A gift to pimps and traffickers

South Africa still, in many ways, operates as an apartheid state

This article is taken from the March 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In the coming months, South Africa’s parliament will vote on a bill that could result in the blanket decriminalisation of its entire sex trade, making it the first African country to do so. 

The Criminal Law (Sexual Offences and Related Matters) Amendment Bill — also known as the Jeffery Bill — which proposes removing all criminal penalties relating to prostitution, including pimping and brothel-owning, has been approved at the first stage. Its supporters are keen to highlight the least contentious component of the new law: those selling sex (primarily women and girls) will no longer be arrested, a move I and other feminists have supported for decades. 

According to lobbyists for so-called “sex workers’ rights”, removing all laws relating to the sex trade will significantly reduce violence and stigmatisation of women involved in prostitution. As someone with forensic knowledge of the global sex trade, I can confidently state that they are wrong. 

Despite the bill being presented as a way to advance the rights of the women involved, the proposed law is based on a serious lack of knowledge and understanding of the realities of prostitution. It is no wonder: no sex trade survivor-led organisations calling for the abolition of the sex trade were consulted during its drafting.

Rather than afford better protection for the women, blanket decriminalisation leads to an increased market. The industry is not contained, but rather spills out beyond the legal, registered street zones and indoor markets. Rather than be given rights in the “workplace”, pimps are as brutal as ever. Pimps are reclassified as businessmen. Abuse suffered by the women is, under this regime, called an “occupational hazard”. Support for the women to leave prostitution becomes almost non-existent. 

Incredibly, the bill would repeal prohibitions against “any conspiracy to induce a female to engage in sexual acts, and kidnapping for purposes of sexual acts against a person’s will, including if such female is under the age of 16 and “the ability to punish any parent or guardian who procures or attempts to procure a child to engage in prostitution” (the definition of child sex trafficking). 

The country’s rate of domestic violence is five times the global average

South Africa has among the highest rape incidence in the world. Domestic violence refuges are underfunded by the government. Rape crisis centres and police facilities for victims to report sexual assault are under threat of closure. 

The country’s rate of domestic violence is five times the global average. It also ranks fourth in the world for femicide — the murder of women and girls by men. Men being given the green light to buy and sell the most disenfranchised women will result in more sexual violence and murders, from pimps and punters alike. 

Feminist activists are revolting against decriminalisation. More than 200 human rights organisations have signed an open letter to President Cyril Ramaphosa, explaining normalising prostitution would be a disaster for South Africa as it will mark a return to old-style regulatory policies from the colonial era.

The signatories, which include the author and activist Gloria Steinem, cite the devastating harms a decriminalised sex trade would unleash in South Africa. An estimated 131,000 to 182,000 individuals (up to one per cent of South Africa’s adult female population) currently work in prostitution, almost all disenfranchised black women and girls. If the bill passes, that number is bound to increase.

“This Bill does not address the violence, terror, trauma, or even death that we suffer at the hands of sex buyers, pimps, or because of the system of prostitution itself,” says Mickey Meji of SESP (Survivor Empowerment and Support Programme) based in Cape Town. “In fact, the Jeffery Bill would condemn generations of poor and vulnerable black women and girls to the sex trade with the blessing of my government.”

Meji, a Black South African sex trade survivor, has the support of international abolitionists such as the Coalition against Trafficking in Women (CATW). 

“The South African government would in effect authorise and profit from the sexual exploitation of women, girls, and marginalised groups in violation of its Constitution and commitments under international law,” said Taina Bien-Aimé, CATW’s executive director. “This Bill is a gift to sex traffickers and brothel owners.”

Meji was caught up in the brutal system of prostitution in South Africa for almost a decade. She now campaigns for the introduction of the Nordic Model, a legal framework whereby the prostituted person (almost always a woman) is decriminalised and helped to exit the sex trade, whilst the punter is criminalised. Sweden adopted the law in 1999. Since then a number of other countries have followed suit, including Norway, France, the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and, more recently, Israel. 

The aim of the law is to shift the burden of responsibility from the prostituted person to those who are paying for sexual services and, in the longer term, deter men from paying for sex. It is this law that critics of the Jeffery Bill wish to see in South Africa. “When I say that I imagine a world without prostitution, I am treated as though I am saying we can do without air, or water,” says Meji. “But who does prostitution serve? Not the women, who are doing this out of desperation, often with a violent pimp behind her, but the men that abuse us for their own selfish pleasures.”

During the colonial conquests, women’s bodies were treated as merchandise

“It is impossible to divorce our history of apartheid and racism with the way black women are treated in the sex trade,” says Meji, “because this is a form of slavery — dehumanising women so they can be bought and sold for the pleasure of men.”

SWEAT (Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce) is the leading pro-prostitution NGO in South Africa. It has been campaigning for decriminalisation since 2000. Dudu Ndlovu, a gender studies student who was previously a volunteer at the organisation but no longer supports its aims, says that, “to be a black woman and be prostituted in post-Apartheid South Africa is to be reminded that you’re nothing, when we are now supposed to be liberated”.

It is time for South Africa to address the issue of prostitution from a perspective based on equality between women and men, racial and social justice. Instead, pro-prostitution activists such as SWEAT claim that removing all laws relating to the sex trade will allow for “sex work” to be seen as a profession and give the workers the right to join unions and have employment rights. Unionisation has proved impossible in legalised regimes. Men who pay for sex want to do what they want, how they want. How can so-called “workers’ rights” help? 

Countries that have decriminalised prostitution have seen the sex trade explode, with many, including Germany, calculating its profits as part of Gross Domestic Product. Under such legislative frameworks, as we can see in the Netherlands, Switzerland, Denmark and Nevada, USA, the illegal market grows alongside the legal side. Trafficking and underage prostitution all increase.

During the colonial conquests, women’s bodies were treated as merchandise. Colonisers used the sexual and economic exploitation of black South African women to satisfy the male demand for access to women’s bodies. The Spanish Conquistadors organised, regulated and industrialised the sex trade in Latin America. 

The British colonial forces set up the systems of legal prostitution in India, and the French colonial forces did so in their colonies. It was for this reason that most anti-colonial leaders put an end to the systems of legal prostitution following independence. 

Jonathan Machler, CEO of the NGO CAP International (Coalition to Abolish Prostitution) says that the proposed legislation sends a “devastating” message to the women and girls of South Africa. “Rather than providing a socio-economic safety net that ensures socio-economic rights and access to decent work,” says Machler, “we are accepting that legalising the endless exploitation of women’s bodies by men is a way of subsistence … Decriminalisation will further normalise and legitimise such oppression.”

Public consultations to the bill ended on 31 January, and it is currently going through the parliamentary process, but campaigners are still confident that, with a growing number of supporters worldwide, it can be stopped. According to Mickey Meji, there is a network of over 40 organisations supporting the bill across South Africa, which includes every single one of its LGBTQ organisations. 

At first glance, this could be because they share the same funding streams with HIV prevention services aimed at gay men, as prostituted women are also a high risk group. The theory promoted in 2014 by the medical journal The Lancet, that global decriminalisation significantly reduces new HIV infection rates, has been debunked, however. The researchers failed to take account of the fact that the prostitution market spirals under decriminalisation and legalisation. 

South Africa still operates in many ways as an apartheid state, with the poorest black women and girls coerced into prostitution to meet the desires of white, wealthy men. This is not the country Nelson Mandela wanted when he succeeded in liberating his people from gross inequality and violent racism. As he said in a speech in 2005:

For every woman and girl violently attacked, we reduce our humanity. For every woman forced into unprotected sex, because men demand this, we destroy dignity and pride. Every woman who has to sell her life for sex, we condemn to a lifetime in prison. For every moment we remain silent, we conspire against our women

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