Opinion

Sex workers need access to the law

Chandré Gould

A recent study recommends that prostitution be decriminalised. Chandré Gould explains the study's purpose and its conclusions.

If government departments are to fulfil their commitment to counter the practice of human trafficking, an accurate assessment of the numbers of victims is essential.

Too large an estimate could mean shifting resources away from victims of domestic and child abuse and rape to trafficking victims. Getting the right balance is delicate, but large margins of error will lead to suffering. Until now no such assessment has been made.

And it cannot be made in a vacuum. It requires a better understanding of the sex-work industry as a whole. The data gathered by the Institute for Security Studies (ISS) shows an industry made up largely of adult (24- to 28-year-old) black South African women. Most enter the industry to meet their immediate and pressing financial needs, while some (25% of brothel-based sex workers) enter because it offers more than they could earn in the formal sector. Sex workers generally can earn three to five times more than they could in any other job.

The industry is extremely fluid. Sex workers regularly move between agencies. Since they talk to one another about their experiences at different agencies, we were able to gather information about more than one agency from most of the sex workers interviewed.

We found that the industry is much smaller than is commonly thought. At any one time, it is estimated (on the basis of a lengthy mapping process) more than 960 women and men work in brothels, while 245 work on the street—a total of more than 1 200.

Using a combination of methods (including a random survey of 9% of brothel-based sex workers and 14% of street-based sex workers), our research identified eight women who could possibly be considered victims of trafficking—and all of them had managed to get out of the situation they were in without the help of the authorities.

They found other jobs in the industry where their working conditions were less exploitative.

Our evidence also suggests that, while sex workers are often subject to exploitative or abusive working conditions, very few are forced to sell sex. Very few are tricked into it in the first place and for most it is a rational choice, given its earning potential.

We are not suggesting that there are no victims of trafficking in Cape Town, nor that such victims might not be found elsewhere in South Africa. But we can conclude that trafficking is not a major feature of the sex-work industry in Cape Town. What we did find is that exploitation and abuse of women working in the industry is not uncommon.

It’s likely that the underground nature of this illegal industry provides a space for employers to engage in practices that would be considered unacceptable in regulated work environments. We discovered a continuum of exploitation and abuse, of which trafficking would be the most extreme end. The “victims” in this continuum are not passive: they are simply people who have had to make hard decisions to change their financial circumstances.

Efforts against trafficking may help a small proportion of very vulnerable sex workers, but is not necessarily the most effective way to improve conditions across the board. “Rescuing” and “removing” women is not necessarily what sex workers need. Rather, they need recourse to the law.

Exploitation and abuse are common. There are obvious power imbalances between sex workers and clients, sex workers and state authorities, sex workers and brothel owners. Most street-based sex workers have experienced being taken somewhere they would not like to be, or being dropped far from familiar terrain by abusive clients. Often the women walk away without getting paid.

Sex workers accept high fines and brothel deductions because they are “normal” in the industry. For women working in agencies the imposition of fines and fees normalises a labour relationship that would not be acceptable in other industries.

Legalisation of the industry would probably have little effect on the social power relations, but it might strengthen the bargaining power of sex workers when negotiating contracts with brothel owners. It would also strengthen their negotiating power with clients.

The suggestion of decriminalising sex work invariably invokes passionate debate—as it will in the run-up to the 2010 Soccer World Cup. We are convinced that criminalisation of sex work creates conditions for almost inevitable police corruption and abuse. It exacerbates the vulnerability of sex workers, particularly the street-based workers. Sex workers are not able to approach the police for assistance in cases of abuse. We don’t argue that decriminalisation will stop such abuse, but we believe it would certainly reduce exploitative working conditions.

Chandré Gould is a senior researcher in the ISS’s crime and justice programme

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