Johannesburg - Why did we ever think it was acceptable to tell adults what to do with their bodies? I think it is brilliant that our Gender Commission has come out in support of the decriminalisation of sex work.
Sex work is just work. There is nothing so outrageous about the body being used as a means to generate income that the state must intervene to prevent us from doing so. What the heck?
The state should rather prevent people from really harming one another. That is a primary duty it is not particularly good at. It should rather practise getting better at providing real security. The state should not prevent people from selling each other smiles and moans for a few useful Randelas during these hard times.
But let me slowly unpack, as it were, the social and moral qualms many of you might have as you spill your day’s first cup of conservative coffee over this progressive column entry.
The crux of the sex work matter is that adults should have the right to decide, in a liberal democracy like ours, whether or not they want to use their bodies to make money. This is based on a tissue of constitutional rights including the right to “security in and control over (our) bod(ies)” enshrined in the Bill of Rights. There is a favourable presumption in favour of freedom and therefore a moral burden on the state to justify restrictions on freedom.
The state must justify hard why it wants to interfere with our freedom because our constitution rightly entrenched the value of autonomy. We should be left to our own Oxford Street or Long Street devices as far as possible.
That is why I cannot willy-nilly stab you, kick you, subdue you and take one of your healthy kidneys without your consent, illegally restrict your movements, etc. Freedom is the hallmark of the liberal democratic society we chose.
So what case can you mount, anti-sex work citizen, for why sex work should not be decriminalised?
The popular objections to sex work are twofold: it is immoral and, if not immoral, it is exploitative. The exploitation argument is limp. If sex work is exploitative, then target the exploitation. Domestic work is exploitative. Should we criminalise domestic work?
Because sex work is illegal, a sex worker cannot even report harassment to the police because she might be arrested or might be harassed again.
So if the law deems the sex worker a criminal, how is she to run to the authorities and ask for help against the pimp or the client or against a police officer?
By bringing the sex worker into the legal fold, the state can reduce exploitation by being able to legitimately make available state resources to actively protect sex workers.
So if exploitation of sex workers concerns you, then you should join the Gender Commission’s call for decriminalisation. Criminalisation keeps sex workers on the social margins where exploitation, rape, and harassment continue unabated. Decriminalisation is a crucial step towards reducing the exploitation.
The moral objections against sex work are probably as old as sex work itself. They are also as tiring as sex work must be.
First, I actually do not believe that a liberal society is a society in which we cannot morally criticise private choices.
Of course we can. If someone wants to be enslaved, there is something morally odious about the entire basis of your autonomy and personhood being given up.
Equally, a woman who insists that a man who beats her up loves her, needs intervention. Liberalism does not mean “hands off!” or “anything goes”. That is rather a warped kind of moral or cultural relativism. Liberalism is not that morally ridiculous or callous.
However, even with this qualification at hand, I have never come across a convincing moral argument for what the intrinsic moral harm or wrong is with transactional sex.
Not in philosophical texts nor around the braai in the suburbs nor in a minibus taxi in the township. The naked truth is that most people who have moral qualms with money being paid for sex just feel it in their bones that doing so is wrong.
Why should your gut feeling be the basis of public policy?
Why should the restriction of my right to bodily integrity turn on the fact that you want to vomit at how I use my body?
That is not a rational approach to public policy debate. It may satisfy the numerical majority, for sure. But remember this: it would also satisfy the numerical majority of South Africans if we brought back the death penalty or we changed our minds about gay marriage.
Conservatives must win the argument against sex work. Moaning and groaning is not good enough. Unless you pay me to listen of course.
* Eusebius McKaiser is author of the bestselling book A Bantu In My Bathroom, a collection of essays on race, sexuality and other uncomfortable South African topics.