When sex work are dirty words and prostitution is not – Chuck Stephens

EDINBURGH — What’s the difference between sex work and prostitution? More than semantics, argues Chuck Stephens as he picks up on a debate that must be almost as old as the profession itself. Sex work, says News24, is illegal in South Africa, but came close to being decriminalised two decades ago. In 1996, a policeman went to a brothel in Pretoria and paid R250 for a pelvic massage. The brothel owner, Ellen Jordan, and two of her employees, Louisa Broodryk and Christine Jacobs, lost a legal battle that went as far as the Constitutional Court. News24 reports that Jordan was only fined R600 by the magistrate, but standing up for what she believed in cost her more than R3m in legal fees. – Jackie Cameron

By Chuck Stephens*

For starters, let it be said that the majority of feminists world-wide do not favour the decriminalisation of prostitution. While there is indeed a vocal minority of feminists who are in favour of it, research shows that a majority of feminists think that prostitution is degrading to women.

A corollary of this trending is that espousing Partial Decriminalisation is anything but patriarchal. It is the dominant view, even among feminists.

But you would not think so by reading Bhekisisa, or by trying to get the Mail & Guardian to print both sides of the issue. The M&G has fallen into the trap of Fox News and CNN – it is totally biased. Perennially one-sided. It would never print an article that fleshes out the full body of opinion on prostitution. It will only call it “sex work”, and it will go all the way to Holland if it has to, to get a story that illustrates its editorial bent. Even though the hooker there is an American, not even a local yokel.

The role of the media should not be to take sides, but to provide a platform for informed views on all sides to be aired.

So then, why is Bhekisisa the self-appointed champion of the full decriminalisation of prostitution in South Africa? Why does it keep coming forth with different variations on its one and only tune? I could think of six reasons that this may be so, without debating the issue ad nauseum. For the record, my views on that debate can be re-visited.

Read also: What the price of prostitutes can teach you about SA economy – Marius Oosthuizen

So much for the content issues, let’s get back to process. First, perhaps Bhekisisa sees an ally in the high unemployment rate? Especially among youth, and more especially among young women. Could its bias be driven by a job creation motive? Trying to open up wealth generation for women.

Let it be said that not all those who pour themselves into entrepreneurship training, micro credit and enterprise development agree with Bhekisisa that prostitution is a growth sector. If this is a factor in its thinking, I would argue that it is fatalistic.

Second of all, is it trying to support one of the New Dawn priorities? Namely tourism. Perhaps as the concentration of prostitutes is highest in Durban and Cape Town, it is accepted as a way to boost the tourist trade? So when you book into a hotel, you are asked “Smoking or non-smoking?” Followed by, “Would you care for an escort?”

Will that new digital visa system issue hall passes as well? We are already a country of blessers, but that is too permanent for tourism.

Third, maybe the driving force behind full decriminalisation comes from the need for bars to diversify into a kind of vertical integration? Up front you have a bar with tables, and maybe some live music. At the back, you rent out rooms by the hour. Taverns and shebeens will evolve into mavusos and inkwari.

If the Cabinet wants to raise the drinking age from 18 to 21 and promote alcohol-free beer, then is this a way to compensate the pubs for the lost revenue?

Fourth, maybe the extra Tax revenue to be earned explains this bias? At present, prostitution is illegal on the books, so it is not taxed. The South Africa Legal Resources Centre reviewed existing legislation on decriminalisation not long ago. It was not inclined to decriminalise, but suggested that partial decriminalisation might be worth exploring. But somehow Bhekisisa knows better.

For that matter, why not legalise weed too? That would really generate some Tax revenue. The shadow of Tom Moyane is very long, if in desperation to revive Tax revenues we just jump into huge social changes without weighing up the consequences.

Fifth, the question of social cohesion has to be mentioned. The M&G comes from Cape Town, where a new manifestation of segregation on the beaches (real or imagined) provoked the sacrifice of a sheep to cleanse the beach of that evil spirit. This episode was the epitome of polarisation in South Africa. Animal rights activists went ballistic, just as the human rights activists had done. Episodes like these do nothing to build bridges. They just harden the “red lines” on both sides.

Speaking of red lines, Theresa May argues vehemently against a Second Referendum about Brexit – because of the divisiveness that it would cause. In South Africa, we need to put our policies and actions through this same filter – will these bring us together or tear us apart?

In a land where many women still cherish virginity-testing, the social implications of full decriminalisation have been lost on Bhekisisa. Its bias only polarises WOMEN.

At the last conference of the ANC Women’s League, a motion was being touted that opposed the practice of ukuthwala. It never even got onto the floor to be debated, because delegates realised that WOMEN would oppose it. It would never fly. Local culture and tradition sometimes clash with human rights thinking, and both are enshrined in the Constitution.

Sixth and last – but not least – is the issue of religious beliefs. The rise of human rights and Democracy can be tracked from deep roots in the Protestant Reformation. One of the reasons that many settlers emigrated to the so-called New World was to enjoy these rights and freedoms. And they bounced from there to many other continents, including Africa.

But freedom of worship is different than freedom from worship. That is why American money has inscribed on it: “In God we trust”. Church and state were separated, but you still put your hand on a Bible to take an oath, for example in a court room. Full decriminalisation is anathema to people of the major faiths of South Africa, that emerged during the Axial Age in the fifth century BC. None of these were a “white man’s religion”, they mostly started in Asia. It was St Paul of Tarsus who first evangelised Greece (i.e. whites). By the time of his “Macedonian call” the gospel had already been carried to Africa by an Ethiopian eunuch, converted and baptised by Phillip. Since the time of Solomon, for a thousand years already, Ethiopia had worshipped the God of the Hebrews. It then became Christianised, and was basically the only country on the continent never to be colonised. This week it has taken over the rotating presidency of the African Union.

In 2017, the ANC held two conferences. At its policy conference in June that year, it wisely adopted Partial Decriminalisation as its policy. Then at Nasrec, six months later, it inexplicably started to beat the drum of Full Decriminalisation. Two different decisions in one and the same year. This only goes to show the confusion, schizophrenia and gridlock that it is going through, torn asunder by two factions vying for the upper hand.

God help Bhekisisa to see the light. Leave the poor women alone. They have been exploited and at risk long enough. Rather, go after the men who pay. That solution is working best in countries like Sweden, France and Canada. And this lines up with the larger push against femicide.

As we enter the 2019 election campaign, political parties need to come clean on their stance on how to deal with prostitution. As on the land question, the popular sense of direction is most likely to come from the opposition, not from the government. For a house divided against itself cannot stand.

  • Chuck Stephens works for the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership. He is writing in his own capacity.
  • With support from the German government, the M&G launched a health journalism centre, Bhekisisa, in January 2013. This enabled the publication to appoint a health editor and two reporters and also to offer reporters from other publications fellowships so they could be mentored when writing health stories. In September 2015, Bhekisisa received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to expand its health coverage to the rest of the African continent. In March 2016, the centre launched its own website and registered as a non-profit organisation that receives and manages funding independently from the M&G.