Sex ... is it work or a crime?
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.”