Decriminalisation of sex work/prostitution: argument from SWEAT

SWEAT (Sex Worker and Advocacy Task Force, in South Africa), give a good, clear argument for removing laws that criminalise the sale or purchase of sex.

World Cup and HIV: Decriminalisation of sex work in South Africa

Leading up to the 2010 soccer World Cup, sex work has come under intense public scrutiny in South Africa. Concerns about sex work, HIV and the increase in visitors to the country during the mega-event have come at the same time as a review of the country’s laws on prostitution. In the light of this, several civil society groups are pushing for greater protection of sex workers’ human rights during the World Cup, and ultimately for the complete decriminalisation of sex work.

In the short term, the Sex Worker Education and Advocacy Task Force and its allies are demanding that sex workers have the right to work for the period of the World Cup. They are seeking guarantees for sex workers’ personal safety, including freedom from police harassment, and access to free, quality and respectful health care.

In the longer term, a campaign is being put together to push for the decriminalisation of sex work, based on several arguments:

  • sex work will not go away;
  • there are many harms associated with sex work, but these can best be dealt with by other areas of criminal law or by non-legal interventions;
  • anything short of decriminalisation makes those harms worse, particularly to sex workers themselves; and
  • enforcing a sense of morality through the law is likely to generate all sorts of other harmful immoralities.

Sex workers are often marginalised and face multiple barriers to accessing health and social services, a situation exacerbated by criminalisation. Criminalisation also prevents sex workers from reporting abuse to the police or seeking legal recourse after rape or sexual assault. Decriminalisation offers the most effective means of addressing HIV and ensuring that human rights are respected.

So what is decriminalisation of sex work? It means that consensual sexual contact between two adults in private is legal. Any other arrangement of the law around sex work – be it criminalisation of the sex worker and/or the client, regulation of sex work, or something in between – leaves some consensual money-based arrangements between sex worker and client outside the law. And these are the contacts most likely to be non-consensual, violent, abusive, and unsafe.

Many international bodies already recognise the value of decriminalization. A number of countries have moved away from total criminalisation of sex work. Only one – New Zealand – has explicitly decriminalised sex work, choosing instead to adopt a human rights and public health framework.

The New Zealand Prostitution Reform Act was passed in 2003, after a campaign driven by sex workers, the public health community, many women’s’ groups and human rights organisations. It was promoted on various grounds – gender justice, pragmatic law, and the preference of the people most damaged by criminalisation, i.e. sex workers themselves.

The effects of the legislative change were measured five years later. Contrary to public fears, no increase was found in the number of people entering sex work during this period. Sex workers reported improved working conditions and wellbeing, feeling safer under the new legal framework, and being able to negotiate safer sex and report abuse to police.

As South Africa prepares for the culmination of its debate on the best legal framework for sex work, we can only hope that reality, research and rigorous debate dominate the process, and that policy processes will approach sex work pragmatically, placing public health benefits above ideological interests. In that case, decriminalisation will be the only rational outcome.

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