Civil society organisations divided over decriminalisation of sex work

The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill seeks to decriminalise the sale and purchase of sexual services in South Africa. Picture: File

The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill seeks to decriminalise the sale and purchase of sexual services in South Africa. Picture: File

Published Dec 15, 2022


Johannesburg - Stand Against Legal Exploitation South Africa (SALE!SA) has given an unequivocal “no” to the full decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa.

“SALE!SA is a collective dedicated to eradicating sexual exploitation in South Africa (including prostitution) and strongly opposes the South African government’s efforts to fully decriminalise not only prostitution but a far wider ecosystem of abuse and violence,” the organisation said.

The organisation said that legalising “sex buyers”, and therefore fuelling the demand for prostitution, is at the root of the system of prostitution.

“Sex buying is equivalent to treating people as products for consumption. This is not just – decriminalising (or legalising) pimps, brothels, brothel-keepers, buyers and others who profit financially from the sexual abuse and exploitation of prostituted persons.”

They also said that they have a problem with the term “sex work”, as sex is not “work” and nor should it be labelled as “work”.

“Our reasoning and view on this is in line with international labour standards. Furthermore, no international convention uses the term ‘sex work’. Victims are not ‘prostitutes’ nor ‘sex workers’. They are prostituted persons. We find these terms problematic and deeply offensive. Sex trafficking is also not ‘migration for sex work’. Sex trafficking includes the abuse of vulnerability and forcing or coercing a person for the use and exploitation of their body,” said the organisation.

It said that there has been very little research on the sector.

“No one has any idea of how many prostituted persons are in the sector through so-called free will versus those who have been forced, coerced, and ultimately trafficked.”

The Institute of Race Relations, however, has welcomed the move to decriminalise the sale and purchase of sexual services through the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill.

The IRR said that if adopted, the bill would represent a significant step in favour of civil liberty.

“As a general principle of public policy, peaceful individuals engaged in voluntary, consensual activities with one another must not be exposed to criminal jeopardy.

“If adopted, the proposed bill will repeal Section 11 of the 2007 Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Act, which prohibits ‘sexual services’ for ‘financial or other reward, favour or compensation’. The bill additionally expunges the criminal record of those previously convicted under this provision,” added the Institute.

Deputy head of policy research at the IRR, Martin van Staden, questioned how South African labour law would apply to sex work, for example, saying it is a difficult question to answer. It is not a copy-paste job, which could result in absurdities.

“Nonetheless, such difficulties in themselves cannot justify the continued practice of sending consenting adults, who voluntarily offer and receive non-violent products and services, to prison or subjecting them to discretionary harassment by police,” he said.

In a 2013 article for the Georgetown Journal of International Law motivating for the decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa, experts from Fordham Law School point to New Zealand as the only country at the time to have fully decriminalised the profession.

Van Staden said if the Criminal Law Amendment Bill is adopted, there is great promise that those involved in the provision and purchase of sexual services will have their individual freedom recognised and their civil rights upheld by no longer being persecuted by the authorities but rather protected.

He said that with the high rates of violent crime in South Africa, this move would additionally free up police resources to deal with more harmful offences.

The Star

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