Sex ... is it work or a crime?

CityPress - - Business - Terry Bell busi­ness@ city­press. co. za

What is work? This ques­tion came very much to the fore in the past week af­ter Amnesty In­ter­na­tional called for “sex work” to be de­crim­i­nalised. The in­ter­na­tional hu­man rights or­gan­i­sa­tion made the call af­ter a twoyear in­ves­ti­ga­tion into what is cor­rectly called the “sex in­dus­try”.

For South Africans, the ques­tion then arises: is the sale of sex­ual favours work? And should those en­gaged in what is gen­er­ally re­ferred to as the world’s old­est pro­fes­sion be crim­i­nalised?

As mat­ters now stand, the law in South Africa makes the sale and pur­chase of sex a crim­i­nal of­fence for sellers, buy­ers and “any third per­son”. These third per­sons are usu­ally the peo­ple who man­age sex work­ers and who, there­fore, “live off im­moral earn­ings”.

The dic­tionary def­i­ni­tion of work is “ac­tiv­ity in­volv­ing men­tal or phys­i­cal ef­fort done in or­der to achieve a pur­pose or re­sult”. In our mod­ern, in­dus­trial so­ci­ety this usu­ally means ac­tiv­ity aimed at earn­ing an in­come in or­der to sur­vive. This means earn­ing wages in reg­u­lar em­ploy­ment or work­ing on a free­lance or en­tre­pre­neur­ial ba­sis.

But such a broad def­i­ni­tion means that even house­break­ers and rob­bers are work­ers. Yet no sane per­son would call for their ac­tiv­i­ties to be re­garded as any­thing other than crim­i­nal. This is be­cause their “work” vic­timises and dam­ages oth­ers. Theft and as­sault are re­garded as crimes in all so­ci­eties.

In most coun­tries, the ill-treat­ment and gross ex­ploita­tion of work­ers is also, rightly, re­garded as crim­i­nal.

This is a re­sult of or­gan­ised labour fight­ing over gen­er­a­tions to en­sure reg­u­lated lev­els of pay and con­di­tions, en­shrined in labour law.

Though there are nu­mer­ous in­stances of South Africa’s quite sound labour leg­is­la­tion be­ing ig­nored, such abuses re­main crimes that should be sought out and the per­pe­tra­tors pros­e­cuted. It could, in fact, be ar­gued that sweat shop em­ploy­ers and those ex­ploit­ing vul­ner­a­ble work­ers are ob­vi­ously liv­ing off im­moral earn­ings.

How­ever, usu­ally on the ba­sis of im­posed moral­ity, there are vic­tim­less “crimes”. Prime among these is pros­ti­tu­tion – the sale of sex­ual favours.

In South Africa, the po­lice “vice squads” spend more than R14 mil­lion a year in­ves­ti­gat­ing, hunt­ing down and charg­ing, al­most ex­clu­sively, fe­male “sex work­ers”.

In the wake of the Amnesty In­ter­na­tional call for de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion, two hu­man rights groups in South Africa – both of whom want changes in the law – are at log­ger­heads. Em­brace Dig­nity (ED), which cam­paigns for gen­der equal­ity, wants par­tial crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion while the more re­cently es­tab­lished Asi­jiki coali­tion, which also wants gen­der equal­ity, is call­ing for de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion.

In line with a pol­icy ini­tially adopted in Swe­den, ED wants to see the crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion of the buy­ers of sex, most of whom are men, but not the sellers, most of whom are women.

Asi­jiki, a coali­tion that in­cludes the Sex Work­ers Ed­u­ca­tion & Ad­vo­cacy Task­force – which has been pro­vid­ing as­sis­tance to sex work­ers for more than 20 years – wants de­crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion.

How­ever, both groups op­pose hu­man traf­fick­ing, child pros­ti­tu­tion and other such abuses.

But while ED agrees that re­mov­ing crim­i­nal sanc­tions from sex work means “ac­cep­tance of pros­ti­tu­tion as a le­git­i­mate form of work”, the group con­sid­ers “pros­ti­tuted per­sons” vic­tims. And ED con­flates “pimps and brothel keep­ers” with traf­fick­ers.

Asi­jiki dis­putes this and points to the fact that crim­i­nal­i­sa­tion drives sex work un­der­ground and there­fore en­cour­ages abuses; that sex work­ers should be treated in the same way as any other work­ers. This is summed up by a slo­gan dis­played by one sex worker at the launch of the Asi­jiki coali­tion: “My body is my busi­ness – sex work pays my bills.”

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