Sex Worker Advocacy Taskforce (Sweat) and the Sisonke National Sex Worker’s Movement have welcomed Cabinet’s approval of a draft statute to abolish criminal penalties for sex work.
On 30 November 2022, Cabinet approved the Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill. It scraps the crime of buying and selling adult sexual services.
Having secured Cabinet endorsement, the Bill is now up for public comment.
The moralist lobby have seized the chance to push back hard. They want the law to continue punishing those who engage in sex for reward.
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Yet parliament should adopt the Bill – and as soon as possible. Penalties on adult sex work are a hangover from a harsher, more ignorant, less public-health-conscious era. They have no place in a healthy democracy.
All the Bill does is to abolish crimes of sex work.
Rightly, government foresees further legislation to regulate sex work: where and how and under what conditions sexual services may be offered for sale – just as we regulate other commercial interchanges.
Sweat and the Sisonke National Sex Worker’s Movement have long urged decriminalisation.
They argue, convincingly, that making sex work a crime exposes (mainly) women to blackmail, police malpractice and client abuse. Decriminalisation enables sex workers to seek and assert the law’s protection.
Some, however, claim that ending the crime of sex work licenses exploitation and will lead to increased sex trafficking.
Many propose instead the “Nordic model”. This decriminalises sex work for those providing it – but targets clients who use it.
We are right to be concerned for the safety and dignity of sex workers.
Many are impoverished women or queer people, often more vulnerable because of race or cross-border status. Their work is often difficult and sometimes dangerous.
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Those who say “scrap the crime” are not blind to this. It is because many who sell sexual services as a livelihood strategy are marginalised or stigmatised, or poor that dumping the weight of the criminal law on top of their other burdens is so cruel.
Sex workers themselves overwhelmingly plead for scrapping these laws. They have firsthand knowledge of the grief and perils of their daily tasks.
Proponents of decriminalisation point out that, throughout history, criminal laws have never stopped sex work. It has thrived in every legal system.
Criminalisation is a merely “symbolic” abolition – an ineffectual legal measure that cruelly marginalises sex workers.
As SWEAT simply states, “criminalisation kills”. When sex work is illegal, sex workers are condemned to unsafe, unregulated working conditions, and little access to health care.
In interviews with sex workers across South Africa, Human Rights Watch found they report being vulnerable because criminalisation forced them to work in or go to dark or dangerous spots “and because criminals, sadists, thieves and rapists, pretending to be clients, knew they had bad relations with the police”.
Sex workers described being laughed at by police when they tried to report rapes, “or being told that, as sex workers, they could not be raped”.
In Revolting Prostitutes, sex workers Juno Mac and Molly Smith show convincingly how the Nordic model harms sex workers. Criminalising buyers of sexual services leads clients to seek more secrecy. This increases risk.
Savvy Minister for Justice and Correctional Services Ronald Lamola echoed these insights.
READ MORE: Sex workers cautiously optimistic as decriminalisation one step closer
He explained how the Bill embodies our country’s National Strategic Plan on Gender-Based Violence and Femicide.
The reason is simple, but ghastly – “criminalisation of sex work contributes” to gender-based violence and femicide.
Government reckons – and sex workers agree – that the Bill will reduce stigma, discrimination and violence against sex workers; help them access health care and bring sex workers closer to health, safety and labour laws.
The evidence supports these hopes.
Cameron is the Inspecting Judge of Correctional Services. Views expressed are not necessarily GroundUp’s.