Madam loses expensive sex battle

Published Oct 9, 2002


By Siyabonga Mkhwanazi and Sapa

Ellen Jordan feels so strongly that prostitution should be legalised that she gambled her life earnings.

Now she is bankrupt and defeated, after the Constitutional Court on Wednesday upheld the law criminalising brothels and prostitution.

"I'm at the end of my rope, financially and physically," she said. She had hoped that Thursday would be the first day she could run her business without fear of arrest.

During a legal crusade that captured the country's attention, Jordan ran up bills of more than R3-million, all because of a R600 fine she received for keeping a brothel.

It all began in 1996, when Jordan, a driver and prostitute she employed were arrested in a raid on the upmarket "massage parlour" she ran in conservative Pretoria.

"They picked the wrong woman," she was quoted as saying.

After her conviction in a magistrate's court, Jordan took the matter on appeal to the High Court and then the Constitutional Court, hiring three advocates at an exorbitant cost to fight the groundbreaking case.

The battle cost her in other ways as well. She lost her business after damage from a petrol-bomb made it impossible to continue. Her family and friends refused to associate with her, and her relationship of 13 years ended.

She became a figure of some notoriety in Pretoria, with people on the street staring, pointing at her and shouting "whore".

"I'm a celebrity but on the wrong side!" she said during an interview in early 2002. "It's not nice."

On Wednesday Jordan said she was bitterly disappointed, adding that her only hope was that politicians would review the prohibition on prostitution.

National Director of Public Prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka was delighted at the judgment. He issued a stern warning to those operating brothels: "Close down, or we will do it for you."

He added: "Brothels have no place in a society that seeks to rid itself of the scourge of crime."

Doctors For Life International (DFL), an organisation acting as a witness for the state in both the High and Constitutional Court cases, said it was "delighted".

DFL had argued that prostitution encouraged the international trafficking of women, led to child prostitution, intensified the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, and was often accompanied by a high incidence of drug abuse.

Legalising prostitution would not change this, DFL said, quoting the majority judgment, which read: "Despite the romantic notion entertained in some quarters that all will be well with the world of prostitution if only the criminal law is removed, the practical truth, it seems, is that it will not. All of the opportunities for damage, abuse and exploitation remain."

But Jordan warned that the judgment could have serious consequences: "I think the whole industry is going to go underground more than it is already.

"The reason I started fighting this case was because of the abuse (of sex workers) in the industry," she said. "I have made it my life's mission to make the industry better.

"South Africa's streets are paedophile paradises, and there is no way we can give these girls any help (in light of the judgment).

"I have an image in my mind of a five-year-old girl who was sold to a 62-year-old man to support her mother's drug habit," Jordan said tearfully.

She hoped politicians would realise that the sex industry would not go away.

Andrew Phillips, owner of The Ranch, an upmarket Sandton brothel that was closed down by the Asset Forfeiture Unit, said he needed to study the judgment, but agreed with Jordan that the ruling would force many underground.

Prof Helen Rees, executive director of the Reproductive Health Research Unit, said: "It is an extremely unusual judgment (considering that voting on the prostitution issue was six to five). That tells us we will see more discussions in the legislature and the public.

"There is room for parliament to re-debate (the issue). Many countries have changed the legislation to regulate the industry and they (the authorities) can't get rid of it."

Rees said the ruling would also make it difficult for organisations such as hers to reduce the public health risk. "How do you access (prostitutes) when you criminalise them?"

Helen Alexander of the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) said they were now pinning their hopes on the South African Law Commission, which is looking into adult prostitution.

"We are very disappointed. We had hoped that all the sections would be declared unconstitutional," said Alexander. "We hope that through a fully consultative process, the Law Commission will consider not only the rights aspects around sex work but also the practical implications of criminalising the sex industry."

The Commission on Gender Equality said although it was disappointed at the outcome, it was "encouraged by the decision of the minority (judges) who said prostitution provisions constituted unfair discrimination... in that it reinforces and perpetuates patterns of sexual stereotyping that are in conflict with the principles of gender equality".

Five judges found the law made the prostitute the primary offender, and the client an accomplice.

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