Broad church is split on prostitution

2016-09-18 06:10

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Those of us familiar with our church history know that a broad church invariably splits because holding together too many factions becomes an impossible dream.

The medieval church held together diversities that are hard to imagine – from rogues selling indulgences to early reformers who planted the seeds of the Reformation.

Then, along came Martin Luther, asking too many uncomfortable questions.

The tripartite alliance has often been called a “broad church” and it has done wonders keeping diverse factions together for over a century.

Of course, it all began as an antidote to the “divide-and-rule” approach of the colonisers, so it is still hard for many to accept that multiparty democracy is the best way to go.

But when you see a new labour federation emerging that will only fight for the best interests of its union members, you realise that the broad church is fragmenting just like the Roman Catholic Church denominationalised at the time of the Reformation.

One facet of the alliance has been its ability to hold together both sides in the great debate about prostitution.

This issue has, in fact, been very divisive in worldwide feminism. No issue has ever divided feminists so deeply.

But the majority of feminists globally champion the abolitionist ideal – that it amounts to sexual exploitation and should be diminished, not decriminalised.

The cracks in the ANC are coming from this angle as well. Health Minister Aaron Motsoaledi has declared a “war on blessers”.

This language resonates with abolitionism. In Sweden, for example, the number of sex workers has been reduced by 50% in 10 years. The secret?

To go after the men who pay. The sex workers are not blameless, of course, but this is a “sanctions” approach. Penalise the buyers, not the sellers, and the market dries up – on the demand side.

Canada is on this path too, and France adopted this policy in 2016. It is high time that South Africa followed suit.

However, the ANC Women’s League and the Commission for Gender Equality, which is a section 9 institution, have endorsed decriminalisation.

This is the path that Australia and New Zealand have chosen.

But this is not in sync with the deeply religious convictions and values that are prevalent in South Africa.

Australia is relatively secularised, and also has not embedded a component of traditional leadership in its democratic, decision-making structures.

In essence, the ANC has been going nowhere on prostitution by trying to please two factions at once.

Nowhere is this more evident than in the department of social development. This is the new name for the old “social welfare” – showing the importance that it places on terminology. But the department does not officially deal with prostitution.

That remit has been assigned to its gender section. This is revealing because many people somehow confuse prostitution with gay or transgender rights. Prostitution is no one’s right. It’s a vocation. No one is born a sex worker.

The department of health has concerns about prostitution in terms of public health – mainly about HIV transmission.

Sex workers have been made a “special focus group”, with good reason. The problem is that it sends a confusing message, which can sound like endorsement.

There is an important opportunity in the new coalitions to take a new tack.

In the four big metros where they now govern, the health and social portfolios should try to do more to promote abolitionism. Surely that is the position of the DA?

Historically, die-hard socialists have also opposed sexual exploitation, so the Economic Freedom Fighters and the new, emerging labour federation should also lobby for abolitionism.

Some may be sad to see the tripartite alliance breaking up. But as was the case with the Reformation, fragmentation is not always a bad thing.

The creep towards decriminalisation can be stopped. This choice should be intentional and driven by demand. It is far too important to be left to gridlock and fatalism.

South Africa has no choice but to reduce prostitution, including its new manifestation – “blessees”.

Stephens is CEO of the Desmond Tutu Centre for Leadership


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