Prostitution and the decriminalisation debate

[notice]A monthly column by Marcel van der Watt, lecturer in the Department of Police Practice at UNISA, former police detective, and current member of the Gauteng Rapid Response Task Team for Human Trafficking.[/notice]

“You’ll be damned if you do, and you’ll be damned if you don’t…” These sentiments of Eleanor Roosevelt[i] bustled in my mind as I pondered my response to an invitation to participate in a public dialogue on law enforcement and the liberalisation of sex work. With no golden midway and views that often find themselves pinned in the corners of opposite poles, those acquainted with the historical nature of these debates will admit to the likelihood of being caught in the crossfire and possibly chafed by responses to an unpalatable sentiment.

Click banner for more info

sexdollarsLast year President Jacob Zuma confirmed that the possible decriminalisation of prostitution will remain on the agenda of the newly appointed SA Law Reform Commission (SALRC)[ii]. Deliberations regarding the ‘decriminalisation of sex work’ has been absent for some time now, yet its return is inevitable. Debates on this issue, both locally and internationally, have often been characterised as contentious, emotive and occasionally vociferous with many panelists treading softly around certain questions – the answers to which may potentially invoke an intimidating response. The opposing arguments that underpin this debate are numerous, multi-layered and, in many ways, interconnected. Some of the principle arguments revolve around

  • The notion of choice;
  • Prostitution as a career option and means to alleviate unemployment;
  • The nexus (if any) between human trafficking and prostitution;
  • Morality of prostitution;
  • HIV/ AIDS prevention; and
  • Conflicting viewpoints of former prostitutes.

The ‘idealistic me’ has walked away from a number of these discussions with my thoughts repudiating the complex nature of the issues. Inner excitement then started to mount as I bagan to formulate the best possible solution and I begin imagining a good news story coming from our country. However, after sobering up I soon realised that the complexity of the debate does not allow for an oversimplification of issues and, instead, requires even-handed wisdom and an approach where each viewpoint is carefully considered within the unique context of our beautiful South Africa. Lessons should be learned from others who have travelled the decision-making path before us; however, the particularistic nature of the issue at hand requires intense contextual considerations and an appreciation of the diversity of nuances at play (see Yin, 2011[iii]).

I am quite convinced that the implications of a decision[iv] will differ significantly for a high-end brothel in Cape Town vs. A poor rural community where, in the event of decriminalisation, consent can be purchased and the normalisation of prostitution that now enters the homes of child headed households. By reflecting on the aforementioned example and considering the following for – and against legal prostitution arguments, the complexity of viewpoints becomes increasingly vivid[v]:

Pro-Legal Prostitution commentator:

“For HIV/AIDS prevention to succeed, the conditions of risk have to change. The context – legal, social, economic – of sex work has to change, with repeal of criminal laws, access to visas and work permits, freedom of movement and association, and occupational safety and health regulations, to reduce the imposition of risk from above. Until then, it will be heroic, strong individuals that can insist on safe behaviours, leaving those who are less heroic, those who are more timid and afraid, to suffer the consequences of the context of risk.”

Against-Legal Prostitution commentator:

“Even if a prostitute is being tested every week for HIV, she will test negative for at least the first 4-6 weeks and possibly the first 12 weeks after being infected…. This means that while the test is becoming positive and the results are becoming known, that prostitute may expose up to 630 clients to HIV. This is under the best of circumstances with testing every week and a four-week window period. It also assumes that the prostitute will quit working as soon as he or she finds out the test is HIV positive, which is highly unlikely. This is not the best approach for actually reducing harm. Instead, in order to slow the global spread of HIV/AIDS we should focus our efforts on abolishing prostitution.”

As alluded to earlier, some of the discussions and writings on this issue are emotive and opinionated with various commentators relying solely on their experience with a specific dimension of the problem when expressing their views. In this sense I support the sentiments expressed by Creswell (2009:177) who elaborates on the role of the researcher. He encourages the explicit and reflexive recognition of the inquirer’s “biases, values, and personal background, such as gender, history, culture, and socioeconomic status that may shape their interpretations formed…” I strongly suggest that this sentiment becomes a prerequisite standard when the evidence supporting a specific view on prostitution is weighed up.

The public dialogue on law enforcement and the liberalisation of sex work was hosted at the University of South Africa in Pretoria on October 10, 2014 and I communicated a privileged ‘yes’ to participate. The panel consisted of representatives from the Department of Justice (DOJ), National Prosecuting Authority (NPA), Hawks (SAPS), National Rapporteur on Human Trafficking and Sexual Violence Against Children (Kingdom of Netherlands), SWEAT Gauteng, and the Embassy of the United States of America. I believe this event represented a presage of things to come and a whisper extended to YOU, the reader of this article to engage in a worthy dialogue. An informed opinion is imperative as it is an issue that affects our society as a whole – our mothers, our daughters, our husbands and our sons.

I have witnessed and investigated the worst forms of Gender Based Violence imaginable and engaged with persons in prostitution for the past 12 years. These experiences and my knowledge of God’s liberating power have infused an inclination to much rather debate the rights of people not to be in prostitution, than their rights to opt for it.




[iii] Yin, R.K. 2011. Qualitative Research from Start to Finish. New York: The Guilford Press.

[iv] (decriminalization, regulation, partial or total criminalization see footnote ii above)


Comments are closed.