A discourse on decriminalisation of prostitution cannot be divorced from the plethora of issues SA has to deal with, says Marcel van der Watt.
With no golden midway and views that often find themselves pinned in the corners of opposite poles, the brewing deliberation on whether prostitution should be decriminalised is something that will increasingly move up the agenda – whether South Africans are comfortable or not with the topic.
As we acknowledge the 16 Days of Activism for No Violence against Women and Children campaign, I am reminded of the need for even-handed wisdom and public participation in the discourse on the decriminalisation of prostitution.
Having worked as a sexual offences and Hawks investigator who traversed South Africa investigating human trafficking, and now as a lecturer at Unisa’s College of Law, where I work with the National Freedom Network on a human trafficking community engagement project, it is a discourse that I am often confronted with.
Even President Jacob Zuma has confirmed that this issue will remain on the agenda of the SA Law Reform Commission as a decision is still to be made on either decriminalisation, regulation, or allowing partial or total criminalisation of the sex trade.
Discussions on this issue, locally and internationally, have often been contentious and emotive, with many panellists treading softly around certain issues. The opposing arguments that underpin this debate are numerous and multi-layered.
Some of the principle arguments revolve around:
* The choice of people to sell sex.
* Prostitution as a career option and means to alleviate unemployment.
* The nexus between human trafficking and prostitution.
* Morality of prostitution.
* HIV/Aids prevention.
* Conflicting viewpoints of former prostitutes regarding violence and victimisation.
The perception and experience of decriminalisation is subjective. Soaked with a dichotomy of “us” and “them”, “right” and “wrong”, “profession” and “oppression”, the use of the term “debate” to annunciate this discourse further reinforces the chasm between those sitting on the opposite ends of the table.
Our “otherness” dictates how we perceive and experience the decriminalisation of prostitution in radically different ways. It is made up of, among others, our socio-economic status, location, context, religion, judgements and emotions.
Our otherness confirms that subjectivity might be the only thing we have in common and leads to a landscape, paved by a confluence of complexities, within which our decriminalisation of prostitution discussion takes place. Harnessing this complexity rather than trying to divide the problem in smaller, more manageable parts is vital.
Possibly representing a presage of things to come, public dialogue on law enforcement, counter-trafficking and the liberalisation of sex work was hosted at Unisa in October. The panel consisted of representatives from the Department of Justice, National Prosecuting Authority, Hawks (SAPS), National Rapporteur on Human Trafficking and Sexual Violence Against Children (Kingdom of Netherlands), SWEAT Gauteng and the Embassy of the US.
A diversity of views emerged. I was invited to form part of the panel based on my experience with human trafficking.
As the dialogue progressed I pondered a pre-dawn May 2003 experience while working at the Port Elizabeth Flying Squad when a middle-aged man was apprehended with two minor girls in his vehicle. Unruffled, arrogant and seemingly entitled, he responded: “I am conducting qualitative research on the experience of sex workers on the street.”
Notwithstanding the fact that merits of this incident paled against countless others I have dealt with over the past 12 years, what stuck with me was his disdainful response that epitomises the nonchalant attitude of so many men, including fathers, husbands and pimps who commodify women and children.
What approach should we adopt?
I continued to think of the wellbeing of our children. Where do they fit into the decriminalisation discussion? How is this issue considered within the framework of Section 28 of our Constitution? Shouldn’t they be consulted in an age-appropriated manner? Surely our children will be the residents of the village we leave behind as responsible adults.
I am convinced that the implications of a decision will differ significantly for a high-end brothel in Cape Town from a poor rural community where, in the event of decriminalisation, consent can be purchased and the normalisation of prostitution in child-headed households.
For the South African chapter, context is perhaps the most important factor to consider. By no means can any prostitution model that works in a particular country merely be replicated in our unique context which is marred by high levels of crime, inequality, gender-based violence, child-headed households and HIV and Aids.
Lessons should be learnt from others who have travelled the decision-making path before us, but ownership of the eventuating decision remains ours.
Well-documented approaches include the Nordic model used in Norway, Sweden and Iceland where the demand for commercial sex is penalised while decriminalising individuals in prostitution.
Others include liberal modules used in Germany and the Netherlands which are increasingly being looked upon with less favour due to a number of negative and unintended consequences. The approach we choose should be consistent with the victim-centred approach of our comprehensive Human Trafficking Act.
In the spirit of our National Development Plan, it should not adversely affect efforts to transform the lives and opportunities of the poorest.
South Africa’s health, social and law enforcement infrastructure is already thinly spread. It is therefore imperative that decriminalisation and even regulation as an option for the sex trade be carefully weighed up against the backdrop of lessons learnt by those who went before us.
The prostitution dialogue cannot be divorced from the plethora of other issues we are dealing with. It is interconnected and forms part of the bigger whole.
Our culture of prejudice towards persons in prostitution and other vulnerable communities should change and a well-trained police service (and the reinstatement of specialised police units) should be viewed as imperative.
Parenting should be embraced and mentorship incentivised.
The dignity of ethics and integrity should permeate every inch of public and private sectors and no longer can a police station commissioner be allowed to abdicate his responsibility in pursuing the truth when allegations of abuse are levelled against his members.
Academics should engage reflexively with research and be held accountable to help build the bridge between theory and practice.
* Marcel Van der Watt is a lecturer in the Department of Police Practice at Unisa.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.