in December.

Emser said that decriminalisation was different to legalisation in that the State regulated the sex workers industry in the case of legalisation.

“The State regulates how it operates. For example, sex workers may have to register for taxation and are often forced to undergo testing for sexually transmitted disease,” she said. This did not work well in Germany, she said.

Speaking from the audience, Ms Jali, a sex worker and member of the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT), said she was “grateful” to have a platform where she could inform people on the service provided by sex workers.

The audience also heard that sex work was not only about sex. Sometimes sex workers acted as “counsellors”. 

“A man may give you R1000 so he can cry on your shoulder,” said an audience member.

African News Agency/ANA